The Birth-Mark  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The Birth-Mark" is a romantic short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne that examines obsession with human perfection. It was first published in the March, 1843 edition of The Pioneer. It later appeared in Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of short stories by Hawthorne published in 1846.

Plot summary

Georgiana, the beautiful woman in the story has a single hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. Men are invariably attracted to Georgiana, and many find the birthmark attractive. However, her husband Aylmer, a scientist, begins to detest the birthmark more intensely with each passing day.

Eventually Georgiana comes to share his obsession, mostly because she sees how much its presence makes her husband react, and the couple decides to try to remove the birthmark. Aylmer takes Georgiana to his laboratory, where he is assisted by his assistant Aminadab. Aminadab helps with the operation, although he mutters to himself that if Georgiana were his wife, he would not want the birthmark removed. Aylmer takes several days to perform tests on Georgiana and analyze her "condition", but only prepares one liquid for her consumption. Once she drinks this, the birthmark, which is referred to as the bond that ties together her heavenly spirit with her near-perfect body, fades. Aylmer achieves his one moment of perfection before she dies a painless death, which Hawthorne had alluded to by centering Georgiana's thoughts about how Aylmer could only have one moment of perfection, because in the next moment he would already be striving for "something that was beyond the scope of the instant" (Hawthorne).

Analysis

Like many of the tales Hawthorne wrote during his time living in The Old Manse, "The Birth-Mark" discusses the psychological impact in sexual relations. The birthmark does not become an issue to Aylmer until after the marriage, which he suddenly sees as sexual: "now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again, and glimmering to-and-fro with every pulse of emotion". (Miller, Edwin Haviland) Written shortly after Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, the story emphasizes the husband's sexual guilt disguised as superficial cosmetology. Some critics contend that the theme of the story is that human perfection can only be achieved in death and therefore not reachable at all, in that the trademark foreshadowing occurred during Aylmer's dream, in which he can not cut deep enough to remove the birthmark.

Hawthorne may have been critiquing the epoch of reform in which he was living and specifically calling attempts at reform ineffective and the reformers as dangerous. Other critics read the story as a critique of 19th century positivistic science (positivism) situating the woman as nature and representing science as attempting to penetrate her/its secrets while ultimately destroying the object of its research. Still others see it as a defence of vitalism as against materialism -- that one cannot find the essence or soul in mute bodily matter.

The story is often compared to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait".



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Birth-Mark" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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