The Birthmark

Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Characters Aylmer

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.