“The Birth Mark” is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne from the Anthology of American Literature, about the life of a man in search of perfection and satisfaction. Alymer is a scientist who decides to lay down his test tubes, and search for a wife to complete him and bring him happiness and satisfaction. In this quest, he marries Georgiana, a beautiful woman who appears perfect, apart from the crimson hand on her cheek. They have a marriage full of happiness save for Alymer’s dislike of Georgiana’s birthmark. The sad tale ends with a successful experiment where the blemish finally fades using Alymer’s concoction, but Georgiana dies. Hawthorne uses this story to describe the unsatisfying nature of life, as a futile quest that leaves a person always searching for the elusive satisfaction in perfection.
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The search for pleasure in perfection is a futile endeavor that cannot be fulfilled. Alymer’s love for science and research shows his deep-rooted desire to find perfection of nature and life, as Hawthorne states, “his love for his young wife…could only be intertwining itself with his love of science” (1079). He conducts numerous experiments to find the secrets of nature and life, and all his achievements though excellent, give him no pleasure. He desires perfection in everything he does. This desire for perfection leaves him unsatisfied with life, and he changes from a life as a scientist into a husband, having found a beautiful wife (Hawthorne 1079). He is described as a character that sees the blemishes of life, and its shortcomings. Nothing is perfect for him, and this leaves him unsatisfied, so he tries to repair the damage done by nature. This is the source of confusion in his life, confusing his vanity for depth, and hypocrisy for idealism (Youra 43). He perceives his quest for perfection as a course that defines his deep understanding of life, however, it is a source of vanity that leads him into selfish acts. His idealistic reasoning causes him to bring misery upon his wife, with constant nagging about her blemish, which in his view defiles her perfect persona and beauty. Despite his intelligence, he is unable to have a flourishing human relationship because of his obsession with perfection (Quinn and Baldessarini 91). Instead, he clouds his marriage with misery and devalues his wife because of a blemish (Hawthorne 1079).
Science includes learning new things, discovering new things, and having a deeper understanding of what others may see only the surface. Alymer is a scientist, and scientists are perceived as men with great understanding of life and intelligence. They are men who find depth in what others find only vanity. However, the irony of the story is that Alymer is a vain scientist. He shows folly in his obsession with his wife’s blemish, and for a man who should seek the truth and appreciate what is new as a scientist would, he is lost in his own small world of selfishness and his fool’s quest to remove the blemish from his wife’s cheek. As Quinn and Baldessarini describe it, “he is a man whose ambition is to control nature” (91), yet he is controlled by nature, and is swallowed by his obsession. The crimson hand on Georgiana’s left cheek becomes the evil that engulfs her life with Alymer, because he chooses to see it as a negative thing. He sees it as a mistake, instead of appreciating the diversity of nature as any other scientist would. His lack of intelligence in this matter displays his hypocrisy, because he expects perfection, yet he does not resemble the perfection he desires, neither in countenance nor in character. He desires understanding from Georgiana, but only offers her torment and misery over a small birthmark. He sees himself as a great man with the ability to discover what others have failed to discover in science, yet he is closed minded about the small blemish on a woman he describes as “so nearly perfect” (Hawthorne 1079).
The inability to appreciate what one has can only leave a person wanting for more, and it is insatiable. Alymer finds his perfection but loses what is most valuable, and Georgiana tells him, “you have rejected the best that earth could offer” (Hawthorne 1090), to make him realize his mistake. Her death continues the cycle of dissatisfaction that is Alymer’s life. As Alymer finally finds perfection, he loses what is most valuable to him, and once more, he is left dissatisfied. Instead of embracing the happiness that a mortal life brings, he spends his life chasing immortality and perfection that only bring him sadness and loss (Rosenberg 148). From the beginning, Alymer moves from one place to another in search of happiness and perfection. He leaves his science lab to seek out a perfect woman to share his life with and give him happiness. However, he still does not find satisfaction, and therefore, tries to fix his wife. He is in constant search for an elusive satisfaction that he can only find in mortality and imperfection, yet he puts his all into seeking immortality and perfection. Immortality knows no limit of time, therefore, one cannot find fulfilment of living each day as if it was the last. Instead, immortality is a continuum that diminishes the value of the pleasures of life. According to Weinstein, the room he places Georgiana during the experimental cure symbolizes the utopia in which Alymer exists, a world of beauty and perfection, where he can control the view and scents that surround him (48).
In conclusion, the life of Alymer is representative of the nature of people to always seek more from life, and their ability to see faults in others but not themselves. It shows the futility in searching for perfection in life, and the value of embracing mortality as the core of happiness and satisfaction. The death of Georgiana symbolizes the importance of imperfection in people, because the blemish made her who she was. By removing the things we find imperfect in others, we lose them, because the imperfections make people who they are.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Birth-Mark. Anthology of American Literature, Vol.1. 10th ed. Ed.
McMichael, George and Leonard, S. James. UK, London: Longman, 2010. Print.
Quinn, James and Baldessarini, Ross. ‘The Birth-Mark’: A Deathmark. Short Story Criticism. Hartford Studies in Literature 13.2 (1981): p91-98. Print.
Rosenberg, Liz. ‘The Best That Earth Could Offer’: ‘The Birth-Mark,’ A Newlywed’s Story. Studies in Short Fiction 30.2 (Spring 1993): p145-151. Print.
Weinstein, Cindy. The Invisible Hand Made Visible: “The Birth-Mark”. Nineteenth-Century Literature , Vol. 48, No. 1 (1993), pp. 44-73. University of California Press. Print.
Youra, Steven. ‘The Fatal Hand’: A Sign of Confusion in Hawthorne’s ‘The Birth-Mark.’ American Transcendental Quarterly.60 (1986): p43-51. Print.