Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Nathaniel Hawthorne saw in his era's fascination with scientific methods, apparatus, and experiments a temptation, not to learn more about the world and to improve it, but to play God. Aylmer, the scientist in “The Birthmark,” is very much a product of this age of invention. He feels that nothing is too complicated, too profound, too deep for him to understand. In other words, if he keeps plugging away in his laboratory long enough, sooner or later he could split atoms, clone human beings, or build a spaceship capable of traveling to Mars.
A scientist with this kind of mindset looks at nature and sees not beauty or symmetry, but imperfections. Certainly from a human perspective nature can seem very imperfect. We do not like to see blight on our plants, or birth defects in our children. We do not like to see the ravages of disease or the effects of natural disasters. Our first impulse is to do something about them, if the ability to do so lies within our power. Aylmer's wife Georgiana has a birthmark that he believes he can surgically remove, and consequently he becomes obsessed with doing it. Although we would look at Georgiana Aylmer's birthmark as being something quite benign and harmless, to Aylmer it is an imperfection, and imperfections need to be eradicated.
Hawthorne assures us, on the other hand, that Georgiana's birthmark is no flaw, but the clear evidence of the loving touch of the hand of God. As Hawthorne says, “Georgiana's lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.” It is only Georgiana's birthmark, actually, that proves she is not really a sort of divinity, not an angel encased in flesh, but thoroughly and wholly human.
But her husband does not want to see her humanity; humanity is inherently flawed, and he wants perfection. Aylmer is used to seeing the world, not as a miracle or wonder, but as a code waiting to be cracked, and he cannot see Georgiana's birthmark in any positive way. It mocks him because he is a scientist and she is his wife; he should be able to make her absolutely flawless. And if she were flawless—if he could fix her birthmark today, her wrinkles tomorrow, her osteoporosis forty years from now—technically, she need never die.
Aylmer sees, after trying a few less-drastic measures, that the birthmark is not going to fade easily, and yet he continues with ever more invasive measures even though he knows—or must know—how dangerous the final procedure could be. It is hard to understand why he persists in his attempts, and he withholds from her the information of the operation's risks.
But all becomes clear when we see that it is Georgiana herself that is the imperfection. As human beings we are flawed; it is as much a part of our nature as beauty is. Certainly Aylmer does not consciously recognize that the inevitable cost of eradicating the imperfection would be to eradicate Georgiana, but nonetheless that birthmark symbolizes her very human life. As Hawthorne puts it, “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 and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.” Hawthorne's story illustrates the sin of overextending our reach from the realm of the natural into that of the divine.
This story can be found in the collection entitled Selected Tales and Sketches.
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