Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 short story entitled “The Birth-Mark” is, at face value, a traditionally formatted Hawthorne story; it is a textbook example of his recurrent theme of the unpardonable sin as committed by the primary character, Aylmer, the repercussions of which result in the untimely death of his wife, Georgiana. However, there seems to be an underlying theme to the story that adds a layer to Hawthorne’s common theme of the unpardonable sin; when Aylmer attempts to reconcile his intellectual prowess with his love for his wife, his efforts turn into an obsession with perfecting his wife’s single physical flaw and her consequent death. This tragedy occurs within the confines of traditional gender roles in which the male is a slave to the charms of his wife while the wife is subject to the whims of her husband. However, contrary to the gender roles rampant in the era in which it was published, the characterization given to Georgiana exhibits an underlying strength of character that defies the traditionally submissive, empty-headed role assigned to women at that time and produces an Aylmer whose primary actions seek to erase Georgiana “as a human being and reduce her to the object of an experiment” (“The Meanings of Hawthorne’s Women”).
From the inception of the story, Hawthorne informs the reader that Aylmer is “a man of science—an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” (645) urging the reader to respect his impressive intellect. Following his desire to “ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another” (645), Aylmer persuades the perfect Georgiana to become his wife. However, her perfection exaggerates her one glaring flaw—a pygmy sized handprint on her ...
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... a version of masculinity, in which male ambition seems to drive the treatment of women” (“The Meanings of Hawthorne’s Women”) as well as hints of some feminine behaviour contradictory to that which was acceptable at the time of publication. At the same time that Georgiana exhibits indignant anger and intelligence equivalent to that of her masculine counterpart—characteristics contrary to those of a traditional feminine character—Aylmer’s infantile treatment of her and objectification of her as a human being further reinforce the feminist undertones within the narrative. While Hawthorne’s theme of unpardonable sin—involving themes like isolation as a sin and monomania—is undoubtedly the primary theme of the work, it seems equally as likely that various elements of a feminist writing can emerge from the characters’ behaviour and characterization within the narrative.
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