On Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark"

You can find the complete articles at http://www.ccsf.edu/Library/period.htm#literature.  If you're off campus, use your library barcode number to access the Literature Resource Center, and search for "hawthorne" and "birthmark."  For more library help, use this handout.

Feminist critics, notably Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, have frequently noted a literary penchant for female confinement which parallels the restrictions on women's real lives. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate how, for example, in Victorian fiction, a favorite strategy was literally to lock "mad" (rebellious?) women in the attic, a very graphic symbol of enclosure. Metaphors of enclosure and confinement abound in relation to literary women: houses and rooms are commonly used as symbolic spaces. Gilbert and Gubar (ironically) agree with Freud that a cave is "a female place, a womb-shaped enclosure, a house of earth, secret and often sacred." Perhaps the primary metaphor for "containment," however, is patriarchal insistence on restricting women to their own bodies, a clearly defined, "appropriately" limited space. In Gender/Body/Knowledge, Susan Bordo, among others, reminds us that "the body is not only a text of culture [but] also a practical, direct locus of social control" (13). Bordo differentiates between the "useful" body, a register of the cultural body following Foucault's ideas, and the "intelligible" body, our cultural conceptions of the body, which may be complementary or contradictory. As a female, Georgiana is a potential threat who is best incapacitated by "enclosing" her in a "safe" place. A significant step towards dominating nature is to attempt to bind it, to limit its realm.

The symbol of Georgiana's physicality is, of course, her birthmark. It is "a singular mark, deeply interwoven ... with the texture and substance of her face", and its shape "bore not a little similarity to the human hand" (2147-8). Its hue varies from the "deeper crimson" in the "healthy, though delicate bloom" of her usual complexion, to becoming nearly imperceptible in the midst of blush, to "a crimson stain upon the snow" when she turned pale. Reactions to it varied, also: some women called it the "Bloody Hand" and saw it as a hideous detraction to her beauty, while male admirers speculated that it was the handprint of a fairy at the hour of birth, "in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts" (2148). This male association of the birthmark with magic is in keeping with patriarchal tradition associating women with all that is mysterious, changeable, unintelligible, intangible, intuitive, or inexplicable. Other male observers simply wished it were not there to keep Georgiana from "ideal loveliness." It is not insignificant that her birthmark is compared to "one of those small blue stains, which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble" and which could debatably "convert the Eve of Powers to a monster." At its most negative, this birthmark is what transforms Georgiana from the embodiment of an ideal into the personification of "the fatal flaw of humanity": "The Crimson Hand expressed the ineludible gripe [sic], in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes" (2148). In other words, Georgiana's birthmark is visible confirmation not only of human mortality but of human inferiority, which is represented as female.

--from "Eve's Daughter, Mary's Child: Women's Representation in Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark,'" by   Kary Meyers Skredsvig 
The implicit feminism in "The Birthmark" is considerable. On one level the story is a study of sexual politics, of the powerlessness of women and of the psychology which results from that powerlessness. Hawthorne dramatizes the fact that woman's identity is a product of men's responses to her: "It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders." To those who love Georgiana, her birthmark is evidence of her beauty; to those who envy or hate her, it is an object of disgust. It is Aylmer's repugnance for the birthmark that makes Georgiana blanch, thus causing the mark to emerge as a sharply-defined blemish against the whiteness of her cheek. Clearly, the birthmark takes on its character from the eye of the beholder. And just as clearly Georgiana's attitude toward her birthmark varies in response to different observers and definers. Her self-image derives from internalizing the attitudes toward her of the man or men around her. Since what surrounds Georgiana is an obsessional attraction expressed as a total revulsion, the result is not surprising: continual self-consciousness that leads to a pervasive sense of shame and a self-hatred that terminates in an utter readiness to be killed. "The Birthmark" demonstrates the consequences to women of being trapped in the laboratory of man's mind, the object of unrelenting scrutiny, examination, and experimentation.

