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Literature / The Birthmark

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"The Birthmark" (also published as "The Birth-Mark" and "The Birth Mark") is a Short Story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in the Pioneer magazine (March 1843 issue).

Aylmer, a scientist, becomes obsessed with the birthmark on his otherwise beautiful wife Georgiana's cheek. As time progresses and Aylmer grows ever more obsessed, Georgiana begs her husband to find some way to remove it. However, the cost of perfection may be higher than would be wise for them to pay.

"The Birthmark" has been republished many times, including over a dozen Hawthorne collections, including Mosses From An Old Manse (1846), Little Masterpieces (1897), Hawthorne (1922), The Celestial Railroad And Other Stories (1963), The Birthmark And Other Stories (1968), Selected Tales And Sketches (1970), Young Goodman Brown And Other Short Stories (1992), The Snow Image And Other Stories Of The Super Natural (2008), and Hawthorne After Dark: 22 Strange Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (2009).

It is also the (rather distant) inspiration for Rick Yancey's short Science Fiction story "When First We Were Gods".

This story includes examples of the following tropes:

  • Chemistry Can Do Anything: Aylmer is an Omnidisciplinary Scientist who marries a woman with a birthmark on her cheek. He uses chemicals to remove the mark.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Georgiana has had a tiny red handprint on her cheek since birth. Familiarity has bred contempt, and the characters attempt to remove it.
  • Downer Ending: Georgiana dies just after Aylmer succeeds in removing the birthmark, with the strong implication that removing the birthmark somehow caused her death.
  • Elixir of Life: Aylmer admits that such a potion would be possible, although he believes that it would be an imbalance in nature for it to be used.
  • Foil: Aylmer and his manservant Amminadab differ in many ways. The narrator associates Aylmer with the mind and the spiritual while describing Amminadab in terms of muscle and the earthly. In a probably related facet, Aylmer hates Georgiana's birthmark so much that a glimpse of it causes him to shudder, whereas Amminadab mutters that he would never attempt to remove it if he were Georgiana's husband.
  • Foreshadowing: A number of things — Aylmer's dream about cutting out the mark, his journal of discoveries (which are never quite as impressive as his ideas), the equation of the mark with mortality and the theme of the imperfectibility of mortal things — tell the reader beforehand that the story will not end happily.
  • Hollywood Acid: Aylmer creates a drug whose use can kill after seconds or years (depending on the dosage), and can be used as a cosmetic, washing away freckles or blushes.
  • Informed Deformity: Georgiana's birthmark is not all that bad even from the perspective of many in-universe. It's implied that the women who have argued it makes her face horrible only say that out of jealousy, and the author explicitly states that Aylmer only became obsessed with it because it was the only small imperfection in his wife.
  • Love Martyr: Eventually, Georgiana begs Aylmer to get rid of the birthmark, whatever the cost, because life with him being horrified and disgusted by her is unbearable. She admires him more as she figures out his skill in science, even as he continues to try experiments on her that she increasingly realizes will probably kill her.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Aylmer" means "noble and famous" and Aylmer does indeed have a measure of fame for his skill in science.
    • "Georgiana" means "farmer." A farmer works the earth, and earth symbolizes the "lower" side of being in the story. Georgiana, associated with it by the birthmark, suffers for it.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Aylmer is supposedly highly proficient in every branch of science. The story itself bears witness to him being a highly capable alchemist, creating a tonic that removes the birthmark from his wife.
    "a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy"
  • The Perfectionist: Aylmer becomes obsessed with the birthmark because it's the only imperfect feature in an otherwise beautiful woman. He can't (or won't) just let it go, and it ends up causing disaster.
  • Perfection Is Impossible: Aylmer grows obsessed with removing his wife's (small, rather cute) birthmark and rendering her "perfect", and ultimately kills her in the process.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: Georgiana finally has enough and begs Aylmer to get rid of the birthmark after she hears him muttering in his sleep about removing it. The narrator notes that sleep-talking sometimes reveals things that a person tried to keep hidden during waking hours (in Aylmer's case, his hatred for the mark).
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: In order to assure her that he can successfully remove the birthmark, Aylmer tells Georgiana that he believes he could create an elixir of life if he wished. However, he says it would create problems that would bother even the person who had consumed the elixir.