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Feminist Criticism of Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”

Hawthorne appears critical about Aylmer’s actions in that the ultimate result of his actions is the death of her wife and not the redemption it was meant for. Men like Aylmer cannot overcome the limitations that nature brings no matter their efforts. On the other hand, the author seems to render an upper hand and talent to men than women both in mind and physical power. Women are represented in the story as submissive to men even for the latter’s interests, and the Aylmer’s husband is willing to go through the operation to please her husband. This paper looks at the women’s presentation in “The Birthmark” and the women presentation around men.

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Perception of who we are and how we should be, is not a self-identity only influenced by our private apprehension of who and how we are, but also by the society and culture in which we live in. in this story, men play an important role in the self-identity in women.

Georgiana is used to bring out the aspects of gender roles and submission of women in the society in which they live. Whether women become victims to interest of men as presented in the story in the conception that the love of Aylmer for his dear wife would be stronger if intertwined with the love of science, or that science and other influences have their say in enhancing men’s highly perceived position in the society especially in the earlier times of emergent of science may remain a mystery.

Georgiana is presented in the story to have low self-identity to the extent of agreeing that a solution be tested as the mark displeases the husband. In this case, the perception of self is influenced by the husband attitude towards the presence of the birthmark. In fact, the perception Georgiana has on the husband is influenced by the husband’s capability in science, and when she finds out more about the husband’s scientific experiments in the reading folio, she esteems him the more.

The acceptance of Georgiana for her husband to remove the birthmark, and subsequent urging of him to do so since he is a man of “deep science” seems to be mostly for the benefit of Aylmer, rather than Georgiana which is big sarcasm; she dares say that her husband should remove the mark or that her life be taken away. In this story, Georgiana is represented as though women are not responsible for their “inadequacies”. Women are represented as natural invalids, and denied the power of mind and body which is given to men (Herndl, 1993).

Perhaps the death of Georgiana at the success of the experiment may be used to imply that women, after having been denied both the power of mind and body, assumes a status more than human-either the perfect or supernatural status according to the aforementioned author. However, death may be taken to mean seize of existence of women which may be interpreted that they have lost the whole battle. The author’s indication of the death of Georgiana can be interpreted as a failure result of men’s efforts and strategies to deal with what is natural.

Death of Georgiana may be interpreted to mean punishment for the woman as a result of irresponsibility for her own life, or man-in this case Aylmer-loosing from the battle. The author presents women to live to please their husbands, in this respect. For Georgiana, the success of the experiment is important for the pleasure of her husband, and its failure may mean that they may “both go mad”. This is beyond the norm because the wife should see life beyond the failure of the experiment.

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Aylmer seems to have worn the call for her wife to submit or at least believe in his experiments. The story seems to echo the tradition in some society settings that the role of men is distinct from that of the wife, and that women should submit under all circumstances. Women seem to have no right to make decisions even in guarding their lives leave alone important aspects of their lives. The story seems to advance earlier notions and perception of a woman in the traditional set up as compared to current calls for equality of women.

The ideas advanced in this story seem to well agree with those in the traditional set up where women had specific roles defined for them and separated from those roles meant for women. Women therefore are presented as limited to pursuing science, both mentally and culturally because the presence of Georgiana at the laboratory stirs discomfort for both her husband and his laboratory assistant Aminadab. These ideas have been suppressed in the modern tradition. In fact, in some cases the modern society has the roles of both men and women mixed up, or without clear cut.

The author seems to present Aylmer as a product of the historical society in which he lives, who, even though they knew the limitation of natural possibilities, “they continued to propose methods whereby wonders might be wrought” in hardly less curious and imaginative ways. Men are represented to live in their own world and shape that of women, including the death of the latter (Monica, 2003).

