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The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Summary, Analysis & Symbolism

The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Summary, Analysis & Symbolism
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  • 0:00 Background of 'The Birthmark'
  • 1:04 Summary of 'The Birthmark'
  • 2:49 Analysis and Symbolism
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark', published in 1843, is the story of a scientist who is obsessed with removing a birthmark from his wife's cheek. This lesson will look at the themes of obsessive love and the conflict between science and nature.

Background of 'The Birthmark'

Has anyone ever called you a romantic? In modern times that's a word we use to describe someone loving and thoughtful. But in literature, being a romantic didn't have anything to do with sending flowers or preparing candle-lit dinners. Romantics were literary rebels who wrote about strong emotions, the supernatural, and the power of nature.

What were they rebelling against? The writing style of the previous century, a time that had been known as the Age of Reason. During the Age of Reason, authors thought emotion was unnecessary; they loved science and wrote a lot of non-fiction. Romantic period authors, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, a popular example of a Romantic author from the 19th century, believed that people were getting too dependent on science. They wanted to remind people that there was nothing more powerful than human emotion and nothing more beautiful than nature. Hawthorne shows these Romantic ideals in his short story 'The Birthmark' by focusing on obsessive love and the conflict between nature and science.

Summary of 'The Birthmark'

When the story starts, we learn that it's about two young newlyweds: Aylmer and Georgiana. However, what could have been a sweet love story turns into a nightmare as Aylmer becomes obsessed with removing a small birthmark on Georgiana's cheek. He insists that it is the only thing that keeps her from being perfectly beautiful. He's a scientist and, like the authors in the Age of Reason, believes that science can fix anything. He's sure he will be able to come up with a potion to fix her.

Georgiana is obviously upset by his comments. Imagine if the person you loved couldn't stop talking about how unattractive your face was! Especially considering her previous boyfriends had told her that the birthmark added to her charm. She also hints that there might be some connection between the birthmark and her life. Unfortunately, Aylmer is stubborn; he keeps complaining about how awful it is. Pretty soon he can't think of anything else. He dreams about the birthmark, and he shudders at the sight of it. He actually hates it more than he loves Georgiana. Georgiana, on the other hand, loves him more than she loves herself. She tells Aylmer that he should try to remove the birthmark, even if his efforts kill her.

A modern romantic would be too loving to try to change his wife; a literary romantic would know better than to try to control nature. But, Aylmer is neither of those things. He jumps into the experiment eagerly, ignoring multiple warnings that things are going to go horribly wrong. Even when Georgiana says she would drink poison from his hands and is ready to die, he urges her to drink the potion he has created. The potion does work; the birthmark slowly disappears. Unfortunately, Georgiana's life fades with it. Just as Aylmer thinks he has succeeded, Georgiana dies.

Analysis and Symbolism

Themes are the main ideas or subjects that the author is writing about. In 'The Birthmark,' Nathaniel Hawthorne includes a variety of themes. The two most powerful are obsession and the conflict between nature and science.

Obsession: The Romantic authors thought strong emotions were important; however, Hawthorne shows that when love becomes an obsession, it is dangerous, even deadly. Aylmer doesn't just love science; he is obsessed with it. He loves it more than he loves his wife. In fact, he only spends time with Georgiana when he's studying her and her birthmark in his laboratory. Even then, he leaves her alone for hours at a time to work with his assistant, Aminadab. By the end, he knows his final potion is dangerous, but he's obsessed with finishing his experiment so he gives it to her anyway, and it kills her.

Similarly, Georgiana is obsessed with Aylmer. She loves him so much that she'll do anything to make him happy—even risk her own life. Most of us would tell Aylmer to stop being such a jerk: she tells him that she would drink poison if he asked her to. Even after she drinks Aylmer's potion and is slowly dying, she isn't angry at him for killing her. Instead, she's happy that he's worked so hard.

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