The Birthmark Summary

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark

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The Birthmark Summary

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Published in 1846, “The Birthmark” is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that examines the foolishness of striving for perfection.

The narrator introduces us to the brilliant scientist Aylmer. As a scientist, Aylmer has made important scientific discoveries. As an intellectual, he prioritizes the mind and science over a sense of decency or belief in religion. Aylmer has abandoned his scientific work to marry.

The heroine of the story is the beautiful Georgiana, who is married to Aylmer. She considers her husband to be her master and will do anything to pledge her allegiance to him. Georgiana has a birthmark on her left cheek that is a red mark shaped like a tiny hand. When she blushes, the mark disappears. Most men find that the birthmark is Georgiana’s lucky charm; it makes her even more beautiful. Women, on the other hand, think the mark is a blemish.

Georgiana’s husband, Aylmer, does not agree with other men. On her almost perfect face, the birthmark mars her appearance. Aylmer asks Georgiana if she has ever thought about having her birthmark removed. His question angers and upsets Georgiana. She wonders how he can love her if her appearance shocks him.

Aylmer’s opinion undoes the years of praise Georgiana has received. Georgiana becomes disgusted with herself.

Aylmer becomes obsessed by the birthmark and can think of nothing else. For him, the birthmark symbolizes death and sin. One night, he dreams of removing Georgiana’s birthmark with a knife. He dreams of scraping it away like the skin from an apple. After removing the birthmark, he dreams that he also cuts out his wife’s heart.

During the dream, Georgiana hears Aylmer talking in his sleep and later asks him about it. Aylmer had forgotten about the dream. Georgiana declares that she is willing to risk her life to have the birthmark removed. She can no longer endure the distress that Alymer endures every time he sees her birthmark.

The thrilled Aylmer is delighted and kisses Georgiana’s perfect right cheek. He is confident that he will be able to remove the birthmark himself. He has delusions of grandeur that he is a creator like God who will be able to create a perfect woman. Aylmer compares himself to Pygmalion. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is the sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue of a woman he made.

The next day, Aylmer takes Georgiana to his laboratory. As they enter, Aylmer shudders at the sight of his wife, which causes Georgiana to faint. Aylmer’s assistant, Aminadab, has agreed to help Aylmer with his birthmark removal. Aminadab would not remove the offending mark if she were married to him. Georgiana awakens from her fainting spell in rooms that smell sweet.

Between experiments, Aylmer tells Georgiana about alchemy, the medieval predecessor of chemistry.  He shows her the result of one of the experiments. It is a potion to remove freckles, but it will not work on Georgiana’s birthmark because she requires a stronger solution. Aylmer believes the birthmark goes deep into Georgiana’s body. Georgiana’s body feels strange. She realizes with horror that Aylmer has been conducting experiments on her without her consent. Aylmer doctors her food and makes her breathe in something in the air. She sneaks into his scientific library to read notes on his experiments. Aylmer catches her and accuses her of spying or damaging his scientific instruments. They argue but Georgiana is able to make Aylmer feel better by singing to him.

Later Georgiana promises to drink whatever Aylmer asks her to drink. She does so knowing it is dangerous and may have unwanted side effects. Aylmer brings Georgiana a fool-proof potion to drink. With just a few drops, the potion removed blots from a geranium. He believes this potion will also cure her. With trust, she drinks the potion and immediately falls asleep.

With tenderness and curiosity, Aylmer watches his wife. The birthmark gradually fades. Aminadab laughs with delight. Aylmer is pleased with the results. Georgiana wakes and sees that the potion has almost completely removed her birthmark. Georgiana realizes that as the birthmark recedes she is slowly dying. When the birthmark disappears completely, Georgiana is perfect. She takes her parting breath and dies with her soul going to heaven.

The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorn is best known for his novel, The Scarlett Letter, published in 1850. His work is considered part of the Romantic Movement. His other published works include novels, dark romances, short stories, and a biography of President Franklin Pierce, who was a childhood friend. Influenced by Puritan New England, his work often featured moral allegories. Born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne sets the majority of his works in New England. Related to a Salem witch judge, John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed his name to Hawthorne to hide their relationship. He died on May 19, 1864, and was survived by his wife, Sophia, and their three children.