The plot of the short story is simple.
Aylmer, a scientist, marries the beautiful Georgiana, whose face bears a small birthmark in the shape of a hand, as if “some fairy at her birth-hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek.” Though some of Georgiana’s suitors believe the mark enhances her beauty, once she and Aylmer are wed he finds he can only look at his wife with growing disgust.
When Georgiana realizes that the mark repulses her husband, she agrees to his plan to remove it so that she will then look unblemished and perfect. After much experimentation, Aylmer invents a potion that he is absolutely certain cannot fail to remove the mark.
Georgiana drinks this liquid and falls into a deep sleep, at which point the mark begins to vanish. Aylmer is delighted to see the mark disappearing and is congratulating himself and his assistant when Georgiana wakens to tell him she is dying.
“As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.”
Good Things Come in Small Packages
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) first published “The Birth-Mark” in 1843 in The Pioneer, a short-lived literary publication founded by James Russell Lowell. In 1846, Hawthorne included the story in his collection “Mosses From an Old Manse.”
In many of his short stories and novels, Hawthorne employed allegory and symbolism, meanings hidden behind the characters and the story, some of which are difficult for the casual reader to discern. His stories require patience from his audience and a willingness to dig a bit for the gold and silver embedded in his prose.
“The Birth-Mark” is such a story. Though published 177 years ago, it presents us with some real treasures of insight into our culture and the times in which we live.
Some among us, particularly those on the extreme left, seek to bring about a utopia, a paradise, a heaven on earth. Like some of Hawthorne’s contemporaries, they constantly push for reform, telling us that if we can just erase our societal blemishes—the economic inequalities, “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” the demands of nature and biology on gender, fossil fuels, and so on—we will enter nirvana.
Hawthorne thought otherwise.
When Aylmer first tells Georgiana of her birthmark “this slightest possible defect … shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection,” Hawthorne writes: “Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.”
Not Aylmer. In spite of his wife’s beauty and her sweet nature, he finds the mark unbearable. Removal of that tiny imprint will leave Georgiana perfected.
Aware of the foibles of others as well as of those we ourselves commit, most of us can love our family and friends while accepting their “birthmarks.” Those who seek perfection in others, and in our culture and society at large, are naive in their quest and, like Aylmer, doomed to failure.
Experts and Science
We have heard much from experts this past year, particularly in regard to the pandemic, and by now most of us are aware that many of these specialists either send mixed messages or are mistaken altogether. When they advise us to wear masks, our public officials order us to cover our faces, and we do so without giving too much thought to the consequences, though other experts consider masks useless.
Aylmer regards himself as a scientist and an expert of sorts, yet when Georgiana slips into her husband’s scientific library and looks at the records he has kept regarding past experiments, she finds “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, if compared to the ideal at which he had aimed.”
Such failures, the gap between the ideal and reality, remain just as true today. The revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere promised to bring into being brave new worlds, but instead delivered murder, misery, and oppression. The months-long lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic were supposed to afford Americans protection from a virus, but they have also ruined untold numbers of businesses, put millions of people out of work, and created mass anxiety and widespread depression.
Often the experts point us to some upward, sunlit hill, but on arrival we find ourselves left with pebbles rather than diamonds.
Beauty and Humanity
Aylmer fails not only as a scientist but also as a lover and a husband. Instead of appreciating his wife for her gentle spirit and lovely appearance, he focuses on a small mark on her cheek.
Many of us do the same today. We judge the clerk in the grocery store by her weight rather than by her merry laughter and sparkling eyes. We decide that a man is ignorant because of his mountain accent before uncovering the wisdom he has gained from a hard-knock life.
Some of us judge our country in the same way. Instead of seeking goodness and amendment regarding America, we want perfection. We condemn the great men and women of our past for their flaws while ignoring or belittling their struggles and accomplishments. Like Aylmer in regard to that mark, we want to eradicate America’s flaws and faults, and in the process may kill the American spirit altogether.
“The Birth-Mark” stands as a warning about the dangers of pride and the blindness that often accompanies it.
At the end of the story, Hawthorne tells us that Aylmer “need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial … he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and living once for all in eternity, to find the future perfect in the present.”
In a sense, Aylmer makes himself a god, as many do today. He determines the fate of his wife, a human soul, based on his own delusional beliefs in science, expertise, and perfection. Some of our American elites follow this same path today, believing they live on Olympus and know best how others should live their lives.
The Weight of Truth
A work of art—a book, a poem, a painting—becomes a classic not because of its age but because of its truth. When we can develop a relationship with a particular piece of art, when we can walk away carrying in our hearts certain gifts it has given us, only then does it deserve the title of “classic.” Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”—these and other works stick with us because they broaden and enrich our souls, making us more self-aware while at the same time connecting us more deeply to humanity. They contain a truth that even after hundreds of years still speaks to us, still acts as a mirror in which we can see our own reflection.
And that’s why we still read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” so long after it first appeared in print. These antique words strike a chord in us, and we leave them a little wiser and better able to see and understand the world around us.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.