Literary Analysis The Birthmark by Nathanial Hawthorne
“Let the attempt be made, at whatever risk. The danger is nothing to me … while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust, life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. (Hawthorne, 2016) This passage is one of the most telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s main character in The Birthmark, Aylmer, a chemical scientist, and a perfectionist.
In this thrilling yet bleak short story, Hawthorne brings to life the boldness and snobbishness in his character, Aylmer. It is noted that in this tale, Hawthorne weaves a detailed and complex argument that The Birth-Mark’ stands as an alchemic allegory, explaining that the relationship between the characters exemplifies a somewhat explosive chemical reaction (Howard, 2012).
According to Bibligraphy.com, in 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Massachusetts. Because of the time period, Puritans was a major influence (Editors, 2014). Hawthorne is thought to be in the genre of American Romanticist whose style was swayed by Henry James, William Faulkner, and Herman Melville (Nowatzki, 2010). In his writing, Hawthorne seeks to advance and enlighten his subjects who, in his stories, are living within the normal society, are somehow separated from the norm. This is by situations often beyond their control. Hawthorne tends to use continuing themes in his writing style, such as alienation, guilt, pride treated as evil, and allegory (Howard, 2012).
“The Birthmark,” tells the story of scientist Aylmer who marries a beautiful woman, the woman of his dreams, Georgina. He loves her and sees her be perfect until he notices a birthmark on her face. Their marriage was seemingly perfect until that time, but soon after, the birthmark takes over his emotions and his mind. The blemish was in the center of his wife’s cheek, crimson red, and was shaped like a miniature hand. Georgina’s past lovers felt completely different than her husband; they loved her birthmark. Howard notes that her exes often said that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. (Howard, 2012) These men would have done anything to have the same woman whose husband couldn’t stand the sight of her because of this imperfection (Pearson, et al, 2013).
The mark was symbolic. Something so innocent which caused her murder. The blemish disappeared when she blushed red, the color of the mark. However, as her blush faded, the mark came back even stronger, appearing as though it were a crimson stain upon the snow, which tended to frighten Aylmer in its imperfection. He feels the birthmark ruins her and their relationship, and he gets so completely obsessed that he begins to dream of removing the imperfection, the birthmark. He cuts so deeply in his dreams that the blemish ends up in her heart. This shows how Aylmer, and in turn Hawthorne, believe that imperfection goes deeper then what is seen on the outside.
Howard (2012) shares that the tie between the blemish and Georgina is a reference to the association between the blemish and the life that Georgina led. With the mark leading to her heart makes it appear that Aylmer loves Georgina. However, Aylmer is out of control, cold and calculating, with an evil heart. The scientist is unrealistically determined, to return his wife to a perfect state. He is finally able to, through his knowledge of science, rid his wife of the blemish. Yet, removing that was a part of her caused her to die. So, it is, in the end, that Aylmer’s pride finally destroys beautiful Georgina who would have loved him for his entire life.
Howard (2012) likens Aylmer to Jekyll and Hyde, a gothic novel about another scientist who goes irrational, in that the ending of both stories represent the same pattern: death at the hands of a cruel, miscalculating science. Analysts discuss Aylmer’s extreme egotistic behavior and attitude. This, in which, can be seen from his constant use of the personal pronouns like I, me, and mine; demonstrating to the reader that all emphasis is on himself. He wants all attention, focus, and rewards to be focused on him, and this makes him feel powerful and successful. In The Birthmark, as well as other works by Hawthorne, the author is genuinely concerned about why people respond to events in certain ways and begs the question of what the moral nature is, as well as the consequences of such behavior, both on themselves and on those who are close to them. The Birthmark also sheds light on the potential fear of men regarding the fundamental differences between men’s and women’s bodies, and the perfection that is desired from a husband of a wife (Howard, 2012).
“The Birthmark,” strives to be a romance and encourages the reader’s compassion, but it also seeks to teach a few lessons, such as pride is a necessary thing in achieving success in a task, however, if pride is too extensive, it can be detrimental in scientific and medical research (Howard, 2012). Additionally, it should be gathered by the reader that medical professionals must be able to let go of a little of their analytical qualities and weave in a bit of empathy into their intellect. Finally, the readers are encouraged to never forget that it is rarely a good idea for medical professionals, scientists, and doctors to treat anyone who is close to them, like family and spouses, and most importantly, physicians are to never do any harm to patients (Pearson, 2013).