--from "Women Beware Science: 'The Birthmark,'" by Judith Fetterley
"The Birthmark" has been described as an "indictment of modern science," but the text and modern life both acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of science. Science is not unequivocally evil; it is, however, dangerous in isolation from human society's other influences, including sexuality, work of all kinds, and familial relations. It is dangerous in the speed with which it progresses, an incredible pace far outrunning the cumbersome gait of social and moral change. And it is dangerous when the study of minute details becomes a system of belief, as it is for Aylmer. He says to Georgiana that her birthmark can be removed because it is a "trifle" compared to this or that achievement of "deep science," just as in this century we say that the removal of all pollution or the obsolescence of nuclear weapons is, if not a trifle, at least a possibility, because "we put a man on the moon." But as Aylmer once knew, creation, let alone resurrection, is not the business of isolated science. These tasks require considerable human cooperation.

--from "Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark': Science and Romance as Belief," by Barbara Eckstein
The significant symptom of her deterioration is that she also loses the capacity to read the mark. The sense of play present in her initial response to the mark where she regards it as a "charm" with all the overtones of attractiveness, luckiness, and delight gives way to a fixed sense of herself (as obsessional as Aylmer's) as an object of horror and disgust. After her first angry response at the beginning of the story, Georgiana never questions Aylmer's judgment again. If anything, once she begins to perceive the mark upon her cheek in his terms, it works to provoke her desire to make a total gift to him of her body and her self, to enslave herself absolutely to him. She increasingly wishes to become his object. Her newly learned, but extremely successful, illiteracy is beautifully demonstrated in the scene in which she reads the record of Aylmer's work. Although she notes that it is a record of failure, we are told that as she reads, she "reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore" (434). The confusion present in her response--the increase in reverence along with the loss of trust--is made manifest at the end of the story when, in spite of possessing a "less entire dependence" on Aylmer's judgement than previously, she drinks the draught that kills her. Since this text--the record of Aylmer's failures--is precisely the text in which her own story (his most devastating failure) will be written, it is her own story (her own mark) that becomes illegible and incomprehensible to her. This is inevitable since in giving up her own subjectivity, she gives up her own story. Significantly, the only time that she does see is when she sees herself seeing herself, that is, looking at herself in the mirror, seeing herself as the object of the gaze: "Still, whenever she dared look into the mirror, there she beheld herself pale as a white rose and with the crimson birthmark stamped upon her cheek. Not even Aylmer now hated it as much as she."

--from "The Return of the Repressed: Illiteracy and the Death of the Narrative in Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark,'" by Lynn Shakinovsky
Throughout "The Birthmark," a controlled transference of images deepens the implications of Hawthorne's psychological theme. By shifting images of union to Aylmer and images of separation to Georgiana, Hawthorne maintains a significant tension between the two polar images of the tale. The result is that in Aylmer's hands images of union become grotesquely distorted--his passion for Georgiana increases in disturbing proportion as the possibilities for fulfillment wane. Aylmer's systematic employment of the language of sensual pleasure in the context of his scientific inquiries heightens the acuteness of his emotional inversion. He repeatedly refers to the "ecstasy" (p. 53, 68) of his investigations; in the intervals between his studies and experiments he appears to Georgiana "invigorated," "flushed and exhausted" (58). Similarly, the mock marriage and consummation which are enacted within his laboratory "boudoir" are a hideous parody of what should be. Aylmer, simply enough, is unable to check his compulsion to separate and distill. Georgiana, in a like manner, cannot check her tendency toward union: she is able to justify her own death and her husband's failure through an unhesitating redefinition of her marital role.

Aylmer's compulsion toward separation is intensified by the realization that he himself is unmistakably a "split" personality. The "pale, intellectual" (55) Aylmer is an almost allegorical representative of man's spiritual nature, while his shaggy assistant, Aminadab, is "no less apt a type" (55) of the physical. Clearly, Aminadab is Aylmer's "other half," his Doppelgänger, the physical, earthly side of his personality which the scientist has, for some reason, "distilled out."

Aylmer's resentment of the birthmark stems in part from an inability, inherent in his very nature, to tolerate the union of physical and spiritual principles which he encounters in his wife. On a deeper level, his experiment upon the birthmark is an attempt to "reorganize"6 Georgiana's psyche, to elicit, from the synthesis of opposites which maddens him, that single "golden principle" (58) of his wife's nature. But in point of fact the tiny birthmark is not (like Aylmer's Aminadab) a detachable aspect of Georgiana's being. It is "deeply interwoven ... with the texture and substance of her face" (48).

--from "Aylmer as 'Scheidekunstler': The Pattern of Union and Separation in Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark,'" by Elizabeth Napier