A romantic short story 'The Birth Mark' authored by Nathaniel Hawthorne reflects upon human obsession with perfection. The protagonist Aylmer is an epitome of that obsession who in his pursuit of perfection does not hesitate to put his wife's life at risk. Aylmer is a reputed scientist whose beautiful wife Georgiana has a tiny hand-shaped birthmark on her left cheek. Aylmer considers it to be a blemish hindering his wife from becoming perfect in every sense of the term. Aylmer tries to enact the role of divine by making attempts to correct the flaw of Georgiana gifted by nature and when science meddles with the creation of nature, the consequence could be quite disastrous as happened in this story with the untimely demise of Georgiana. An overarching analysis of the short story would reveal how the minuscule birthmark of Georgiana brings out Aylmer’s uncanny obsession with science and perfection, the male dominated culture of the 19th century, the uncanny trend of perfection followed today and the symbolism of mortality.
It was not until Aylmer marries Georgiana that he becomes obsessed with her birthmark, but his obsession has a deep-rooted connection with his uncanny fondness for science. Georgiana's birthmark never overshadows her attractiveness as is evident when Georgiana remarks, "To tell you the truth, it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so" (Hawthorne, p 219). But Aylmer's faith in science and his belief that science can manipulate nature makes him view the minuscule mark on his wife's cheek as "visible mark of earthly imperfection" (219). Aylmer’s conviction on his own ability as a scientist and his firm belief that science is capable of curing any nature-endowed imperfection resounds in his voice when he tries to convince his wife saying "doubt not my powerI feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellowwhat will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!" (222).
The relationship between the Aylmer and Georgiana reflected the male dominated culture of the 19th century. Georgiana realizing how disturbed her husband is over her birthmark commits herself fully to her husband despite the knowledge that his experimentation on her might leave a 'cureless deformity' or take her life. She becomes a prototype of obedient sacrificing wife who in order to keep her husband happy can go to the length of endangering her own life as she says, "life is a burden which I would fling down with joy" (Hawthorne, p 222). Aylmer, on the other hand, is more of a cold-blooded scientist who in his pursuit of perfection and his extraordinary belief in his own power may jeopardize the life of his beloved wife. If he had little bit of wisdom in him, he would not have tried to cast away his happiness in the face of his shallow pursuit of perfection and this mentality to control nature and women shows the mentality of 19th century husbands who viewed their wives no less than personal properties to be kept under control.
Aylmer's pursuit of perfection is comparable with the trend followed in today's society when women and girls, in order to fit themselves into the stereotype of perfection try to emulate their favorite celebrities, movie stars and models by going on strict diet regime and hours of exercise. Their obsession with their role models ends them up under the knife on operation table where their imperfect features are corrected. Just like Aylmer, people in pursuit of perfection in beauty forget that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. A hand-shaped birthmark might be a charm to someone as the narrator said that "Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand" but the same mark appears to 'shock' Aylmer (Hawthorne, p 220).
Georgiana's birthmark is a symbol of nature's reminder that human beings are mortal. The narrator observes that nature stamps some fatal flaw in one way or another on every of her creations to give an indication that human lives are 'temporary and finite'. Georgiana is absolutely perfect except for her hand-shaped birth mark which is a blemish of her mortality. Alymer's repulsion at his wife's birthmark is indicative of his own fear at the prospect of death. The birthmark on his wife's left cheek constantly reminds him of his wife's earthliness to 'sin, sorrow, decay and death'. He believes that removal of the mark of imperfection would get him rid of the symbol of transience and he with the help of science would be able to prolong life for an indefinite period. He also believes that the removal of the mark would wipe out the slightest of chance of his wife's moral degradation.
In conclusion, ‘The Birth Mark’ brings out the obsession of Aylmer with science, the male dominance of 19th century society, the symbolism of mortality and the trend of perfection followed today. The death of Georgiana is sad reminder of how one man’s obsession with science and perfection of beauty could kill a woman in her prime and how dangerous the pursuit of perfection could be if it turns into someone’s obsession.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel (2011). The Birthmark. The Norton Introduction of Literature. New York: Norton and Company