The problem, in the end, with Aylmer, was his pride and his obsessive need for perfection, not only in himself but in those around him. Perhaps if Georgina had not been so flawless in every other respect, Aylmer could have dealt with the blemish. Instead, the scientist felt that the blemish was stealing perfection from her, and by that, stealing perfection from himself. The defect, which was minimal and appreciated by other men, grew more and more menacing to him until he, subconsciously, perhaps, would rather not have Georgina at all than to have her flawed.
Perfection In Story The Birthmark
Kim Kardashian, Belcalis Almanzar (Cardi B), and Onika Tanya Maraj (Nicki Minaj) are all women people look to for the ideal thought of perfection. Each of these women has an hourglass figure, clear skin, and a flat stomach. It’s easy for people to belittle themselves when compared to women like this because people are taught to believe that they are the epitome of perfection.
These women were not born the way they look now though, each one of the women named has surgical work done on them to reach the perfect state they’re at now. In the short story The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a scientist named Aylmer believed perfection was attainable with help from science, but when he actually reaches perfection by removing, his wife, Georgina’s birthmark he pays the cost with her life. Georgina’s death is proof that if one tries to reach for perfection by changing any physical feature, they are actually killing what makes them, them.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American novelist and short story writer who was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His fiction works are mostly categorized as dark romanticism. His themes often center on the inherent evil and sin of humanity, and most of the time his work has moral messages and deep psychological complexity. Hawthorne’s short story The Birthmark was written in the year 1843. The story has a total of two main characters and one supporting character. Aylmer is a scientist who has put a hold on his career and life of experiments to marry Georgiana. Georgina was described as physically gorgeous, except for a small hand-shaped birthmark on her left cheek. Both are in love and get married, but Aylmer becomes unnaturally obsessed with the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek. Aylmer was so obsessed it got to the point where he had dreams of cutting her birthmark off. Georgiana found out that her husband was appalled by her birthmark, so she decided that she would risk her life having the birthmark removed from her cheek if it meant that Aylmer’s disgust that overruns him when he sees her would disappear as well.
The next day, Aylmer decides to take Georgiana where he has his laboratory. This is where the third character is introduced, Aminidab, Aylmer’s assistant. Aminidab is characterized as a hulking and somewhat dirty man, he is an able helper but disaproves of Aylmer’s desire to erase Georgiana’s birthmark. Aminadab represents the physical nature of man and his disapproval and disgust represent sort of a strong incrimination on Aylmer. Aylmer glances at his wife casually but can’t help but shudder violently at seeing her imperfection, he was determined to fix her. After a while of conversation between the two, Georgiana agrees to drink a potion Aylmer created for her despite his warning that it might be dangerous. Aylmer brings a newly created potion which he tests on a plant nearby causing it to rejuvenate with only a few drops. Georgina then drinks the potion and quickly falls asleep. Aylmer watches the birthmark fade little by little, which brings him inner happiness. Once it is nearly gone, Georgiana wakes up and is pleased to see the results. However, the potion had side effects, and Georgiana soon tells her husband that she is dying. Once the birthmark fades completely, Georgiana dies along with it.
Beauty, Horror and Morality in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic work, “The Birth-mark”, the central character, Aylmer, expresses his disgust with the mark’s ability to diminish his wife’s aesthetic beauty, as well as betray her mortal tendency to sin. The hand on Georgiana’s cheek proves to represent the “fatal flaw of humanity … to imply that they are temporary and finite” (2205). This obsession reveals his deep fear of death and mortality. He mistakenly believes that if he is able to rid his wife of the blemish, he will sever the tie between his wife and her mortality, creating the perfect woman. Hawthorne utilizes allusions, diction and imagery to explore the divisions of beauty and horror in an attempt to highlight Aylmer’s aspiration to reform Georgiana into a beautiful work of art that transcends her own mortality.
