The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) is an American writer. His literature tends to focus on sin, morality, puritanism and whether people are inherently evil.

His name was actually Hathorne, but he added the ‘w’ in an attempt to hide his relationship to his ancestor John Hathorne. John Hathorne was the only judge to take part in the Salem Witch Trials, who neither repented nor regretted his participation in said trials.

Taking this small fact into consideration when reading this short story sheds a completely different light on the actual premise.

Georgiana has a birth-mark in the middle of her left cheek. A blemish that tends to reveal itself or become more apparent when her usually rosy complexion suddenly goes pale. It takes on the shape of a hand, although albeit pygmy size. Her lover’s often said it looked as if a fairy had laid her hand upon Georgiana’s cheek, as she lay sleeping as a child.

The mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. A crimson stain upon the snow.

Notice how even the phrase a crimson stain upon the snow implies that it is an imperfection in an otherwise perfect scenario, setting or in this case a physical appearance. Now strangely enough or perhaps not so strange, it seems as if her admirers of the male persuasion looked upon the mark as something mysterious, sweet and beautiful. However it was a different story when it came to the women who knew her or knew of her.

Some fastidious persons—but they were exclusively of her own sex—affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous.

So the flip side of the charming blemish is the bloody hand. Interesting that it only becomes a threatening symbol in the eyes of those of a more envious nature. Aylmer, the husband, has slowly gone from one side of the spectrum to the other. The birth-mark is suddenly an irritation instead of a mythical fairy-touched spot on his wife’s cheek.

“Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?”

Georgiana replies to her husband that her blemish was often referred to as a type of charm, which is why she also imagines it to be so. Her husband suggests that this would be the case with on any other face except hers.

No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand 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 earthly imperfection.”

This brusque and insensitive statement upsets Georgiana. Not surprising considering this man is her husband and he has never mentioned being disturbed by her birth-mark.

In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight. 

Aylmer becomes obsessed with the mark. It is all he thinks of during his waking and sleeping hours. As soon as he opens his eyes in the morning and looks at Georgiana, he is filled with thoughts akin to disgust.

It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bass-relief of ruby on the whitest marble. 

It made Georgiana shudder when her husbands eyes turned in her direction. She felt the change in his demeanour, the atmosphere and his attitude towards her. He has convinced himself that the blemish is a mark of evil, his wife’s liability to sin. 

The liability to sin, let that thought role around in your brain for a few minutes. He thinks the mark on her cheek is some sort of para-psychological, magical or mythological sign.

Jeez, I should be so lucky. Wouldn’t it be a bugger if the devil on your shoulder was visible to others and not only a vivid hallucination with the persuasive powers of a Djinn. Then again, that might just be me.

On a more serious note, this is exactly how witch hunts, trials and accusations start. To this day innocent children and women are still accused of witchcraft, hunted, tortured and killed, because something about them raises the ire of a more fanatical public.

He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.

Georgiana is aware of Aylmer’s discomfort, especially at night and asks whether he remembers dreaming about the mark, which she refers to as this odious hand. In an attempt to regain his love and respect she agrees with his pathological obsession. In the quote above it becomes all too clear how far her husband’s obsession has gone.

Dreaming of cutting the mark away, digging through her flesh to wrench its claw like grip from her heart.They discuss the possibility of removing the mark. Georgiana is concerned about scarring, deformity and whether it can be removed at all. Aylmer is only interested in ridding himself of the stain.

For he was confident in his science, and felt that he could draw a magic circle round her within which no evil might intrude. Believe me, Georgiana, I even rejoice in this single imperfection, since it will be such a rapture to remove it.” 

Georgiana has now come to hate her birthmark as much as Aylmer hates it. His influence on her psyche is immense, he controls instead of cares and he is more interested in using her as means to an end.

What better way to show the world what a great scientist he is by ridding his wife of his strange ailment. He shows her some of his concoctions, his poisons.

Whilst waiting for his miraculous cure she spends time reading his journals and she weeps in despair as she recognises the thin line he wanders between genius and evil. The way his mind wanders from the border of scientific discovery, accomplishing great things for humanity and then into the dark deep chamber of his own melancholy.

As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

Aylmer had not for one moment considered that this symbol of imperfection was at the same time the essence of her very perfection. The core of her life, and thus by removing it he has extinguished her.
This is such a true reflection of society, both then and now.

How people discard what isn’t perfect, how they treat imperfection with disdain. Our media is full of perfect images of physically perfect pretty people, who by the way only make up a really tiny percentage of the global population. The majority of us are just perfectly flawed, yes the word flawed is completely sarcastic and tongue in cheek.

We, the normal are perfect in our imperfections, and that is the core of our being, our essence of self. It is also the reason no person should ever try to convince you or anyone else to change our physical appearance to become more perfect to adhere to there or society’s particular brand of perfectionism.

Download to read The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the Internet Archive here.
Download to read Beautiful Thoughts by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the Internet Archive here.
Download to read The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne at Feedbooks here.
Download to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne at Feedbooks here.
Download to listen to The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne at Librivox here.
Download to listen to more by Nathaniel Hawthorne at Librivox here.

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