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“The Birthmark and “The Minister’s Black Veil” Compared Essay

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Updated: Sep 25th, 2021

Aylmer saw Georgiana as an object of perfection, except for the birthmark. This story illustrates his obsession with perfecting what was already to be had. Soon after he married Georgiana, he became bothered with the mark upon her face.

He allowed his fascination with science to become intertwined with his love for Georgiana, Aylmer, “elevat[ed] his wife into a scientific problem to be solved” (Hawthorne, p366). In this way the birthmark seems to be almost mocking his attempts at changing nature, which is representative of Georgiana’s femininity, “Attempting an operation for the removal of the Birthmark. But the deeper the knife went, the deeper sank the hand” (Hawthorne, p 31). This represents the constant struggle for science to overcome nature, for man’s need for control to be satisfied.

For men of science, nature is an enemy, just as Aylmer the birthmark becomes a rival. His hunger for perfection was so great, and it upset him that his wife was perfect in all respects except for the mark upon her cheek. The sign of inconsistent disposition gives us, “fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productionsto implytheir perfection must be wrought by toil and pain” (Hawthorne, p30).

This shows how the birthmark was a way for Nature to put up a fight against science. That perfection is not what Nature intended, and the only way to achieve perfection was not going to be easy. “It is terrible to possess such power or even to dream of possessing it” (Hawthorne, p34). It is almost as though she is speaking for and possibly being one with Nature. She does not wish to rid herself of her imperfection. This is also one way in which her being symbolic of nature and thus creating the suggestion that Nature is feminine. As the story continues, she is more and more swayed by Aylmer’s attempts at the removal. However, nature stands strong and the mark remains.

The struggles between science and nature go back and forth, matching each other in strength throughout the story. It begins when Aylmer (representing science) marries Georgiana (representing science), and the battle for dominance commences.

As he battled with her birthmark, nature would not let it go, and the birthmark remained on her face. “Vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, indescribable earthinessrepresent [ed] man’s physical nature” (Hawthorne, p33). This shows how the birthmark representing Nature, in essence, wins the battle against science, “the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence” (Hawthorne, p40). The Birthmark portrays how although man and science may always try to overcome nature and imperfections, Nature will always win out in the end.

Hawthorne’s, The Birthmark, is a perfect example of the struggle between science and Nature. It represents how man will always try to find something to fix with science, to overcome nature and our natural imperfections. The attribute of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder that Alymer displays are excessive working. Since he is such a perfectionist in his science, it’s obvious that he spends the majority of his time in his lab.

This does not leave much time for a social life. Because Alymer is preoccupied with work, this causes him to be miserly toward others. He does not show respect toward his wife’s wishes as he should. He does not want the birthmark on her face, and she, being the good wife she is, agreed.

It is of particular interest that by the second paragraph the “beautiful woman” whom he has persuaded soon “shocks” him. Not long after their marriage Aylmer notices and directs Georgiana’s attention to a birthmark on her left cheek, which he hesitates “to term a defect or

a beauty.” Undaunted by such ambiguity, he admits that it “shocks” him “as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” Change and chaos assumed a more specific literary nature in “The Birth-mark.” The “fastidious women” who read Georgiana’s birthmark as a “bloody hand” linked it by association with women’s reproductive powers. Obsession of these reproductive powers, following the cultural pattern we have traced, could be taken as a displaced expression of ambivalence about female creativity that, once unleashed, could inspire “disorder.” Along these lines, it is significant that Georgiana’s facial hand publically exhibits writerly characteristics. Perhaps herein lies its obsessive threat.

Alymer was also clearly obsessed with the birthmark. His mind was clouded with thoughts of the mark. It bothered him so deeply he became physically repulsed by the sight of it. Worse than that, he dreamt of the tiny red spot on Georgiana’s face. It even got to the point where Aylmer would only kiss Georgiana’s right cheek. All these “recurrent obsessional thoughts” are signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Alymer was not the only person with a disorder, however. Georgiana suffered from body dysmorphic disorder.

In the loosest interpretations of that definition, Georgiana was afflicted with this disorder. Unfortunately for Georgiana, she developed her disorder because of her husband’s obsession, and her desire to be a good wife. Hawthorne himself reproducing features of a cultural process of mystification that he finds dead in the alchemist’s obsessive behavior. Hawthorne may have biologized and thus disguised his professional anxieties about literary women who, under their publishing success, were threatening to gain (in his mind) the upper hand. This possibility complicates our approach to our recurring question — why the editing? — because Hawthorne himself may, as a member of middle-class culture, have displaced (biologized) the motive.

Hawthorne attempts to show the reader that the Puritan reaction to sin is far too extreme and more importantly, hypocritical. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a story emphasizing the old Biblical saying “let those who have not sinned, cast the first stone. ” The community members are so obsessed with Reverend Hooper’s sin that they do not understand the message he is trying to portray. After years of wearing the black veil, he had to tell the community members to look deeper into the meaning and to start worrying about themselves before worrying about others. Reverend Hooper is ostracized when he wears the black veil.

His status as a leader in the church diminishes and his community ties gradually fall apart. The community is far more concerned with the negative, outward appearance Reverend Hooper is casting over them than they are about his internal struggle with guilt.

The Puritans believe in Backsliding which is the belief that saved believers can become sinners if they fall into temptation. This is in direct contrast to what the community members do in this story. Everyone is more concerned about Reverend Hooper than they are about themselves. They do not pray constantly, instead they gossip. After the black veil is revealed, no one remembers the real reason they are at church, all they care about is the veil. And when the church ends, the members all form little circles and gossip about the Reverend.

The most obvious and prevalent symbol used in this story is the black veil. The veil expresses the guilt felt by Reverend Hooper but also his willingness to take responsibility for his sins. The veil covers most of Hooper’s face so that the community cannot see him and more importantly cannot see his expressions or predict his actions. The interesting part of the veil is that Hooper can see everyone else without being seen himself. With this veil, he takes on a role as an Omniscient person, or all-knowing, a characteristic associated with God.

Ironically though, the community members who place a great deal of respect and emphasis on God, feel as though “the preacher had crept upon them, behind this awful veil, and discovered their hoarded inequity of deed or thought” (Hawthorne 628). Unfortunately, the desire that is felt to be involved in other people’s lives is still present today. We judge those in the news or on the covers of magazines all the time. While Hawthorne’s story made a thought-provoking point, it did not change the behavior of society.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Sixth Edition The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyers Ed. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin 1996 p.306-16.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 2003.

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