The diction exercised in the Eve of Powers reference reveals Aylmer’s compulsion to transform Georgiana into a flawless sculpture while simultaneously purifying her of her mortality. Furthermore, Hawthorne’s reference to the Eve of Powers reveals Aylmer’s obsession with the purity and whiteness of marble. The language of Hawthorne’s allusion defines Aylmer’s irrational view of perfect beauty. By equating Georgiana’s birthmark with a “stain” on the “purest statuary marble”, he is drawing attention to the impurity the mark suggests (Hawthorne 2205). While some would consider this irregularity as beautiful, Aylmer perceives it as horrific. The presence of these blue veins would humanize the statue of Eve to the point where it appeared as a monstrosity. This reflects Aylmer’s view of how the birthmark reveals Georgiana’s mortality and, in turn, diminishes her beauty. The language of the work establishes the mark as a problem that Aylmer yearns to solve. By continuously referring to the mark as “singular”, he is reaffirming that this single imperfection is so “deeply interwoven” that it ruins “the texture and substance of her face” (Hawthorne 2204). This symbolizes that flaws and mortality are so deeply connected to humanity that it is impossible to separate the two. While Aylmer should have been alerted to this and abandoned his work, his mania causes him to overlook the obstacle, ultimately extinguishing Georgiana’s existence.
The marble metaphor established in the quotation about the Eve of Powers is repeated in the allusion to Pygmalion, where Hawthorne employs a mirrored structure in order to juxtapose the motives and results of Pygmalion and Aylmer’s endeavors. Pygmalion’s love inspires a god to grant life to his beautiful marble statue of the ideally beautiful woman. Inversely, Aylmer’s disdain for the birthmark leads him to transform his wife from a beautiful woman into a piece of art with statue-like perfection, extinguishing her life. While the sculptor chisels marble to produce the perfect woman, Aylmer hopes to employ science in order to overcome his wife’s defects. In his quest to make Georgiana immortal, he unwittingly confirms her transience. The disgust Aylmer feels causes Georgiana to fade “into a deathlike paleness” that makes “the Crimson Hand” stand out “like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble” (Hawthorne 2206). The repeated fixation with a blemish on pure, white marble solidifies the idea that Aylmer believes that Georgiana’s otherwise untainted complexion and morality are marred by the birthmark. By comparing himself to Pygmalion, he is expressing confidence that he shares the sculptor’s ability to create the perfect woman. He rivals that his joy will be greater than “Even Pygmalion, when his sculpted woman assumed life” (Hawthorne 2207). Here, Aylmer is explicitly expressing his desire to transform Georgiana into a statue-like representation of perfection. What he does not consider is that she is not an empty shell like the marble used by Pygmalion. Where Pygmalion created life, Aylmer only succeeds in destroying it. While Aylmer succeeds in removing the mark that ties his wife to her mortality, his mistake also proves that such a flaw is necessary for life.
The reoccurring use of color imagery, specifically red and white, illuminates the horror Aylmer feels regarding the imperfection on Georgiana’s appearance and purity. Hawthorne uncovers this revulsion by constantly comparing Georgiana and the mark to a beautiful white object marred by a red defect. The redness of the birthmark, as well as the imagery used to describe it, symbolizes Georgiana’s energy and passion. The white object spoiled by the defect literally points to the imperfect complexion; however, it symbolically points to Aylmer’s need to control his wife and strip her of this power. The idea of the mark as a stain upon Georgiana’s virtuousness is repeated while forming the gruesome imagery of a “crimson stain upon the snow” (Hawthorne 2205). The image of red blood spreading on white snow indicates a loss of vitality and life. Snow is often used to stand for innocence and purity; therefore, the mark on Georgiana’s check is selected by Aylmer to signify his wife’s “liability to sin” (Hawthorne 2205). Sinning is part of mortality; therefore, if the mark represents Georgiana’s mortality then it must also embody her tendency to sin. Aylmer’s open abhorrence to the mark forces Georgiana to alter her self-perception. She begins seeing herself as “pale as a white rose” spoiled by the “crimson birth-mark” (Hawthorne 2210). This reflects Aylmer’s mindset that the mark disrupts the delicacy of her complexion, just as a red stamp would serve as a blight on a colorless rose. The language utilized to create this imagery” juxtaposes the allure felt by the narrator with the horror felt by Aylmer, demonstrated through the transition of “the rosiest beauty” into “a pale ghost” (Hawthorne 2210). Additionally, white is often employed to highlight the properties of transfiguration. This, of course, relates to Aylmer’s need to transform his wife into his vision of the perfect woman. Furthermore, When Georgiana blushes, the two colors are blended and her complexion causes the mark to become less defined. The act of blushing implies blood rushing to her face, which betrays her mortality. This serves as the narrator’s reminder that the boundary between her beauty and her flaw is undefined.