This may point to support the fact that the society and its culture in which man evolves, may determine his way of life, for example, how he solves his problem. Probably, more sympathetic is that application of methods to solving one’s problem as they were solved by the ancestors may, in fact, lead to such damages like one Aylmer does; killing her wife for the sake of eliminating a mere mark on her cheek, imposed by nature. In this scenario, Aylmer does not know the implications of his chemical experiments but goes ahead to implement the solution, probably with his mind puffed up by the amount of success he could get.

Aylmer is presented as a natural man, who despite the efforts and aspirations, cannot escape the limitations of his physical nature, and his successes only appear to exist in theory while the practical aspects appear far from the aim; compared to the ideal aimed at, “his most successes were almost invariably failures”. The author does not seem to recognize that the woman is capable of defending her own life from such a misery, even in consideration of the subject of submission to her husband. In fact, the woman is presented as adoring the man because of his superiority that is defined in the aspect of upcoming science.

The story seems to elevate the status of men with Aylmer being well versed with scientific and research methods, and in fact, ready to eliminate the birthmark on the lady’s cheek using these methods. The interest of Aylmer in search of an answer to eliminate the birthmark seems too high. In addition to being presented in the story as objects of submission, women do not seem to have either the right or a chance for exploring (or even knowing) science as does men. We see Aminadab and Aylmer not pleased by the appearance of Georgiana into the laboratory. Aminadab signals her husband who reacts in a displeased mood to have Georgiana get out of the place.

The author seems to present Georgiana as weaker in understanding science and amazed at the objects she is shown by the husband, including the optical phenomena at exclusion. In the readings, Georgiana probably sees the extra-ordinaries of her husband and speaks of the readings making her to worship him more than ever before. In this aspect, men are presented as able to use their intelligence to venture into the realm beyond the women’s possibility, reach and understanding.

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In fact, the presentation of men’s superiority in science, intelligence and capability conquers with Aristotle’s conviction that only men had the capacity for and access to truth while women could not surpass opinion. These ideas have been opposed in the current trend where women are more concerned in being granted more rights as those of men. Today, women have by far broken down such perceptions that women cannot surpass opinion, especially with more women emerging as influential leaders in various fields.

Today, women do not only champion for equal rights to job opportunities and other gender issues but are against gender discrimination and violence. Unlike in the story, women today have made not mere entry into fields they could not be allowed into, but that they have made important contributions there. The story is well versed with the traditional society which not only demeans women but also considers her as an object of submission and with abilities lesser to those of men. Thus the story seems to contain bias against women than men, and this bias is greatly reduced in the current society.

While Aylmer is presented as both mentally and physically fit, his wife is presented as with a physical and even a mental defect to some extent. Perhaps men are presented as capable of having a stronger self-identity as compared to women. Aylmer is of high self-esteem, confident in self, and brings in solution through his science. Aylmer believes so much in his science that he can draw a magic circle around his wife and no evil would intrude.

His ambition to remove the birthmark on his wife’s cheek is well represented, and he declares his competence to make the cheek faultless. His historic work is said to have cut into the interests of science and received recognition among scholars, and his test for rendering the wife’s cheek free from the birthmark is declared successful although ignorant of the damage it causes by eliminating life. He views that the success of his experiment for removing the birthmark on the wife’s cheek should lead the wife into worshiping him if she should, and would be his triumph.

Reference and Bibliography

Gerald Lynch and David Rampton. (2005). (eds). Short Fiction: An Introductory Anthology. 2nd. Toronto: Nelson. Pg1 -14.

Herndl Diane Price. (1993). Invalid women: figuring feminine illness in American fiction and culture, 1840-1940. UNC Press.

Monika Elbert. (2003). Wharton’s hybridization of Hawthorne’s “brand” of Gothic: gender crossings in “Ethan brand” and “bewitched”. ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly).

Weinstein Cindy. (1995). The Literature of Labor and the Labors of Literature: Allegory in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Cambridge University Press.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 13). Feminist Criticism of Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/feminist-criticism-of-hawthornes-the-birthmark/

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