The Ambiguity of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark
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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.
The only cases in which it is endurable is when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent, and the failure complete. Then the machinery alone is visible and the end to which it operates becomes a matter of indifference (50).
When one has to grope for, and fumble for, the meaning of a tale, then there is “failure” in the work, as Henry James says. This unfortunately is the case of “The Birthmark.” The meaning is so ambiguous in so many occasions in the tale that a blur rather than a distinct image forms in the mind of the reader. The words of the narrator regarding the mark might well apply to the readers’ interpretation of the meaning: “It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne”:
Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent [my italics], for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind (548).
Ambivalence, or the simultaneous and contradictory attitude and/or feeling toward an object, etc., may well be the cause of the extreme ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty in the mind of the reader of “The Birthmark.” Intentional ambivalence on the part of the author in order not to offend too many may be a plausible explanation for the author’s ambiguity. H.J. Lang in “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne?” states:
In trying to measure the extent of their [Hawthorne’s short stories] ambiguity we must say what we mean by that word. Roughly, there are three sorts of ambiguity relevant to our theme: first, there is the ambiguity inherent in language, especially language used for poetic purposes; second, there is the ambiguity of human conduct, or, rather, the inescapable doubt we encounter once we try to get beneath the surface of the obvious in motivations. Both sorts of ambiguities are very important for Hawthorne. . . . third sort, which we might call ambiguity of external action. External action is paradoxically ambiguous only, since it should not give rise to real doubt at all, as far as essentials are concerned. It should be “the literal level,” the secure basis for our more daring flights of interpretation (86-87).
Ambiguity – doubt – ambivalence; everyone agrees that the author of “The Birthmark” is not open to solid, objective interpretation. Each reader forms his own opinion of the meaning of the tale; there is no obviously correct statement of its meaning as is generally available for literary works.
Morse Peckham in “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism” explains what he interprets Hawthorne’s main theme to be:
This technique, though Hawthorne’s is different from that of European writers, creates analogies between self and not-self, between personality and the worlds. . . .Henceforth Hawthorne’s theme is the redemption of the self through the acceptance and exploitation of what society terms the guilt of the individual but which to the Romantic is society’s guilt (92).
The guilt of Aylmer shows itself from time to time in the tale. And, of course, Aminadab laughs at the moment of Georgiana’s death, “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence” – a guilty, reprehensible action on his part. In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection of tales, Mosses from an Old Manse (containing “The Birthmark”), Herman Melville in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (in Literary World, August 17, 24, 1850) makes discoveries relevant to the themes:
But there is no man, in whom humor and love, like mountain peaks, soar to such a rapt height, as to receive the irradiations of the upper skies;--there is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. …
In “The Birthmark” the theme more obviously involves love than it does humor – the love of Georgiana for Aylmer, a love which conquers all of her self-interest and devotes itself exclusively to the happiness of her husband. Her very heart and soul are transformed: “Everything he has to say is related, finally, to ‘that inward sphere’” (McPherson 68-69). “When he desired to build the kingdom of God, he looked for the pattern of it, not in history nor in the fortunes of those about him, but in his own heart (Erskine 180).
In the opening paragraph of “The Birthmark” the narrator introduces Aylmer as a scientist who “had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one.” Hawthorne’s description of the scientist’s love for Georgiana is apt, for love is just that – spiritual. And the theme of this tale is a spiritual one. Through the course of the story Aylmer declines spiritually, while Georgiana advances spiritually.
Even after Aylmer has “persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife,” he is not capable of loving her properly, unselfishly, because he “had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” He exemplifies another favorite theme of Hawthorne’s - “moral responsibility” (Bradley 47), or rather the lack thereof.
The narrator seeks to justify this error or lack in Aylmer by explaining that “it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy.” Already at the outset of the tale, the reader perceives that Georgiana is going to be shortchanged in this marriage. She is exposed to the problem initially when her husband asks whether “it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?'' Aylmer is in quest of physical perfection in his wife; unfortunately he discounts her inner, spiritual value so clearly manifested in her comment: ``To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.'' In using the word “simple” she is being honest and not sarcastic; she is being humble and respectful of others’ evaluation of herself. The reply comes from a loving, virtuous woman.
But Aylmer overlooks the precious and pursues the superficial by asserting that the birthmark is “the visible mark of earthly imperfection,” and that it “shocks” him. This appears to him as a “a stain upon the soul” (Williams 43). Georgiana perceives a lack of love in his overdone negative reaction to the birthmark: ``Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!''
The narrator includes contrasting, unloving observations of other women regarding the mark: “Some fastidious persons -- but they were exclusively of her own sex -- affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous.” The narrator opposes such an absurd accusation, likening it to the ridiculousness of asserting that blue veins in quality marble degrade the marble: “But it would be as reasonable to say that one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster.”
In a balanced consideration of Georgiana and the mark, the narrator also includes the opinion of the “masculine observers”; they, “if the birthmark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw.” And similarly does Aylmer think. He, not surprisingly perhaps for a perfectionist-genius-scientist, “found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives.” To him it seems “the fatal flaw of humanity,” the “symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” Aylmer, his love of science dominating his love for Georgiana, drifts into some neurotic or psychotic state wherein the birthmark produces within him more “trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Reacting to his psychological problem, Georgiana “soon learned to shudder at his gaze,” and she reacts with a “deathlike paleness” and begins using deprecatory terms to describe the mark, indicating a considerate move on her part to adopt Aylmer’s attitude toward it. For Georgiana to become more like her spouse is a manifestation of her love for Aylmer, which is gradually growing to the point of total selflessness.
