Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Foolishness of Striving for Perfection
Aylmer’s desire to make his wife perfect is doomed to failure because perfection, Hawthorne suggests, is the exclusive province of heaven and can’t be found on earth. In fact, the very success of Aylmer’s perfection-inducing potion may doom Georgiana to death. Because she becomes an ideal being, completely unmarred, she is no longer able to exist in this world. The desire for perfection not only kills Georgiana, it also ruins her husband because his desire to create the ideal woman becomes a fixation that prevents him from seeing the good in his wife. Eventually, her tiny imperfection is all he can see. It grows in his mind until the very sight of the beautiful Georgiana repulses him, a ludicrous turn of events. The wisest men in the story are those who understand that perfection is not a goal worth pursuing. These men, Georgiana’s admirers, never appear in the story, but Hawthorne stresses that their appreciation of her is far more sensible than Aylmer’s fixation on her single imperfection. For these men, Georgiana’s slight flaw only enhances her loveliness. In the same way that life seems more precious because we know we’ll die, Georgiana’s beauty seems more amazing because it isn’t seamless.
Science versus Nature
In a story full of wildly successful, almost magical, scientific experiments, it is untouched nature itself that is shown to be more powerful than any manmade creation. Aylmer has the ability to make lovely sights and amazing aromas from nothing, but he doesn’t have the ability to control his wife’s spirit or prolong her life. On the other hand, Georgiana does have some measure of power over her husband’s spirit, a power that comes not from science but nature. For example, when Aylmer’s spirits flag, he asks Georgiana to sing to him, and the beauty of her voice restores his good mood. Unlike her husband’s potions, her voice is entirely natural but has a much greater effect. In addition, Georgiana’s birthmark also demonstrates the power of nature because it captivates and intoxicates almost everyone who sees it. In the end, Aylmer’s attempt to control nature with science ends only in death and unhappiness.
Red and White
The colors red and white recur throughout “The Birthmark” to highlight both Georgiana’s purity and imperfections. Hawthorne uses lyrical language to describe Georgiana’s skin. Her birthmark is described as crimson and ruby-colored, while the skin around it is likened to snow and marble. These words reveal that the narrator thinks Georgiana’s birthmark and the red and white shades of her face make her more beautiful, not less. The loveliness of the language he uses to describe her puts the narrator in opposition to Aylmer. So too does his description of the blending of the two colors. In general, the birthmark is red and Georgiana’s skin is white, but these categories sometimes overlap: when she blushes, her skin turns the same color as the birthmark. This overlapping suggests that no clear boundary exists between Georgiana’s beauty and one flaw.
Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes mortality. According to the narrator, every living thing is flawed in some way, nature’s way of reminding us that every living thing eventually dies. The hand-shaped mark on Georgiana’s cheek is the one blemish on an otherwise perfect being, a blemish that marks her as mortal. Aylmer’s revulsion for his wife’s birthmark suggests the horror he feels at the prospect of death. He is a smart man, but his misinterpretation of the symbol on Georgiana’s face leads him astray. He mistakenly comes to believe that if he can root out this symbol of transience, it will mean that he has the power to prolong life indefinitely. Aylmer also mistakenly believes that the birthmark represents Georgiana’s moral decrepitude and spiritual flaws even though she isn’t a woman prone to sin at all. If anything, the symbol of death on her cheek clashes with her natural generosity and sunny spirit.