The Birthmark Symbolism


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The Birthmark Symbolism

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory



The Birthmark
Hawthorne makes it clear to his readers that the birthmark is a symbol, mostly by telling us that it is a symbol. Check it out:

The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death. (8)

OK, so the birthmark represents Georgiana's humanity, which Hawthorne indicates is equivalent to representing her flaws. It is man's nature to be mortal and imperfect, he argues in this story – that's just what it means to be a human.

What does it mean, then, that Aylmer wants to remove the birthmark from his wife's face? On a literal level, he wants to take off what he considers to be an unattractive birthmark. But on a symbolic level, he wants to rid Georgiana of her flaws. He wants to make her perfect. Ironically, Aylmer succeeds – we'll talk about how he succeeds and where he fails in "What's Up with the Ending?"

For now, let's get back to this birthmark, and take a closer look at its physical appearance on Georgiana:

To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of Georgiana's left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state of her complexion — a healthy though delicate bloom — the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand. (7)

There's a lot going on in this paragraph. First, we note that the birthmark is "deeply interwoven" with Georgiana's countenance, which means symbolically that man's flaws and very much a part of his character and in fact cannot be separated out. It's also foreshadowing as to the story's ending; we know from the start that Aylmer is a fool to think he can rid her of something so deeply engrained in her face (literally) and character (symbolically).

Next, we note that the birthmark's visibility shifts with the changing color of Georgiana's face. Whether she's pale or flushed determines how much the birthmark shows. We also note that the birthmark is red – the color of blood, and the color of passion. One interpretation of this story is that the birthmark represents Georgiana's sexuality. Aylmer, uncomfortable with his wife's sexual power, wants to remove it to keep himself in control. There are lots of interesting articles to read along this vein, some more left field than others. For example, in "Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark,'" Jules Zanger argues that the birthmark is actually about the menstrual cycle!

Moving on, let's talk about the shape of the birthmark. Hawthorne tells us that resembles a tiny hand. This is such an interesting line in a few different ways. First, the fact of a hand on Georgiana's face immediately makes us think of the hand of God – as though her maker touched her personally while crafting her apparently very beautiful face. But Hawthorne complicates the idea by specifying that it was the shape of a human hand – it is simultaneously the mark of Georgiana's humanity and mortality.

Looks like we've covered the major bases here – be sure to check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on the birthmark as a symbol.

The Laboratory and Boudoir
Never have two settings been more different than the laboratory and neighboring boudoir in "The Birthmark." Let's take a look at the text:

she found herself breathing an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance […] The scene around her looked like enchantment. Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy, sombre rooms, where he had spent his brightest years in recondite pursuits, into a series of beautiful apartments not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman. The walls were hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace that no other species of adornment can achieve; and as they fell from the ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space. For aught Georgiana knew, it might be a pavilion among the clouds. And Aylmer, excluding the sunshine, which would have interfered with his chemical processes, had supplied its place with perfumed lamps, emitting flames of various hue, but all uniting in a soft, impurpled radiance. (29)

Versus:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. The severe and homely simplicity of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement, looked strange, accustomed as Georgiana had become to the fantastic elegance of her boudoir. (57)

Not only do the physical details of each room scream "contrast," but, more importantly, the mood or atmosphere of the two rooms is completely opposite. The boudoir, we see, is the realm of the spiritual – freed from the earth and from all humanly imperfections. But the lab is just the opposite; it reeks of earthy smells and is literally smudged with soot. The boudoir is the dwelling place of all Aylmer's lofty, spiritual aspirations – everything he wants to accomplish as a scientist. But the lab stinks of his failures, of the reminders that he is mortal and cannot compete with Nature on a scientific scale.

There's also a bit of male/female dichotomy going on here; the boudoir is meant for Georgiana, the woman, while the lab is where the men work. It is significant that Aylmer puts his wife in the boudoir and doesn't want her to leave, imagining that he can "draw a magic circle round her which no evil might intrude" (29). This attempt to shelter Georgiana is both misguided and impossible; just as his attempts to remove the birthmark are really an attempt to remove her humanity, so Aylmer's desire to shelter her from evil is a desire to shelter her from her own humanity.

It is also significant that the lab room and the boudoir are right next to each other, separated only by a wall. In their "Character Analyses," we talk about Aylmer and Aminadab as representative of the two poles of man's nature – one half spiritual, the other half earthly. The two rooms basically represent these two different aspects of man's character. They could not be more different, but yet they are forced to coexist in close proximity.

Aylmer's Dream
Aylmer's dream is a classic case of literary foreshadowing. It's also Hawthorne's way of driving home his point about the futility of separating human imperfections from our very humanity (see "What's Up with the Ending?"). Aylmer dreams that he tries to cut away his wife's birthmark. This, of course, anticipates the procedure Aylmer will attempt at the end of the narrative. In the dream he fanatically continues his attempts at removal, even at the danger of losing his wife's life. This, too, is the case at the end of the story. The heavy symbolism comes in when Aylmer sees in his dream that the birthmark goes deep, eventually settling in Georgiana's heart. Remember that the birthmark symbolizes human flaws. This is to say that Georgiana's imperfections are a very much part of her being – it would be foolish for Aylmer to imagine that he could cut them away without destroying her. As we learned in the initial description of the birthmark, it is "deeply interwoven" with Georgiana's face.

