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The Spiritual and Physical Dimensions in The Birthmark Essay

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The Spiritual and Physical Dimensions in The Birthmark

Fred Allen Wolf notes in Taking the Quantum Leap that it was not until the 20th century that scientists realized that “to observe is to disturb, for observation breaks the wholeness of nature.” If observing disturbs, then when a scientist tampers and tries to perfect nature the result can only be disastrous. The goal of most scientists is to observe and understand the mysteries of nature. Nathaniel Hawthorne realized that the scientists of the 19th century were beginning to challenge the traditional views of science and man. The traditional view of man holds that man is both material and spiritual. Advancements in science led some scientists to begin to think that man was only material and therefore with enough enlightenment science could control all of nature including man himself. Hawthorne, however, objected to the idea of man’s ability to totally control all aspects of human life. Hawthorne, in his short story “The Birthmark,” uses the imagery and character to show that man has both a spiritual and material dimension that are deeply interwoven and unable to be completely controlled.

Hawthorne presents the prevailing thinking of the man of science with the introduction of Aylmer who typifies the man of science who thinks that he is able to “ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force” (Hawthorne 1). Hawthorne hints that Aylmer believes he can posses “ultimate and total control of Nature” (1).

Hawthorne uses the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek to represent the spiritual or non-material aspects of man. Initially, when Hawthorne describes the birthmark, he views it as merely a physical defect. He refers to it as being “the visible mark of earthly imperfection,” (1). As Aylmer continues to dwell on the imperfection, it begins to take on a deeper meaning. He begins to see it as “the fatal flaw of humanity” which comes from the hand of Nature (1). Later, he sees it as “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,” (1). Hawthorne uses Georgiana as a representative of all mankind by telling that Nature places a flaw on “all her productions,” (1). As Aylmer begins to recognize the defect in connection with her immortality, he begins to acknowledge that there is something deeper than the mater...


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...ever understood the reality he denied, it is not certain, but the final commentary by the narrator suggests that Georgiana’s death settles the question of the reality of the natural and spiritual world and the intertwining of the two. He explains that “the fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame,” (7). The angelic spirit and the mortal frame were inseparable and one could not exist without the other. It was this that Aylmer could not believe, for he was a man of science, fact, and one whom could not grasp the idea of a spiritual dimension of an individual.

Through the birthmark and Aylmer, Hawthorne illustrates that an individual has both a physical body seen by all and a spirit that is unseen. Aylmer first believes, like other scientists, that all things are merely physical. But Georgiana’s birthmark is used to symbolize the spirit that grasps all humans. Georgiana’s death comes when her spirit is removed from her physical body. Hawthorne uses the birthmark’s intertwining with the body to reveal that man has a spiritual dimension and a physical dimension, both of which are intertwined.


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