To an eager reader works of literary fiction represent an inexhaustible source for exploring and deriving the senses encoded in the texts by writers. For the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of the text, it is crucial to analyze such fundamental basics as the elements of fiction. In the focus of the present paper is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” from the perspective of four elements of fiction that contribute to the artistic success of the story. The setting, the characters and the developed symbolism of the story constitute the elements that help to develop the main theme of the story, the idea of acceptance of human imperfection that appears to be the charm and the essence of human beings.
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The story is set in Europe in the end of the eighteenth century (1021). The choice of the time is significant, since the eighteenth century was a period of unprecedented progress in science and technology. Rationalistic approach dominated people’s minds and prompted an idea that applying the latest technological achievements man has enough power and competence to mould the reality according to his judgment, manipulating and subduing the natural course of events. For this reason the action promptly moves from the cozy homely atmosphere to the apartments used as a scientific laboratory. The apartments are subdivided into two zones: on the one hand, there is a splendid boudoir of grandeur and prosperity that seems to be nothing less than “a pavilion among the clouds” with heavy curtains hanging from the ceiling to the floor, delicate and intoxicating fragrances streaming gently through the air, and fancy visions to entertain an impressionable observer (1025). On the other hand, Hawthorne reminds of the “smoky, dingy, somber” lodgings those splendid rooms used to be, and retains this oppressive atmosphere in the laboratory itself (1025). There emerges a sharp contrast between the delicately smooth lines and shapes of the boudoir and the bare walls of the laboratory (1029). The enormous blazing furnace and the countless chemical tubes and vessels bear a resemblance with infernal activities; the infernal allusion becomes the more obvious in the light of Del George’s definition of the story as that redefining “a theme of Christian origin” (66). This dramatic contrast contributes to the understanding of the discrepancy between the soft world of natural female grace and the artificially created inanimate scientific reality.
The characters of “The Birthmark” appear to fit the corresponding settings perfectly. A fanatic scientist, Aylmer is described by Hawthorne as a man who had sacrificed his love of science to love of a woman (1021); but as it appears, the latter love consequently gives way to the former. The foreshadowing of the dramatic events occurs already at the beginning of the story: in trying to connect and intertwine both of his loves, Aylmer is driven by a terrific ambition to “lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself” (1021). A deliberate and rational man, he appears to be maladjusted for a harmonious matrimonial life since the latter presupposes a kind of compromise and Aylmer is not the man who would put up with any imperfection. Possessed by his scientific ambition more than by responsibility for his wife’s comfort and life, Aylmer is blind to the possible damage that he might inflict on his wife; moreover, his urge towards perfection may be regarded as an arrogant desire for a kind of single proprietorship of his wife, whose birthmark seemed to him a sign of external intrusion. Loathing his wife’s birthmark, Aylmer appears to be narrow-minded and intolerant; in this sense he can be compared to the “ignorant and timid humanity” that refuses to see true beauty in objects that lack perfection (Crews 97).
As opposed to her cold-blooded husband, Aylmer’s wife Georgiana is represented as an embodiment of female grace, virtue and devotion. Her perfect beauty is marred but by one birthmark which does not cause any discomfort to her prior to the marriage (1022). It is her husband’s unconcealed disgust and aversion that ruffle Georgiana’s calmness since she does not care for the birthmark itself but cannot bear the uneasiness it causes to Aylmer. Embodying the implicit obedience and submission characteristic of married woman of the time, Georgiana encourages her husband’s scientific experiment irrespective of the fatal consequences it may entail (1024). Literally worshiping her husband with her body, Georgiana is erroneously inspired by Aylmer’s aspirations to perfection and immortality falls, and victim to his scientific materialism (Del George 67). Considering Georgiana’s choice of death for ideals above imperfect life, one can see a typical romantic character in Georgiana; according to Eckstein, dying for love and perfect beauty constitutes are more acceptable course of events for Aylmer’s wife than “a marriage where her flaws are acknowledged” (qtd. in Del George 67). Thus once again the conflict is emphasized between the mind and the soul, the science and the nature.
There is yet another character in “The Birthmark” that appears to be a compromising personage between Georgiana’s naturally imperfect beauty and her husband’s scientific ambitions for ideal. Aylmer’s laboratory assistant Aminadab is an embodiment of “earthiness” in his “bulky frame” (1025). Acting impeccably as the scientist’s helpful executive, he fails to understand the intricate theoretical background behind the scientific experiments at the same time, and possesses the insight into reality which Aylmer obviously lacks. As Aminadab observes Georgiana for the first time and mutters to himself that he “would never part with that birthmark” if he were Aylmer, his outward ugliness is contrasted to his inner understanding of the true beauty of imperfection (1025). Aylmer’s slender body and intricate scientific thinking are therefore viewed inferior to Aminadab’s simple shrewdness, since the former in his ambitious pride fails to perceive and appreciate the quiet happiness he possesses.
The message of the short story is developed through a system of symbols, the most significant of which is the birthmark itself. A bright crimson mark on Georgiana’s otherwise flawless cheek, it is a sign of nature’s will visualized on a perfect being. The attitude to the birthmark allows for a deeper understanding of the characters of the story. For Georgiana herself, the birthmark is no nuisance initially; for her former suitors it either heightened her attraction or left them wishing it was gone and did not mar the perfection of her bearer; Aylmer belongs to the latter category, intensifying and dramatizing the aversion to the natural flaw. The birthmark “shocks” him as a sign of nature that is not perfect in the opinion of an eminent scientist (1021); it irritates his sense of ideal and triggers his professional ambition leading to a situation of contest with nature. And yet, instead of triumphing over nature, Aylmer kills it: with the disappearance of the birthmark, life vanishes from his wife’s now perfect body, prompting the idea that the crimson mark was the true essence of Georgiana. Deleting the sign of Georgiana’s mortality, Aylmer actually terminated her chance for life; his view of Georgiana as a symbolical representation of “immaculate, infinite and immortal existence” prevented him from gaining the understanding of her true nature not as an ideal symbol but as a slightly flawed creature of flesh and blood (Bronfen 127). Another symbolic interpretation of Aylmer’s operation on the birthmark concerns the gender relations and the male desire of authority and suppression of the female. In his research on Hawthorne, Crews emphasizes the birthmark as a symbol of Georgiana’s sexuality, and views Aylmer’s intrusion in the natural state of his wife’s body as that driven by an urge to fully possess and control his spouse in every aspect (126).
Upon analyzing the key elements of “The Birthmark”, one can determine the main theme of the short story as the necessity of acceptance of nature as it is without violent intrusion that may otherwise cause death and destruction. The broadness of the theme allows for singling out certain sub-ideas within it. Firstly, the cruel consequences of the passion for knowledge become obvious in Georgiana’s death (Crews 125). Secondly, a dramatic contrast between abstract science and earthly, natural feelings is explicated in relations between Aylmer and his wife. And last but not least, the imperfection and mortality of human beings are emphasized and interpreted as inevitable (Bronfen 127). The fight against nature appears to be vain and unnecessary, since one can find true happiness in harmony with the natural course of events.
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Bronfen, Elizabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992. Print.
Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1989. Print.
Del George, Dana. The Supernatural in Short Fiction of the Americas: The Other World in the New World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” virgo.lib.virginia.edu. Virgo: iLink at University of Virginia Library, n.d. Web.