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The Birthmark

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Narration

Foreshadowing

The Story of Pygmalion

“The Birthmark” is told in a strong, subjective voice that draws attention to the narrator and makes him a key player in the story. At nearly every moment, we know what the narrator is thinking and how he views the characters’ behavior. It is clear from the beginning that the narrator dislikes Aylmer and his quest to eliminate the birthmark and that he sympathizes with Georgiana. The narrator might be characterized as a chatty, intelligent friend sharing a particularly juicy piece of gossip. At several points in the story, he all but addresses us directly, imploring us, for example, to notice how bad Aylmer looks in comparison even to an animal like Aminadab. The narrator can also be characterized as a moralist who condescends to his readers. Rather than trusting us to figure out the symbolism of the birthmark, for example, or allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the soundness of Aylmer’s experiment, the narrator rushes to explain every metaphor and symbol as if we might miss his point.

The strong narrative voice of “The Birthmark” epitomizes a key difference between modern American short stories and nineteenth-century American short stories. Modern stories are often told in an objective, distant, even ironic voice, whereas nineteenth-century stories were usually told by passionate narrators who infused their own strong opinions. Because we are not used to encountering this brand of subjective third-person narration, it is tempting to conclude that Hawthorne and the narrator of “The Birthmark” are the same person. In recent years, however, critics have suggested that Hawthorne never put himself into his stories but consciously created narrators who had distinct voices of their own. These critics argue that although Hawthorne’s narrators are often pious and preachy, we shouldn’t automatically conclude that he shared these characteristics. It would be a mistake, therefore, to decide that Hawthorne abhors Aylmer and likes Georgiana, simply because his narrator does.

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