Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The Birthmark” in 1843; shortly before composing, he married his fiancé Sophia Peabody. His marriage and Puritan background influence the writing of his short story. During the 1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings exhibit the expectation to conceal and hide imperfections in the Puritan society. Despite the harsh stereotypes faced towards impurities in that era, Georgiana is viewed as beautiful by some but hideous by others. Georgiana blushes deeply when Aylmer points out the mark upon her face. When Georgiana shows emotion, she feels most beautiful and alive because the birthmark becomes less evident. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Georgiana’s beauty as fragile and flawed by utilizing flower imagery, signifying the physical, emotional, and spiritual imperfections that should be embraced by all humans. Humans should embrace imperfections of nature rather than attempt to use science to improve upon nature.
Alymer, a scientist who marries Georgiana, becomes obsessed with removing a birthmark on his wife’s face. Georgiana is hurt by Alymer’s words because she thinks her birthmark has to do with her life. Aylmer calls her birthmark “the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne 188). Hawthorne compares Georgiana’s birthmark using the image of a flower. Hawthorne utilizes the words “delicate bloom”, “rosiness”, “brilliant glow” to describe her birthmark (188). The imagery of the flower displays Georgiana’s beauty as she lives naturally. Flowers are perishable, yet beautiful, just like Georgiana. They are also classical symbols for love and fertility representing her mark of love for Aylmer. Some men see that her mark makes her all the more beautiful, while other men like Aylmer view her as almost perfect except for her birthmark. Humanity’s imperfection can cause one to blush by revealing vulnerability and truth.
Later, Georgiana looks into the mirror and sees herself as a “white rose” on her cheek (195). She begins to become dissatisfied with her imperfect, pale appearance because it makes her birthmark more evident. She now hates her birthmark even more than Aylmer does just because she wants to satisfy her husband. She is willing to die to have her birthmark removed to please her husband. Because of the social pressures in the Puritan society, the women during this time often felt the need to please their spouse. Georgiana’s last words after she drinks the liquid intended to remove her birthmark continue the image of a flower: “my earthly senses are closing over my spirit like the leaves around the heart of a rose at sunset” (198). She turns the faintest rose color when she is about to die, and her spirit becomes hidden by her physical senses as leaves cover a flower.
The flower imagery signifies the emotional and spiritual imperfections that Georgiana and all humans share. When Alymer asks if she wants the birthmark removed, she responds with embarrassment, then anger, and then she cries. Georgiana desires to learn to embrace her beauty, while the constant reminder from her husband hinders her growth. The word “crimson” is used multiple times throughout the story. The significance of crimson emphasizes Georgiana’s flaw and blemish as crimson represents sin as the crimson stain of blood. The representation of crimson as sin is evident in the Puritan context because red like crimson is mentioned in the book of Isaiah in the Bible. The birthmark reminds us of sin which thus reminds us of mortality, becoming a sign of mortality and imperfection rather than moral failures. The effort to remove it is an effort towards perfection and Hawthorne’s story is a warning that such an attempt is impossible and destructive.
Science is not a cure to these imperfections. Aylmer’s love for his wife is intertwining with his love for science. Although Aylmer may believe science opens a window into immortality, it leads to killing his own wife. Aylmer’s love for science outweighs his love for his wife because he wanted to make a liquid to make her perfect. If his love for her would have been stronger than all else, his wife might have not died. In a way, Alymer’s love could have healed Georgiana, but instead science captured his heart leading to disaster. Science poses a threat to nature and humanity.
Georgiana’s birthmark is a part of nature, seen through the theme of the conflict between nature and science. Aylmer’s vanity with her face shades him from the risks of trialing with the mark. Hawthorne uses the word “nature” more than ten times relating it to control over it, flaws of it, powers of it, and the assimilation of it. When describing the intolerability of the birthmark, Hawthorne describes, “It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary or finite, or that the perfection must be wrought by toil or pain” (189). Notice that is it capitalized in each usage showing the significance of the word and the contrast to science which is not capitalized. The imperfection of humanity is held by the nature of this world. Aylmer normally uses lamps in his lab space, but when he pulls back the curtain to let the natural light in, the birthmark disappears, and she must die (198).
Hawthorne uses flower imagery in relation to Georgiana’s beauty to suggest that her beauty is delicate and imperfect and that her birthmark indicates the imperfections that define all humans. Humans are defined by their imperfections and flaws. When the birthmark is removed from her face by way of science, she dies. While attempting to remove her birthmark with science, Aylmer manages to kill his own wife demonstrating the shortness of life and importance of loving someone along with their flaws. We must learn to live with human imperfection, since it defines us. Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes her and humanity’s imperfection, and therefore, human imperfection should be accepted and celebrated rather than eradicated. Society has worked to be more accepting today of things such as religion, other people’s beliefs, and differences. While we are not the best at receiving other people, we strive to accept all people including their flaws and imperfections.
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