Hawthorne utilizes literary devices to reveal Aylmer’s obsession with transforming Georgiana into a statue in order to restore her beauty and absolve her of her mortality. Aylmer’s own mortality is likely responsible for his fascination with the subject. While he believes Georgiana’s physical flaw is an example of her mortality, his failures serve as a reminder of his.
What is Happiness Worth?: “The Birthmark” and “Wakefield”
Happiness is an ideal emotion that everyone wants to experience and will go to desperate measures to achieve. If one wants to explore the facets of how important happiness is for people to achieve, they will have to put themselves in the shoes of the main characters throughout the main characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories “The Birthmark” and “Wakefield.” The stories help people understand that the need for happiness is essential, but that actually achieving that happiness in real life is much harder to obtain unless one actively pursues it. The main characters in the stories, Aylmer and Wakefield, believe that self-inflicted disappointment, personal consequence, and risk of loss are worth it if the end result is happiness.
Aylmer believes that perfection is the only thing that can make him happy, so he highlights the birthmark on his wife, Georgiana, as an object of his disappointment that must be removed in order to make her perfect. He says that Georgiana “…Came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne 2). The imperfect birthmark clouds Aylmer’s mind with so much disappointment that he believes his happiness can only result from its removal. His disappointment leads him to look at his wife as more of an object that he wants to improve rather than someone he genuinely cares about. Aylmer starts to believe that the birthmark is a sign of evil, “…Causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight” (Hawthorne 3). He is allowing his disappointment to morph into a fear that puts division in his marital relationship and closes off his mind to the true beauty that his wife embodies. The aspect of induced disappointment affects the lengths people will go to so they can be happy.
The need to remedy disappointment Aylmer experiences is also apparent in how Wakefield believes that moving away from home to observe his wife’s actions will cure his disappointment of not knowing whether or not she is faithful. Wakefield worries that if his wife suspected him dead or that he left her, “…Thou wouldst be woefully conscious of a change in thy true wife forever after” (Hawthorne 3). He is disappointed by his pessimistic outlook on what he thinks will happen while he is gone. His whole purpose for leaving his home is to alleviate his disappointment and become happy. While Wakefield is gone, he watches his wife to see how she “…Will endure her widowhood of a week…” (Hawthorne 3). Hawthorne creates doubt in Wakefield’s mind and causes him to go on the archetypal Task to test his wife’s faithfulness to their marriage and create happiness for himself. The disappointment he experiences originates from him not knowing his wife’s level of dedication and the only way he figures he can be happy is through leaving and studying her. As seen, happiness is worth looking for things that are disappointing in order to correct them and become happy, however, happiness is also worth the personal consequences that may arise as a result of the efforts to make oneself happy.
Aylmer in “The Birthmark” weighs the possibility of his happiness as more important than the consequences he might experience of weakening his relationship with his wife as a result of him only searching for his happiness and not hers. When talking about the relationship between Aylmer and Georgiana, the story says that Aylmer may care about his wife’s love, but that “…It could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own” (Hawthorne 1). This perspective of the motivation of Aylmer to remove the birthmark makes it seem as if he is treating Georgiana as more of a science experiment rather that acting out of genuine care and concern. His attitude toward the birthmark exhibits the ideal of Nature vs. Mechanistic World because his intentions are to scientifically modify his wife to make her more appealing to him. Aylmer realizes that he did not know how important the removal of the birthmark was to him and the “…Lengths which he might find in his heart to go for the sake of giving himself peace” (Hawthorne 4). The hamartia of selfishness that Aylmer has rears its ugly head when the reader can see that he wants to remove the birthmark more for personal content rather than out of concern for his wife’s beauty. The consequence that Aylmer experiences is that the bond of his love with Georgiana weakens, and for him, turns into more of a superficial relationship to make himself happy.
The superficiality of Aylmer’s marital relationship is present in Wakefield’s long-term absence from his wife to investigate her loyalty, resulting in him experiencing the consequence of being alienated from society as a whole. While Wakefield walks, he disguises himself and walks bent over with his face down, “…As if unwilling to display his full front to the world” (Hawthorne 5). As a result of Wakefield shutting out the outside world and his reclusion from his personal life, he becomes the archetypal Outcast because he is forgotten and unnoticed by society. This feeling of insignificance governs the temperament of him and makes it more appealing to remain cut-off and antisocial than trying to insert himself back into people’s recognition. In his solitude, Wakefield managed to “…Give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead” (Hawthorne 6). He reaches the point where he is dead to the world because of his self-exile from it. The consequences that are experienced are worth the pursuit for happiness, however, the possibility of the loss of something important to the characters is a much more serious prospect that is weighed-out as being less important than finding happiness.
