Nature vs. Science in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”
The short story “The Birthmark” was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1843. During this period of history, enormous progress was being made in science and technology, which led to innovative and groundbreaking discoveries and opened the doors to many new branches of scientific research. One scientist, Aylmer, the main character in Hawthorne’s short story, attempts to take his experimental research to the limit of science in an endeavour to control Nature and effectively “make new worlds for himself” (396). Aylmer becomes deeply enthralled in a battle in which science opposes Nature to gain “ultimate control over Nature” (396).
Aylmer desperately tries to create a world of perfection in his imperfect world. As he engages in the battle of science versus Nature, he loses the one thing his love of science can rival, his wife, Georgiana. Aylmer lives and works in an era in which science is relatively new and misunderstood. Science is described in this story as “mystical” (396) and “magical” (402), proving that the work Aylmer was doing was considered to be a kind of magic or voodoo by those people with no scientific education. Yet, early on in the story, the reader discovers that Aylmer has been impregnated by the idea that ultimate perfection, in every aspect, is attainable through science.
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This becomes the driving force behind Aylmer’s motives as he searches for a solution to “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions” (398). With his marriage to Georgiana, this driving force of perfection becomes an obsession that takes over his mind. Aylmer loved Georgiana deeply, but he could not tolerate her single imperfection. Georgiana was “nearly perfect from the hand of Nature” (397), but on her “left cheek, there was a single mark, deeply interwoven…[which] bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size” (397).
This tiny, little birthmark was so revolting to Aylmer that he refused to kiss her on the cheek, the one with the birthmark, or even look at it in daylight (400). It drove Aylmer mad that his wife was so close to perfection, and it became his mission to formulate a concoction to remove the birthmark leaving his wife as the single most perfect being ever created. Georgiana did not initially feel the same sense of shame towards the birthmark as Aylmer did. On the contrary, as she told Aylmer, the birthmark often increased a man’s admiration for her (397). However, after years of marriage to Aylmer, she too learned to hate the wretched mark as much as he did.
Georgiana noticed Aylmer’s reaction of disgust every time he laid eyes upon her cheek, and she “soon learned to shudder at his gaze” (398). Georgiana did not want to be Aylmer’s “object of horror and disgust” (399), so she confronts him about using his scientific expertise to remove the blemish placed upon her face by Nature. Aylmer is delighted when he learns that his wife wants to be rid of the birthmark. Thus, he finally gets an opportunity to use his scientific understanding to overcome the power of Nature. With the help of his assistant Aminadab, Aylmer sets up a boudoir for Georgiana in his lab where he will conduct the experiment.
This is the first time Georgiana has ever crossed the threshold into his laboratory. Aylmer keeps his professional work a secret from his wife but he does show her some of his experiments in which he believes he has conquered the power of Nature. These include beautiful, flawless flowers and a solution with which one can wash freckles right off the skin (403). While waiting for the experiment to commence, Georgiana pokes around in Aylmer’s scientific library and finds a folio that contains notes and observations of every experiment he ever conducted. To her dismay, she discovers “that his splendid successes were almost invariably failures” and “his brightest diamonds were the merest of pebbles” (405).
Aylmer had never successfully proven that science could overpower Nature as he told Georgiana, yet she found herself loving him more than ever. She just had “less dependence on his judgment” (404). Despite being lied to and discovering this disturbing information, Georgiana decided to go through with the experiment in an effort to satisfy her husband, no matter what the risks were. As Aylmer frantically searches for the right combination of compounds to cure his wife, Aminadab informs Aylmer that “if [Georgiana] were [his] wife, [he’d] never part with that birthmark” (401). Aminadab and Aylmer are two characters with contrasting representations.
Aylmer is a learned man and embodies the “spiritual element” (401) of mankind. Aylmer can only be satisfied when he has achieved the heavenly attributes of purity and perfection in everything he does. He cannot appreciate his wife for who she is because his vision is clouded by the superficial imperfection on her cheek. This is why Aylmer becomes so fixated on Georgiana’s birthmark, no matter how small or insignificant it may be. Aminadab, on the other hand, does not have near the education or skill of Aylmer because he personifies “man’s physical nature” (401). He is able to see beyond the trivial imperfections in Georgiana and see the true natural beauty she posses on the inside.
After hours of preparation, Aylmer develops a tonic that will remove Georgiana’s flaw of Nature. He gives Georgiana the drink and observes its effect by her bedside. Instead of being concerned for the safety and well-being of his wife, Aylmer, like a true scientist, writes down observations about his experiment and nothing more. The birthmark immediately begins to diminish in color and after a brief moment of what he thinks is a success, Aylmer discovers that this experiment, just like the others, is a failure. In her dying words, Georgiana tells Aylmer to “not repent that, with so high and pure a feeling, [he has] rejected the best earth could offer” (409).
As a scientist, Aylmer was torn between two opposing forces: Science and Nature. Science, being relatively new and unexplored, seemed to have endless opportunities for Aylmer. He truly believed that through the power of science, he could overcome all the imperfections created by Nature. His wife was so close to perfection that the tiniest imperfection, the birthmark, drove him crazy. In an attempt to create a fictitious world in which everything was flawless, Aylmer lost his wife, the closest thing he had to the perfection. Aylmer, like many people around the world, underestimated the power of Nature. Nature is a force to be left untamed and any attempt by mankind to control it, as history has shown, will often result in disastrous consequences.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Introduction to Literature. Eds. Isobel M. Findlay et al. 4th ed. Scarborough: Nelson, 2001. 396-409.