Literature Annotations

Hawthorne, Nathaniel
The Birthmark

On-Line Text
Genre Short Story (19 pp.)
KeywordsMedical Ethics, Medical Research, Obsession, Science
SummaryA devoted scientist, in a brief step from his laboratory pursuits, marries a beautiful woman with a single physical flaw: a birthmark on her face. Aylmer becomes obsessed with the imperfection and his need to remove it. The tale evolves around his progressive frenzy to use his scientific skills to render his bride perfect and the faith of his submissive wife that the union can survive only if he accomplishes his goal. The author tells us that Aylmer "had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies . . . " and, in the secrecy of his laboratory he prepares the potion for Georgiana which results in the disappearance of the birthmark and the death of Aylmer's experimental subject.

Hawthorne had his own obsessions that included a horrified fascination with "cold philosophy." He approached the Romantic notion of the ability of science to destroy art (beauty) in the form of fictive "horror stories" of biological research out of control. He embodied this concern in his several characterizations of scientists, who were also physicians, working in isolation in their laboratories to gain intellectual control over the mysteries of nature.

Although the notion of amoral, or immoral, experimentation is dated in these period pieces, the concerns remain ethical problems in the modern world of medicine. See also Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter (annotated in this database), The Scarlet Letter, and Dr. Heidegger's Experiment (also in this database).

SourceNathaniel Hawthorne: Selected Tales and Sketches
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceThe Tyranny of the Normal
Alternate PublisherKent State Univ. Press
Alternate Edition1996
Alternate EditorsCarol Donley & Sheryl Buckley
Place PublishedKent, Ohio
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1844. Modern Penguin collection Introduction by Michael J. Colacurcio.
Annotated by Willms, Janice L.
Date of Entry 11/08/95
Last Revised 01/28/97