Aylmer’s dedication to his personal aim of achieving happiness by removing his wife’s birthmark goes awry when she dies from the procedures she underwent. After the birthmark was removed and Aylmer had begun to celebrate over his perfect wife, Georgiana announced she was dying, shattering Aylmer’s happiness when “…The parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight” (Hawthorne 14). The risk of harm being done to Georgiana was dismissed and outweighed by the happiness Aylmer wanted to have and his unfailing confidence in scientific experimentation. He let his hubris shroud his fear of Georgiana’s well-being and the situational irony of her death after his successful procedure was not something he was prepared for. Georgiana’s death was too much for him to bear and “…He failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of the time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present” (Hawthorne 14). Aylmer is caught in so much disbelief and grief for what he caused that he has no hope for his future. The risk of Aylmer losing Georgiana was not as important as his happiness, but his plans to be forever happy backfired when what he deemed impossible became reality.
Aylmer’s plans to be happy backfired severely, however, in Wakefield’s case he lost 20 years of his life but decided it was more important to have this happen than risk sadness resulting from the possibility of his wife not being faithful. Even though Wakefield is re-united with his wife, it is possible that he could have, “…By stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever” (Hawthorne 7). As great as it was that after 20 years, Wakefield’s hopes were confirmed and his happiness was achieved, things could have gone in the polar opposite direction over that same amount of time. Wakefield was lucky that whenever he extended the time period of his wife’s test, she did not give up hop on him and find someone else to marry. Wakefield commits that “He will not go back until she be frightened half to death” (Hawthorne 4). This is a risky promise by Wakefield because he does not know how long this test will extend for or how strong his wife’s willpower to resist finding someone else to marry. The component of loss, which was evident in both stories, can play a huge role in whether or not a person achieves happiness.
A search for happiness that begins with recognizing disappointment and results in loss and personal consequence is still deemed as being worth the risk and strife that people may undergo. The characters Aylmer and Wakefield from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “Wakefield” are perfect exhibitions of this viewpoint. Although the search for happiness may seem trivial and simple, many people undergo that search while enduring much sadness.
Alchemy and Morality in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’?
In the seventeenth century, genuine scientific breakthroughs were ideals of the future. The reality was alchemy, an extremely basic science in which procedures were practically guesswork. It is this sense of the unknown that induces both fear and questions of morality in Hawthorne’s science fiction. The short stories ‘The Birthmark’ and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ both include alchemists, bringing a Frankenstein-esque horror as to the possibilities and lengths the scientists will go to in order to achieve progress. The two scientists, Rappaccini and Aylmer, are bound together in an almost religious, Promethean quest to reach a higher knowledge, a higher spiritual being than that of mere mortals. Through reaching for this spiritual ideal, concepts of morality are complicated further. It is here necessary to consider whether if one is dedicated to reaching a higher knowledge, he is therefore above mankind and exempt from mortal laws of morality.
The practice of alchemy not only had no written definition, but its process and methodology were also unknown. The danger of exploring the unexplored is heightened by the use of people as subjects. Both endings for the heroines in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’ culminate in death, each death caused by a scientist’s inability to predict a chemical’s reaction within the human body. The only certainty present in the alchemy is the result. Rappaccini and Aylmer, the two alchemists in the mentioned short stories, are certain of the physical change they are striving to achieve and so continue until they reach this ideal conclusion, or until their subjects die. Perhaps these scientists are only labelled ‘scientists’ by the modern definition due to their experimentation with materials. The characters can, arguably, be categorized more accurately as pseudo-scientists. They have a claim to science in their knowledge, yet it is based on myth and the unknown, meaning their that method is not specifically scientific.
