Birthmark Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Birthmark : Theme

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Forbidden Knowledge

Aylmer is a recognized scientist whose discoveries are apparently accepted by The Royal Society in London. Yet there is mystery about his pursuits, hints that Aylmer goes beyond the bounds of rational inquiry. He has the textbooks of the alchemists, his “sorcerer's books,” in his library, who by the time of the story were mostly discredited by modern scientists as dabblers in black magic. Aylmer also owns a book by the “famous friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head.” This is a reference to Friar Roger Bacon (1214-1292), the medieval scientist who worked on the formula for gunpowder and is said to have a talking Brazen Head, as used by wizards, that gave answers to questions. He was supposedly imprisoned for his interest in alchemy and occult knowledge, making him an interesting symbolic character, standing on the divide between magic and science, like Aylmer himself.

Aylmer is never content, claiming Mother Nature hides her secrets from him: “our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets . . . She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend.” This bit of foreshadowing from Aylmer's own mouth is a piece of wisdom not heeded by him. He is called a “pale philosopher” willing to go the heights or depths to find “the secrets of the highest cloud region and of the profoundest mines.” Through his research he, like the other scientists, imagines he possesses “a power above Nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world.”

Aylmer demonstrates his desire to rival nature when he makes a plant grow instantly in a pot of soil. When Georgiana picks the flower, however, it dies, showing its artificial quality. He creates a false world for his wife to live in constructed with his invented illusions, smells and sights that do not exist in nature. His familiarity with forbidden knowledge is proved by his producing the elixir of immortality that the alchemists said they could make for abnormally long human life. He claims that with such an elixir he can meddle in politics by prolonging the life of a king, for instance. He would then be the one who dispensed long or short life to rulers. Georgiana comments, “it is terrible to possess such power.” Yet she admires him for his “aspiration towards the infinite.”

When he removes the birthmark, it is a symbol that Aylmer has temporarily bested Nature, but the side effect is death. When Aylmer tries to improve upon Nature, he destroys life. For the archetypal mad scientist the ambition to control life and death is his downfall. By tapping into forbidden knowledge over his head, he is like the sorcerer's apprentice who knows just enough to cause damage.


Original Sin

The irony of Aylmer's position is that the man of science seems to believe in original sin. The birthmark to him is a sign of Georgiana's imperfection, but it is more than a physical imperfection he is worried about. He fears she has a deep evil in her as deep as her heart, according to his dream. This symbolic treatment of the marriage of Aylmer and Georgiana recalls the story of Adam and Eve.

Aylmer believes Georgiana is tainted with evil. When she enters his laboratory, he becomes hysterical that she is spying on him and trying to ruin his work. He grabs her arm, leaving a violent imprint of his hand there that matches the one on her cheek. This scene suggests Adam and Eve after the Fall, as in Milton's epic, Paradise Lost, when they each blame the other for the loss of paradise. The husband and wife are suspicious of one another's faults. Georgiana reads Aylmer's book of experiments, critically concluding that he is not really a successful scientist. She sees he is a flawed human after all, not a superhero.

She decides to support his efforts, in spite of his faults, because, as in Milton's story, Eve is a peacemaker and knows there is nothing for them now but loyalty to one another. She supports his dreams, or his illusions, knowing he will not succeed. As she is dying she forgives him for his arrogance and wrong perception of her. In the story, his evaluation of the birthmark is the chief sin. The narrator's moral seems to affirm that human life is inherently flawed and that humans should not be seeking on earth what they can only find in heaven.



In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were many fables constructed by authors about science because it was the time of the rising industrial and scientific age. Early science fiction, such as that by Jules Verne, looked at science for its possibilities, as evidence of human imagination. Hawthorne wrote in the century of great inventions, such as gas lighting, the use of electricity, the making of steel and petroleum products, steam engines, the steam locomotive, the railway, photography, telegraph, dynamite, and the sewing machine and mechanical reaper. Instead of hailing these inventions as a hopeful sign, Hawthorne's treatment of science is darker and more ambiguous, more in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe whose stories use scientific phenomena for tales of horror. Hawthorne plays with the stereotype of the scientist in the nineteenth century, who is not the hero or pioneer of modern times, but a supreme egotist.

Science becomes a convenient symbol for the mixed nature of human morality. Hawthorne does not condemn science out of hand. In the story, the Transactions of the Royal Society of London stand for the established scientific world. Yet Hawthorne makes scientists seem to be little more than curious and cheeky boys: “Hardly less curious and imaginative [than the alchemists] were the early volumes of the Transactions of the Royal Society, in which the members, knowing little of the limits of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders or proposing methods whereby wonders might be wrought.” Aylmer has not yet grown up and indulges his every curiosity or whimsical project, not looking at the cost. He leaves the boundary of the rational, and enters into uncharted waters with his wife as the victim of his experiment.




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