The fragility of the human psyche and other issues in “The Birth-Mark”
Laden with allegories, dualisms, and symbolism, Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” makes light of a variety of multi-faceted and complex issues, foremost among them those of sexuality and humanity. While the character of Aylmer seems both emotionally and intellectually secure, his obsession with perfection when applied to the subject of his wife Georgiana reveals deeper, more disconcerting stigmas that reflect the insecurity and fragility of the intellectual male psyche, while simultaneously exposing the inescapable and essential quality of imperfection to the scheme of mankind.
The ultimate tragedy of this work is foreshadowed almost immediately from its onset, with the narrator ominously stating how Aylmer
“…had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies, ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to its own” (Hawthorne 645).
This initial description of Aylmer truly depicts him as the ‘man of science’ he is said to be. In stating that Aylmer would be unable to be distracted from science by any ‘second passion,’ Hawthorne reiterates that anything other than his initial passion for natural philosophy would always only be at best of secondary importance. Even when the narrator states that Aylmer’s love for Georgiana may become stronger than his devotion to science, it is concurrently observed that this feat could only be achieved if the two passions joined forces, ‘intertwining’ and ‘uniting strength.’ Each of these depictions of Aylmer’s character reinforce the notion that his identity is essentially inseparable from science and the habituations that are associated with it, therefore laying the groundwork for the eventual exposé of the scientist’s innate insecurities, and subsequently, those of the intellectual population of the male gender.
The dualisms of “The Birth-Mark” reflect a plethora of distinct perspectives on the male psyche, while simultaneously reflecting viewpoints on themes of sexuality. The henchman character of Aminidab serves as the ideal foil to Aylmer, representing all he is not; crude, vapid, and most importantly, masculine. This masculinity allows Aminidab to look past the birth-mark and realize the beauty of Georgiana, stating that “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birth-mark” (Hawthorne 649). Whereas Aylmer is obsessed with the perfection of Georgiana, Aminidab is at peace with the imperfection that the birth-mark represents. This stark dichotomy between Aylmer, the intellectual, and Aminidab, the representative of common man at his most base form, reveals the truly peculiar character that Aylmer is, and provides the basis for the eventual disclosure of his unique sexual predicament. Furthermore, the sharp contrast between the ethereal boudoir and the earthly lab symbolizes multiple other sexual themes. As shown by Georgiana’s take on the dichotomy between the lab and boudoir,
“The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages… The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. The severe and homely simplicity of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement, looked strange, accustomed as Georgiana had become to the fantastic elegance of her boudoir,” (Hawthorne 653)
The potential biblical allusion to heaven and hell becomes clear, with the boudoir, a safe and beatific environment pitted against the ‘oppressive,’ ‘severe,’ nature of the lab. Further, the fact that Aylmer primarily works in the lab and Georgiana stays in the boudoir represents the sexual notion that females, the ‘fragile’ gender, can not handle the demands of an environment such as the lab. This supposition furthers the male-dominant ideal that drives the work, and contributes significantly to the central sexual conflict it revolves around.
The anti-scientific movement was one of the most prevalent sentiments throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with Aylmer’s obsession with the removal of Georgiana’s titular birth-mark serving as a mirror image of this attitude. However, rather than merely attacking the scientific school of thought, Hawthorne uses this work as a personal assault on the psyche and character of the scientist himself. Rationalizing any female criticism of Georgiana’s imperfection by implying jealousy, Hawthorne notes, “Some fastidious persons – but they were exclusively of her her own sex – affirmed that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous” (Hawthorne 646), and justifying male acceptance of the birth-mark by implying infatuation and the common male obsession with the carnal and erotic, stating that
“Masculine observers, if the birth-mark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a flaw” (Hawthorne 646)
Hawthorne effectively singles out the character of Aylmer as a male intellectual that is at odds with the birth-mark, a unique, monstrous hybrid of acceptance and disgust that fits no pre-established concept of coping with imperfection. This idiosyncratic characterization of Aylmer, a man who describes the birth-mark as a “crimson stain upon stain” with almost “fearful distinctness” (Hawthorne 646), establishes the basis for his depiction as a psychologically and emotionally frail being. In his obsession with the imperfection, and in his dangerously desperate attempt to remove the birth-mark, Aylmer reveals a distinctively Freudian perspective on the subject of sexuality. While indeed Aylmer is a man obsessed with achieving a sense of perfection that perhaps even he himself acknowledges to be unattainable, in the case of Georgiana, this desire for perfection doubles as a defense mechanism for his own sexual insecurity. In wanting to remove the birth-mark, despite the risk, despite the near perfection of Georgiana as she was, Aylmer in reality seeks to eradicate the sexuality of his wife that the ‘Crimson Hand’ represents. A deep-seated portion of Aylmer’s conscience hopes that Georgiana will return from their endeavor to remove the birth-mark changed completely, no longer a near perfect challenge to his own intellect and worldliness, and since yet another part of Aylmer knows that perfection is in fact unattainable by way of his previous “mortifying failures” (Hawthorne 650), his sexual confidence is secure in knowing that Georgiana will not, cannot, return flawless. However, while ultimately secure in his dominance of the female sex, Aylmer’s trifling necessity to himself be superior reveals the concerning nature of his own inherent sexual insecurity. Unable to accept the challenge of a near ideal counterpart, the subconscious of Aylmer must destroy any inkling of a confrontation to his established intellectual male psyche.
Ultimately, Georgiana’s destruction plays directly into the machinations of Aylmer’s subconscious, and though her passing may seem to be a tragedy, it is in fact a victory for the scientist’s pathetic, fragile psyche. His intellectual guise as having an obsession with ‘perfection’ reveals deeper, more disconcerting stigmas that reflect the insecurity and fragility of the intellectual male sexual complex, while simultaneously exposing the inescapable and essential quality of imperfection to the scheme of mankind.
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