Each scientist can also be described according to the myth of the ‘mad scientist’. In literature, this character was present before Hawthorne. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels present versions of the ‘mad scientist’, who strives towards Promethean knowledge that usually resides beyond knowledge discoverable on earth. The experiments and their physical results within Hawthorne’s short stories are important. However, the moral consequences of the procedures are more important than the scientific results, and the ‘mad scientists’ are presented as figures to judge according to a nineteenth century morality. There is also an alignment between nineteenth century context and Hawthorne’s fictional progression of science. The industrial revolution began in 1760; therefore, Hawthorne’s fiction published in the 1830s onwards encounters a world that is still attempting to emerge from the practices of medieval science. Accessibility, however slight, to scientific knowledge allows Hawthorne’s characters in his nineteenth century fiction to develop beyond the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype to attain a measure of reason. The ‘mad scientist’ therefore remains a character that belongs to the past, uneducated in modern, scientific techniques, but insatiable in a desire to progress towards the future.
Is the ‘mad scientist’, therefore responsible for all sin in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’? The creator, Rappaccini, and his creation, Beatrice, both arguably harbor evil. The creator remains the most obvious source of evil, as his mind imagines the experiment, and his hands conduct it. However, he cannot be wholly blamed when practicing alchemy, as the results are unknown. The Bible states ‘the way of the wicked is as darkness; he knoweth not at what he stumbleth.’ If one is blind to what ‘he stumbleth’ upon during the process, the obstacle cannot be decided as good or bad. Moral judgement can therefore only occur once the experiment emerges from the ‘darkness’ to a definitive result. This darkness is presented as multifaceted, while the plot focuses on the experiment’s process. It can either serve as a temporary blindness that will lead into to a progressive, unexplored territory, or exist as an omen of inevitable tragedy. Rappaccini is only branded as a ‘mad’ and evil scientist because his experiment ends in death. If he had created an elixir beneficial to medicine, he would transcend the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype and emerge instead as a pioneer.
Thus far, the responsibility of the scientists has been explored. Hawthorne also examines their capabilities as well. The scientist’s practice does not require love to succeed, and it is examined how this fact influences relationships that undoubtedly do require love. Hawthorne wrote in an 1840 letter to Sophia Peabody, his future wife: ‘we are but shadows […] till the heart is touched.’ Hawthorne therefore saw a person without love as incomplete, a mere ‘shadow.’ The heart, representative of emotion, and the head, representative of measured and reasonable thought, are presented as different but not completely antithetical. A body needs both a heart and a brain to function, therefore a whole being is not a combination, but a balance of these two. Hawthorne’s scientists are imbalanced, as they focus on mind over emotion. In ‘The Birthmark’ Aylmer seeks love by washing the ‘stains of acids from his fingers and [persuading] a beautiful woman to become his wife.’ A lack of science is required in the initial courtship, suggesting that emotion and the ‘heart’ must temporarily overpower the reasonable ‘mind’ to succeed. It is ominous that, as Aylmer ‘stains’ his fingers once more, this balance is again disturbed, and his heart loses the ability to love. Yet, in this initial courtship, love is only mentioned once. Instead, he must persuade a woman to marry him, an action that is performed by the mind, not the heart. Sherwood R. Price argues that Hawthorne explores the ‘consequences of divorcing either reason from emotion or emotion from reason’.  This is not wholly accurate, as Hawthorne never implies such an antithesis as that reason is completely divorced from emotion, or vice versa. At the beginning, Aylmer must temporarily forsake science for love, yet it leaves ‘stains’ on his fingers. This situation suggests an inability to engage with a natural instinct of love for another through being so deeply influenced by alchemy, so that moral consequences – even to those he loves – are irrelevant.
However, lacking this natural instinct to love is perhaps necessary to scientific achievement in Hawthorne’s fiction. Dependent on physical chemistry, achievement in alchemy requires a human body as a subject. Rappaccini’s progress is only able to continue through the dedication of his life and the sacrifice of those around him. Edward H. Rosenberry suggests that ‘Rappaccini has no physical offspring, only spiritual or intellectual.’ This is accurate on a metaphorical level, as the poison in Beatrice’s blood represents his scientific achievement. Yet, he does possess her also as a ‘physical’ specimen, necessary to the experiment. He does not, however, regard her as ‘offspring,’ only allowing an end to her solitude at the price of Giovanni Guasconti, the naïve student captivated by Beatrice, also becoming a subject. In imprisoning Giovanni as the next generation, Rappaccini promotes the idea that science requires, literally, a life to thrive. Aylmer and Rappaccini must see their kin as mere subjects in order to scientifically progress, yet this outlook is complicated by their drive, which is seemingly emotional. They wish to elevate their subjects to a higher position of eternal perfection. Hawthorne’s scientists are therefore punished for their choice to forsake emotion.