That Aylmer's dream essentially tells him what's going to happen, and that he goes forward with it anyway, raises interesting questions about Aylmer's level of self-deception in the tale. On some level, he must know that his wife is going to die; the only question is whether he recognizes this consciously and/or subconsciously when he goes forward with his experiment anyway.

The Birthmark Symbolism

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Symbolism in The Birthmark



There have been many writers who have astonished the literary world with their configuration of short stories, but none of them have perfected the art as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote in a time period when Fredrick Douglas was paving the road to racial freedom, Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to world to be seen through the transparent eyeball, and Henry David Thoreau was living the unfettered life. In comparison to the modern writings of his time, Hawthornes style was viewed as outdated; nonetheless, Hawthorne addressed modern issues in the symbols and themes of his stories.

Through the use of symbols and themes, the short story, The Birthmark, is the best example of Hawthorne representing modern issues. Through his use of symbolism, Hawthorne addresses the issue of the fatal flaw of humanity that nature imposes upon everyone. He addresses the issue of man manipulating nature through the theme of the story. While some might have viewed Hawthornes writing style as outdated, he focused on issues that are modern and contemporary to his time. The modern issue of mans ability to manipulate nature, and the results of that manipulation, is seen in a scientists obsession with perfecting nature.
Through husbands obsession with perfecting his wife, Hawthorne conveys the modern issue of mans ability to control nature. The central characters in Hawthornes story, The Birthmark, are Aylmer and Georgiana. Aylmer and Georgina are in love, yet there is a twist to the love that Aylmer possess for his wife. Georgina is perfect in every way, except for one tiny flaw on her cheek. Nature has imposed upon her a tiny red birthmark, which is the obstacle in the love that Aylmer has for Georgiana. As a scientist, Aylmer is obsessed with the act of manipulating nature, this obsession is blossomed with the imperfection that Georgiana posses.

Seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives (2226). Aylmer cannot stand the thought of a creature being virtually perfect that he must find a way to rid Georgiana of her birthmark. No dearest Georgiana, you came so near perfect form the hands of Nature that this slightest possible defect-which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty-shocks me as being the visible mark of earthy imperfection (2225).
Aylmers obsession with Georgianas earthly imperfection leads to the eventual downfall of both of them. Aylmer finds the cure for his wifes one flaw and administers the potion to her. The administering of this potion provides the power and ability to control and change nature. The crimson hand, which at first has been strongly visible upon the marble paleness of Georgianas cheek, now grew more faintly outlined. She remained not less pale then ever; but the birthmark, with every breath that came and went lost somewhat of its former distinctness (2235).

With the inhaling and exhaling of every breath that Georgiana took, not only did the birthmark fade, but also so did the life within her. Aylmers obsession with manipulating nature was the eventual downfall of his true love. Hawthorne shows the reader the modern issue that nature will always win in the end. Man may have the ability to manipulate nature, but man will never come out as the victor. Hawthorne not only conveys modern issues through the theme of his story, but he also uses symbols to express contemporary issues.
The most important symbol in, The Birthmark, that shows modern thought is the birthmark on Georgianas cheek. Georgiana exceptional closeness to perfection is undermined by the mark on her cheek. This mark symbolizes the fatal flaw that all of natures creatures posses. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one way or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her production, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain (2226). Nothing and no one is perfect. Perfection is a dream that Aylmer tries to make reality.

The birthmark represents Georgianas ability to be mortal and sin. Aylmer ultimately rids Georgiana of the ability to be immortal and therefore she dies. In symbolizing the birthmark as the fatal flaw of humanity, Hawthorne is illustrating the modern issue that not even nature is perfect, and all the creatures from nature cannot be faultless. The birthmark has references to life, death, beauty, and disgust all of which are fatal flaws that nature imposes on her creations. Another symbol that shows modern issues in Hawthornes writing is Georgiana herself.
Georgianas pure faith symbolizes the modern issue of men controlling women. Aylmer is not only trying to manipulate and dominate nature, but he is trying to control Georgiana. These questions had such a particular drift that Georgiana began to conjecture that she was already subjected to certain physical influences, either breathed in with the fragrant air or taken with her food (2231). Without his wifes knowledge, Aylmer manipulates Georgiana with outside influences, which will eventually free them of the crimson hand that has plagued their lives.

Hawthorne plays with the contemporary issue of mans need to dominate women. Riding her of the birthmark allows Aylmer to dominate his wife. Hawthorne also uses this theme in the story, Rappaccinis Daughter. Rappaccinis father and Aylmer use their women as experiments. The women in their lives are no longer a human being but a specimen to be studied and controlled. The style of Hawthornes writing has been deemed as outdated by some literary critics, but if they would look deeper they would find a mind filled with contemporary thoughts.
These thoughts are most significantly conveyed in his short story, The Birthmark. Through the use of symbols, Hawthorne addresses the issues of mans fatal flaw from the hands nature, while he uses the theme of his story to make aware that nature cannot be manipulated. Unlike Thoreau, Hawthorne wanted people to realize that nature is not perfect and should not be used as a channel for spirituality. What they could agree on that nature should not be manipulated and controlled.

The Birthmark Symbolism

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