The Ambiguity of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark

3228 Words13 Pages
Ambiguity of “The Birthmark”

There are numerous instances of ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”; this essay hopes to explore critics’ comments on that problem within the tale, as well as to analyze it from this reader’s standpoint.

In New England Men of Letters Wilson Sullivan relates Hawthorne’s usage of opposites in his tales:

He sought, in Hamlet’s telling words to his palace players, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” and to report what he saw in that mirror. . . .“Life is made up,”, Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud.” In the pages of his finest works, both marble and mud are held in a just, unique, and artistic balance(95).

Hawthorne’s juxtaposition of opposites, of “marble and mud” within “The Birthmark” is a contributing factor to the ambiguity within the story. How could someone like Aminadab possibly be working side by side with the intellectual scientist, Aylmer? How can Georgiana proceed with the experimental cure after reading Aylmer’s scientific journal and after witnessing firsthand the failure of the flower and photograph experiments? Peter Conn in “Finding a Voice in an New Nation” makes a statement regarding Hawthorne’s ambiguity: “Almost all of Hawthorne’s finest stories are remote in time or place. The glare of contemporary reality immobilized his imagination. He required shadows and half-light, and he sought a nervous equilibrium in ambiguity” (82).

Hyatt H. Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” testifies that Hawthorne’s ambiguity has proven to be an asset in the contemporary era when readers like such a quality in fiction:

Since ours is an age that has found irony, ambiguity, and paradox to be central not only in literature but in life, it is not surprising that Hawthorne has seemed to us one of the most modern of nineteenth century American writers. The bulk and general excellence of the great outburst of Hawthorne criticism of the past decade attest to his relevance for us (54).

Henry James in Hawthorne mentions how Hawthorne’s allegorical meanings should be expressed more clearly:

I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world.
Open Document