While Hawthorne’s scientists are indeed guilty of feeling little emotion, he also presents characters such as the rash, young Giovanni in ‘The Birthmark’ who feel too intensely, and are equally guilty. A life without love is empty, yet an existence governed entirely by emotion leaves the person, arguably, vulnerable. In response to Beatrice, Giovanni feels ‘a wild offspring of both love and horror’. As a sensitive man with the ability to feel, Giovanni should exist as the antithesis to Rappaccini. Yet, he cannot love fully either. His emotion is indefinable, and is instead a ‘wild offspring,’ suggesting that a definition has not yet been developed in the English language. Perhaps this implies an inability to react to a phenomenon he has never yet encountered. As ‘both love and horror’ exist as emotions, they should be based entirely on how one feels. Giovanni’s love instead stems from a morbid fascination, a sensation that originates in the mind. Even in expressing admiration, Giovanni still does not possess a genuine motive to save Beatrice from her own Father. Giovanni is perhaps condemned further for not being able to control his ‘wild’ emotion. His scientific pursuit aligns him with the heartless Rappaccini, and begins to balance his excess of emotion. If he were able to control his emotions, he could have remained detached from Beatrice from the beginning. As Hawthorne accuses men of being too measured, or too emotional, he suggests that residing at either end of the spectrum is limiting and has negative consequences.
Thus far, Hawthorne’s seventeenth-century scientists have been examined in terms of moral action and its consequence. Hawthorne also allows the reader to witness the motives behind their actions, allowing for a further examination of character without judging wholly their outward behavior. The scientist’s pursuit of science resembles a Faustian urge for knowledge. Whilst Faustus signs his soul to Mephistopheles in blood, Aylmer and Rappaccini agree to the same pact without symbolic ritual. In their pursuit for science, Hawthorne’s scientists perhaps reach beyond this Faustian urge. Rappaccini does not need a devil’s permission to motivate his cause, and would ‘sacrifice human life […] for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed’ of knowledge. Rappaccini is undoubtedly Faustian in what he is willing to ‘sacrifice’ for knowledge, suggesting that he holds scientific achievement in higher regard than human life. This fact is emphasized by placing a momentous concept – human life – syntactically close to a physical, extremely small concept, a mustard seed. Like Rappaccini’s garden, this idea creates walls around him so that his scientific pursuits are separated from human life. The value of the ‘mustard-seed’ as representative of knowledge depends on perspective. Baglioni, the philosopher who speaks this statement, disagrees. To him, sacrificing human life in pursuit of progress is pointless. To Rappaccini, this ‘grain’ could be the key to his experiment, and worth countless human lives.
As established, Rappaccini and Aylmer are guilty of pursuing a Faustian, higher knowledge. Dr Faustus is granted knowledge by the devil, suggesting perhaps that to reach this level of knowledge, one must go beyond an earthly realm to either heaven or hell. In a letter to Sophia Peabody, Hawthorne asks: ‘What delusion can be more lamentable […] than to mistake the physical and material for the spiritual?’  The mistake of Hawthorne’s scientists is perhaps not in their actions, but in their motivational ‘delusion’ that dictates that they can ascend to a higher knowledge, and still remain in mortal form. Specifically, Rappaccini’s mistake is assuming a God-like position in deciding whom he can ‘sacrifice’ for his cause, when he has neither the power nor authority to maintain a celestial position as a mortal. Taylor Stoehr argues that Hawthorne’s characters are punished for remaining in their imaginations, and not the real world. They are however, not completely punished for these delusions. Instead, they are punished for not translating these ‘delusions’ in to a more reasonable version in reality. Their imaginations stretch too far, and mistake a ‘physical’ reality as capable of realizing ‘spiritual’ delusions. In attempting to achieve their fantasies, the scientists reach to realms such as heaven and hell that cannot support physical human forms, and their experiments inevitably end in death.
Hawthorne’s fiction explores alchemy and physical chemistry. These pursuits’ processes, results, and consequences all reside in the physical. However, the moral choices which his characters encounter are what subsequently affect the physical realm that he focuses on. The use of alchemy may be detrimental, but the root of evil he examines extends ‘monster-like, out of the caverns of [the] heart.’
