Obsession in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark

Obsession in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark

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      Scientific research concerning living organisims is usually beneficial. Most

medical practices are beneficial; they are done to cure people from illness and to save

people's lives. The only time when science borders on going too far is when it is used to

alter people or animals -- for instance changing the genes of a fly to give it eyes on its legs.

Making mutants like that violates the sanctity of life, and although it is condonable for

research with flies, to do something similar to humans would be beyond comprehension.


      It is clear that Hawthorne does not look favorably upon manipulating humans with

science. He is especially wary about using science to try to make things worse; "Do not

repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer.

... I am dying!" says Chillingworth wife after she is "cured" of her birthmark, a large brown

mole on the upper left side of her right arm.


      Chillingworth feels that this experiment is justified because his wife is nowhere near

perfect, withstanding the birthmark. "...upon another arm perhaps it might, but ... you came

so hideous from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate

whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly

imperfection." If she hadn't been so close to detestment, he would not have minded the

birthmark, but because she is otherwise beastly, the birthmark stands out. Significant is the

use of the phrase "earthly imperfection", which hints at Hawthorne's theme. By removing

Georgiana's "earthly imperfection", Chillingworth is playing God. It is hard to say whether

it was justified in my opinion, even if the experiment had succeeded. If I take the story

literally, and put myself in one of their positions, it might be. But I don't think that this is

what Hawthorne wants us to be concerned with; he wants to show us why it is wrong to try

to change nature with science.


      Hawthorne's theme of tampering with nature can easily be applied to society.

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Hawthorne somewhat overtly makes a comparison between Chiilingworth and his assistant,

Herald. He says that Chillingworth is "pale [and] intellectual", while Herald "seemed to

represent man's physical nature." Herald mutters to himself, "if she were my wife, I'd never

live with myself." This also shows how Chillingworth was playing God; the man who did

not want or need perfection was perfectly willing to keep the birthmark (in fact, he did not

want to part with it at all) but Chillingworth, who always aimed for what was beyond his

grasp, could not live with it. Or perhaps even Herald realized that the birthmark was

Georgiana's earthly tie, that she could not live without it.


With each new technological advance, we try to change nature and society, presumably for

the better. Hawthorne is saying that we should not try to alter nature to make it perfect with

science and technology. Especially so with innocuous things, like his ugly wife's blemish.

Furthermore, the closer we get to perfection, the more obsessed we get with it, and the

more we lose sight of the fact that the innocuous blemishes are just that, innocuous

blemishes. I don't think that Hawthorne had anything against science in general, even

though his descriptions of Aylmer's laboratory were somewhat grotesque. But he is giving

us a warning -- or a reminder -- to not take things too far.
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