The wife is greatly concerned about her husband’s peace of mind when his dreams begin to include what she calls “this odious hand,” especially when he shouts in his sleep, “It is in her heart now; we must have it out!” Aylmer recalls the dream wherein he and his servant, “attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark,” cut deeper, but “the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart.” It is very appropriate for the narrator to associate the heart with the wife, for that is what she is – a loving, big-hearted person who only seeks her husband’s happiness. Her innocent, small comment contains the fullness of truth, if only her husband were heeding: “[I]t may be the stain goes as deep as life itself.”
But rather than opening his mind to her, Aylmer “hastily interrupted” Georgiana and mutters a mad-scientist response: ``I am convinced of the perfect practicability of its removal.'' And she, an angelic picture of acquiescence and unselfishness, kindly offers even her life for his peace of mind: ``If there be the remotest possibility of it,'' continued Georgiana, ``let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust, -- life is a burden which I would fling down with joy.”
Aylmer’s response once again proves that his priorities include his wife only as an adjunct to his scientific interests: “Georgiana, you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science.” His godlike mastery of the situation continues to show when he boasts about correcting “what Nature
left imperfect in her fairest work!” Presumptuousness at its worst! And so Georgiana consents to an extended seclusion in Aylmer’s laboratory apartment, which he has tastefully decorated to please his wife. At this point the didactic narrator sagaciously comments that “our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets,” directing the reader’s eye to the likely outcome of Aylmer’s experiment with removing Georgiana’s birthmark.
In the laboratory lives the exotically named Aminadab, servant and handyman to the scientist -
“a man of low stature, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair.” He, as a physical type, is the very opposite of Aylmer, yet ironically his simple mind voices a profound truth which the scientist disregards, ``If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark.'' But Aylmer is “confident in his science,” and not distracted by love-motivated comments. Poor Georgiana can not “forget that convulsive shudder'' of her husband which made her faint; his welfare is her only concern.
The first two experiments of the scientist are failures: The beautiful flower, when touched by the wife, “suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire”; also the
picture made by a scientific process turned out with “features of the portrait blurred and indefinable; while the minute figure of a hand appeared where the cheek should have been.” Thus the narrator prepares the reader for failure with the grand project – the removal of the birthmark.
Aylmer dazzles his wife with a display of potions and lotions reputedly endowed with unimaginable powers. Georgiana reasons that her husband is already secretly subjecting her to various influences because of “a strange, indefinite sensation creeping through her veins, and tingling, half painfully, half pleasurably, at her heart.” Once again the reader is focused on the very essence of this lovely woman – her heart, the source of all her thoughts, words and deeds. She has now acquired a more perfect dislike of the mark than her husband: “Not even Aylmer now hated it so much as she.” Georgiana, reading her husband’s scientific journal there in the laboratory apartment, “reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever” despite the fact that “she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.” Isn’t this perfect love on her part – to love someone as he IS? Aylmer is “the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter,” who is “so miserably thwarted by the earthly part.” In order to uplift this burdened spirit, Georgiana “poured out the liquid music of her voice to quench the thirst of his spirit,” made tense in the tedious laboratory work.
As the fatal day draws near, Georgiana again pledges her blind faith in her husband’s solution: “I shall quaff whatever draught you bring me; but it will be on the same principle that would induce me to take a dose of poison if offered by your hand.'' What motivates her? Indeed, “his honorable love -- so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthier nature than he had dreamed of.” Naively she thinks “how much more precious was such a sentiment than that meaner kind which would have borne with the imperfection for her sake, and have been guilty of treason to holy love by degrading its perfect idea to the level of the actual. . . .”
Aylmer appears with “a crystal goblet containing a liquor colorless as water, but bright enough to be the draught of immortality.” He first of all reassures his wife with the unforgettable words: ``Unless all my science have deceived me, it cannot fail.'' Nevertheless, the wife talks of the possibility of death. So the scientist seeks to bolster her confidence by pouring some of the colorless liquid on a “geranium diseased with yellow blotches, which had overspread all its leaves,” and, sure enough, the blotches disappear. Witnessing this success, she “quaffed the liquid and returned the goblet to his hand.” Immediately she falls asleep.
Aylmer, observing the birthmark recede, claims “Success, success!” and flaunts his superiority over Aminadab: “Laugh, thing of the senses! You have earned the right to laugh.'' But there is no success, for with great tenderness and concern for her husband’s happiness, Georgiana softly says, “I am dying!” The narrator’s beautifully poetic way of expressing the demise of the wife is memorable: “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.” The soul of this angelic, loving woman, “lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.” A true angel of womankind is ascending to heaven because love has totally conquered her self-interest.
Bradley, Sculley, Richmond Croom Beatty and E. Hudson Long. “The Social Criticism of a Public Man.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Conn, Peter. “Finding a Voice in an New Nation.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Erskine, John. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Leading American Novelists. New York: Books For Libraries Press, 1968.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
James, Henry. Hawthorne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Lang, H.J.. “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
McPherson, Hugo. “Hawthorne’s Use of Mythology.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Literary World August 17, 24, 1850. http://eldred.ne.mediaone.net/nh/hahm.html
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature, edited by Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.
Peckham, Morse. “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
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Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Six American Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Richard Foster. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
Williams, Stanley T. “Hawthorne’s Puritan Mind.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.