In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Birthmark“, we come to know a crazed scientist whose strive for perfection not only leads to the death of his beautiful wife, but the attempt of man to have power and control over nature.
As an accomplished scientist who views nature not as beautiful, but as imperfect, Aylmer, feels that it is in his power to “have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!” (Hawthorne, pg. 347) The small, hand-like birthmark on his wife Georgiana’s left cheek, once oblivious to him, now only disgusts him. Consumed by his thoughts, “Wishing it away, that the world might possess on living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw,” he becomes obsessed with her having it removed; Completely unaware, the birthmark itself symbolizes her own, and all of societies, humanity. Humanity in itself is flawed, imperfect as is Nature; neither are compatible with perfection. Georgiana was described as being beautiful to the point of angelic, almost perfect. Some even implied it was a symbol of something more heavenly, “that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.”(pg. 345) In order for Nature to keep the in-balance (nothing being perfect), it would have to leave its mark for all to see. As Hawthorne put it, “It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.” (pg. 346) In this passage lies the true conflict, the struggle between Man and Nature. Constantly struggling to correct itself, Nature allows her birthmark to be removed, but removes from her, her breathe as well. Despite mans attempts, Nature cannot be changed or altered without consequence.
Other conflicts we witness is that between Georgiana and Aylmer. Failing to understand the true meaning and nature of her birthmark, Aylmer insists Georgiana allow him to remove it at once. Feeling that it will be the only possible way to save her marriage, she gives in, claiming that “the attempt be made at whatever risk, Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror Еand disgust,-life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!..” (pg. 347) At a time when Georgiana is professing her love for Aylmer, he, instead of reciprocating, proceeds to profess his love for science. Rejoicing at her permission, he claims, “Georgiana, you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science.” (pg. 347) It is almost as if he doesn’t care what can happen to his wife, but rather that he’s overcome with excitement at the opportunity to perform another science experiment! We observe this obsession with science interfering with their marriage earlier, when Hawthorne expresses “He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science.” (pg. 345)
The Allegory of the story coincides with the theory of Man versus Nature. Some people put too much faith in science, and in what can be accomplished by scientific methods. Some things, however, shouldn’t be messed with. The pursuit of scientific experiments is to learn more about the world and ways on how to improve it, not on how to use the knowledge as if to “play God”. It’s like Hawthorne said, “She (Mother Nature) permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.” (pg. 348) Hawthorne explains further, that “..had Alymer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial.” (pg. 355) Had he not tempered with science and nature, and his “power”, he could’ve enjoyed a wonderful, heavenly life with the woman he loved.
What is the moral of this story? I think it is best said in the words of Hawthorne, “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state . . . .living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.”(pg. 355)
The fate of the world, no matter how dark it is, is in the hands of God & Nature, not man. Instead of trying to pursue the ultimate power and trying to change the laws of Nature through science, one should pursue happiness in love, for that is where our real futures.
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