The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark is a short story by nineteen century-American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known for his novel The Scarlett Letter. I came across the short story in my 19th century American literature lessons and it has long remained with me although I actually never wrote a review. When I talked about it on my Suggested Halloween Readings post, some of you expressed interest on the story and I thought this would be the perfect time of the year to review it.

So, first of all, The Birthmark is a short story that can be easily read in one sitting. It tells the story of Aylmer, a scientific married to  gorgeous and generous Georgiana whose only flaw is a birthmark on her cheek, as if some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek. Not content with this, Aylmer decides to try to remove it with the help of his assistant.

The whole story has a mad-scientific undertone with Aylmer descending and locking himself into his laboratory to do research on how to remove the small birthmark. The atmosphere is dark and eerie and Hawthorne successfully conveys the idea of wrongness through his studied choice of words and the slow rhythm of the story. As we read, we find ourselves alert at the whole scheme.

Many have described the story as a study on fate and man’s power. Can we change Nature? Or more importantly, should we? Are we morally allowed to do so? Even in medical terms, it posts some ethic questions about experimentation and the patients’ consent. I certainly saw Hawthorne’s intention but completely disagreed with his views on science. However I must admit he and the text belong to the Romantic movement where Nature played a key role in opposition to science, especially during the previous historical period, the Enlightenment.

Some scholarly studies suggest hidden meaning in the characters’ names that predict their endings. You can check a sample of that analysis here although I’ll avoid it on purpose in order to keep this post spoiler-free. I found this study very interesting and completely intentional, not a mere reinterpretation from modern times.

So, The Birthmark, with its eerie atmosphere and the tough questions it posts about morality, ethics and science, makes the perfect Halloween reading. Being a short story, I recommend to read it in one sitting, think about the questions it posts and return to it later on to check our interpretations. If you, like me, are a fan of introspection, you will be delighted with this short story and how it can set your mind to work.

You can download The Birthmark for free here.

6 thoughts on “The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. He’s not an author I’m familiar with but this sounds like a good place to start. Thank you for such an interesting and thoughtful post.

  2. Hello Elena,
    Great summary of this tale. I love your line “the… story has a mad-scientific” tone to it. I’m a big Hawthorne fan and first read this one in my old copy of his “Twice Told Tales.” I also read a great biography of Hawthorne earlier this year by Brenda Wineapple. You should look into that one if you’re interested in learning more about NH. My post about that bio is here http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/hawthorne-a-life-by-brenda-wineapple/ if you’d like to take a look.
    -Jay

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