Birthmark : Metaphor

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The Birthmark, Eve, and Pygmalion

It is often through his symbols and metaphors that Hawthorne conveys a philosophy of relativism rather than an absolute morality. Symbols, people, and settings have alternate suggested meanings depending on the observer and the situation. The birthmark is the main symbol of the story, for instance. It is the way Hawthorne shows that beauty or evil is in the eye of the beholder.

Georgiana is innocent when she marries Aylmer. Her family and suitors have found the birthmark on her cheek like a magic fairy charm that sets off her beauty. On the contrary, Aylmer finds it shocking, a sign of her mortality and sinful nature. She is cast in the role of a fallen Eve, “the Eve of Powers, a monster.” She is the one who tempts him, he says, to go deeper into his science in order to fix her. He casts himself as Pygmalion, the Greek artist who tried to sculpt the statue of a perfect woman. He will correct her defect, no matter how far he has to go. As Georgiana dies, the narrator says, “Watch the stain of the rainbow fading out of the sky, and you will know how that mysterious symbol passed away.” In one sentence are contained two opposite ideas of the birthmark: it is a “stain” (as of sin), and it is a “rainbow” (God's promise). Aylmer thinks it is the former, and Aminadab, the latter.


Death, Paradise, and Hell

When she dies Georgiana compares herself to a rose: “My earthly senses are closing over my spirit like the leaves around the heart of a rose at sunset.” Though Georgiana is briefly glorified for her wifely trust and worship of her husband's genius, he does not make her immortal with an elixir; he is ironically the agent of her death. She dies using an earthly and organic metaphor for death; she is like the plant he experimented on earlier and failed.

Aylmer did not reach the heart of Mother Nature's secret riches as he desired: “His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles . . . in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.” Yet Aylmer pretends he can construct his own world of riches when he makes a boudoir for Georgiana. It is enchanted with artificial stimulants to the senses, perfumes, optical illusions, curtains that shut out the sun for colored lamps. She feels she is in a “pavilion among the clouds.” That false paradise of his invention is contrasted to the hell of his laboratory, with its ugly brick, furnace, smoke, soot, chemicals, and the less than human lab assistant, Aminadab. Aylmer is angry that Georgiana barges in and sees through his illusions, confronting him in his lab. He grabs her violently in an argument, the opposite of the way he treated her in the boudoir.

Throughout the story, there is an echo of the Adam and Eve story in the Garden, with Adam, in this case, not Eve, being responsible for the Fall through his greed for forbidden knowledge.


Alchemy and the Humors

Images derived from alchemy and the medieval theory of humors give the story its mystical and mythical flavor. Aylmer shows his wife the elixir vitae, the elixir of immortality that he, like the alchemists, can make. He warns however it is a “precious poison” that produces “a discord in Nature.” As with the birthmark, the elixir has a contradictory evaluation: it is both precious and a poison. Is it the secret of immortality he has wrested from Nature, or a sign of his sin? He brags he could control kings with such a secret, and his wife says such a power is not right.

Aylmer's and Georgiana's complexions change with different emotions. In the medieval theory of humors derived from Hippocrates, the fluids in the body that predominated—blood (sanguine), phlegm (dullness), yellow bile (choleric anger), or black bile (melancholy)—told of the temperament or balance in the physiology. Georgiana's birthmark does not appear when she is “sanguine” because the blood in her cheek makes it invisible. This is when she is happy and balanced. When she is pale, it appears. This means she is unhappy or melancholy because her husband has made her feel unacceptable. Similarly, when Aylmer is entertaining his wife in the pavilion, he is sanguine and lively. In the lab, however, as he labors over the potion he will give her, he is pale and anxious. When he grabs her in anger, he is choleric, or full of fire, like his furnace, in a state of complete imbalance. Aminadab is described as dull, the man of earth, phlegmatic and slow. The humors show the state of things underneath the words the characters exchange. Hawthorne uses his metaphors and symbols to create ambiguity and depth beyond the surface of the action.

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