Edward H. Rosenberry, ‘Allegory of Science’, American Literature (Duke University Press, 1960), JSTOR
Selected Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne ed. by Joel Myerson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002)
Sherwood R. Price ‘The heart, the head, and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The New England Quarterly (The New England Quarterly Inc., 1954), JSTOR,
Taylor Stoehr, Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists: Pseudoscience and Social Science in Nineteenth Century Life and Letters (Hamden: Archon, 1978)
Science turns into Catastrophe
It is hard to believe that there was a time even before the Internet, seeing how it is used so frequently. As technology started to become more popular, no one considered the ramifications of identity theft. The main source of these crimes are advertising companies. Consumers still question if there is a possibility of being victimized when they input their personal data in websites. Science is an unpredictable thing, but humans have a big impact on how events will take place. In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a scientist created an animal-like-human who becomes a monster due to the scientist, his family, and other humans who interact with it. In “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a scientist ruins the life of his wife because he tries to remove an imperfection upon her face. Similarly, these works display how humans use science to create these monsters. Both science and literature show that new discoveries for the benefit of humans, such as the Internet, end up developing into a harmful catastrophes.
Science ends up becoming overpowering and taking control of its environment. Joseph Mann states, “People’s fear of becoming victims to such identity theft has made them reluctant to enter credit card numbers to make online purchases” (Mann 1). Identity theft is inducing fear into users, causing the technology to have control over the consumers’ choices. Because of this fear, people are reluctant to make online purchases.
The same claim is present in both of the literature texts. In Frankenstein, the creature declares to Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master” (Shelley 166). Although Frankenstein creates this monster, it gains in strength and power and takes control of his creator’s choices. In “The Birthmark” Hawthorne similarly states, “There is no taint of imperfection on thy spirit. Thy sensible frame, too, shall soon be all perfect” (Hawthorne 8). Aylmer believes his wife’s spirit is perfect, but not her physical aspect. This leads him to be driven by science and remove the imperfection.
These monsters, due to science, have unintentional results that lead to horrific events. Callan thus states, “A program you never wanted squats in your computer’s hard drive, sending personal information to a company” (Callan 2). The technology intended to benefit users ends up taking private information, sometimes without users’ consent. For example, the VX2 program is intended to be advertisement protection, but instead it sneaks into softwares, giving companies an entry to commit identity theft.
Furthermore, Frankenstein and “The Birthmark” also back up the previous argument. Victor Frankenstein ponders, “If I returned, it was to be sacrificed, or to see those whom I most loved die under the grasp of a dæmon whom I had myself created” (Shelley 168). Frankenstein creates a human-like being, but being viewed as a monster, he is rejected from society. Consequently, this greed and anger causes the Creature to unleash havoc onto his surroundings. Moreover, in “The Birthmark” Georgiana tells Aylmer, “Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer. Aylmer… I am dying” (Hawthorne 9). Despite Aylmer using science to perfect his wife, he unintentionally causes her to die.
The scientists try to improve something with which did not need to be interfered. Due to this, Callan states, “Many companies [offer] freeware attach-on to their software willy-nilly… not knowing or caring what this software will do to its users” (Callan 3). This quote describes how companies try to improve software by adding freeware, a program which helps keep ads away from users’ browsers. These freeware programs protect you from most advertisement but not from companies taking consumers’ personal data. For this reason, the software would be better off without it.
Literature goes hand-in-hand with science to prove this claim about scientists improving something that did not need improving. By the same token, Frankenstein states, “But this discovery was so great and so overwhelming that all the steps by which I had programmed led to it were obliterate, and I beheld only the result” (Shelley 50). Victor Frankenstein believes his creation will be a great animal, even though he messes with nature and creates a horrendous creature. Comparatively, in “The Birthmark” Aylmer says, “Has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed” (Hawthorne 1). The scientist is compelled to remove the birthmark from his wife to create a perfect being; although it did not need interfering.
As shown through science and literature, scientist add and invent new creations to help mankind, but they have a chance of turning into a dangerous weapon. These unintentional results are caused by scientists interfering with matters that do not necessarily need to change. Also this overwhelming science is powerful enough to control its environment. Aylmer and Frankenstein both avoid the fault of their actions, bringing death into their lives. Although those characters do not face the same problems of identity theft, the main idea is relevant. In conclusion, “…the shape of our future will be determined by how we understand, and ultimately how we control or regulate, the threats to this freedom that we face today” (Garfinkel 4).