Aylmer is an intellectual run amok, a man whose mind has overpowered his sense of decency. An incredibly skilled scientist, he has made many exciting discoveries about the physical world. His inquiries into the spiritual world, however, tend to be more disturbing. Although he protests that he would never actually carry out his more outlandish ambitions—such as turning base metal into gold, making a potion that would give its drinker eternal life, or creating humans from nothing—he believes that he is at least capable of performing such miracles. And his actions belie his claim to respect life: he has invented a poison capable of killing a person instantly or during the course of years, depending on the administrator’s whim. Such an invention proves that Aylmer longs to control nature itself. Aylmer’s journals reveal that he considers his greatest achievements worthless in comparison to his ambition, which is nothing less than to exercise a godlike control over life.
Aylmer is a character, of course, but he also functions as a symbol of intellect and science. Unlike modern writers, Hawthorne is less interested in plumbing the psychological depths of his characters than he is in using them to prove a point. He also provides almost none of the details about Aylmer that we expect. We never learn his age, birthplace, childhood, or habits of speech. But it is not Hawthorne’s aim to convince us that Aylmer is a real person. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make Aylmer a fantastical, nonrealistic being. By making Aylmer a symbol for the mind and then showing how dangerous it is when the mind operates independent of morality, Hawthorne warns us that unchecked ambition without regard for morality will result only in disaster and death.
A beautiful and passionate woman, Georgiana is undone by her allegiance to her husband. The ideal wife—at least according to the ideals of a bygone era—Georgiana considers Aylmer to be her master. Although every other man she has encountered has swooned over her beauty and many would risk death for the privilege of touching her birthmark, Georgiana cares only about Aylmer’s opinion of her. Because he is horrified by her appearance, she discards years of praise and becomes disgusted with herself. Because she believes she should do anything to make Aylmer happy, she willingly risks death. Living in rooms decorated like elegant boudoirs; breathing in mysterious, character-altering fumes; and looking at fake vistas, Georgiana acts as if she is a robot under the control of her creator. If Aylmer is the villain of the story, Georgiana is the heroine. She acts as society says she should, trusting her husband absolutely, and her only reward for her obedience and deference is death. Perhaps Hawthorne is suggesting that although devotion is a laudable trait, women should not be expected to obey their husbands at all costs.
Even though Hawthorne’s characters can often be two-dimensional people, Georgiana is far more complex and believable a character than is Aylmer. Even though she submits to her husband’s demands, she is not simply the familiar and stereotypical downtrodden wife. A highly intelligent woman, she passes the time by reading the works of philosophy she finds in her husband’s scientific library. She examines Aylmer’s accounts of his experiments and understands everything she finds there. She is also far nobler than her husband, willing to risk her life to make someone else happy. When the occasion calls for it, she can also be feisty. She refuses to apologize for entering Aylmer’s laboratory, for example, and chides him for keeping her in the dark about the danger of the experiment. And she does not die a silent martyr’s death. Before passing away, she demonstrates a final burst of self-confidence by urging Aylmer not to feel bad about rejecting “the best the earth could offer.”