The Birthmark

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Themes and Colors
Science, Nature, and Religion Theme Icon
Perfection Theme Icon
Fatal Pride Theme Icon
Submission and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Birthmark, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Mortality Theme Icon

On one level, the birthmark stands for mortality, and Aylmer’s obsession with the mark reflects his obsession with and fear of mortality itself. The birthmark, in this view, is like nature’s brand on its product – Georgiana – to mark it as flawed. But while flaws are often thought of in moral terms, the flaw represented by the birthmark can also be seen as a purely mechanical one, a symbol of the fact that humans are flawed in that they are not immortal, in that they are destined to die.

In Aylmer’s view, it doesn’t seem to matter how perfect Georgiana is—she still has that birthmark, that constant reminder that she’ll die and in death will be degraded to the exact same level as all of nature’s other creations. Aylmer and Georgiana discuss the elixir of life, a drink that would make its drinker immortal, multiple times. Even though Aylmer claims to believe it would be immoral to create an elixir of life because it would unbalance nature, it seems a distinct possibility that his desire to render his wife immortal is an almost unconscious one. He sees the birthmark as a mark of mortality, and wants to remove it, which would logically result in immortality. This achievement would put him at the pinnacle of science and on a level with God, a position which he does pursue even in his less ambitious attempts at changing nature.

Furthermore, one exchange between Georgiana and Aylmer suggests that a poison is in fact an elixir of life, or, as Aylmer says, an “elixir of immortality.” He seems to imply that death brings about some sort of immortality in itself, which corresponds to the Christian view of heaven as a place where souls will forever reside. And if a person has already died, then they are in a sense no longer mortal—at least, they can’t die again.

In this sense, perhaps Aylmer does achieve his goal. On a basic level, he succeeds in removing the birthmark. On a more complicated level, he does render Georgiana immortal, since he removes the only thing that makes her mortal and her soul ascends to heaven, where it will live on through eternity. Ironically, he removes the flaw of death, but the results – Georgiana’s death – are essentially the same as if he hadn’t.

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Mortality Quotes in The Birthmark

Below you will find the important quotes in The Birthmark related to the theme of Mortality.
The Birthmark Quotes

It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.

Related Characters: Aylmer, Georgiana
Related Symbols: The Birthmark
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage explains Aylmer’s revulsion to the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek, which drives the entire plot of the story. The birthmark is fundamentally a mark of nature, and it acts as a reminder that nature’s creations, particularly humans, can never attain perfection and will eventually perish. The narrator implies that the hand shape of the birthmark represents the hand of mortality grasping Georgiana. Despite Georgiana’s perfection in every other way, her mortality makes her ultimately no better or more important than all the far more flawed people who exist.

Aylmer takes the birthmark not only as a reminder of Georgiana’s eventual death, but also as a symbol that she has the potential to lack morality. As a result of all this, Aylmer becomes so disgusted with the birthmark that it wipes out all the happiness he could have drawn from all the perfect aspects of his wife.

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Aylmer bade her cast her eyes upon a vessel containing a quantity of earth. She did so, with little interest at first; but was soon startled to perceive the germ of a plant shooting upward from the soil. Then came the slender stalk; the leaves gradually unfolded themselves; and amid them was a perfect and lovely flower.
"It is magical!" cried Georgiana. "I dare not touch it."
"Nay, pluck it," answered Aylmer,—"pluck it, and inhale its brief perfume while you may. The flower will wither in a few moments and leave nothing save its brown seed vessels; but thence may be perpetuated a race as ephemeral as itself."
But Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire.

Related Characters: Aylmer (speaker), Georgiana (speaker)
Related Symbols: Plants
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

While Aylmer is preparing to remove the birthmark, he shows Georgiana wonders that he produces by his scientific abilities. He means to impress her with this demonstration of his scientific power over a plant, one of nature’s creations, but it fails. The miracle of the plant exists in its condensed life cycle—it sprouts, flowers, and dies in a matter of moments. This process draws attention to the mortality of nature’s creations, a fact that irritates Aylmer when it’s represented by Georgiana’s birthmark. The plant dies even sooner than it should when Georgiana touches it, further emphasizing the association between Georgiana and the inevitability of death.

One of Aylmer’s ambitions, even if he says he won’t act on it, is to create life. Aylmer tells Georgiana that the plant’s seeds will continue the existence of its species, reminding the reader that Aylmer, too, could create life through natural means—after all, he’s married to a beautiful woman, so he could just try to have a baby with her. But perhaps Aylmer is bothered by the fact that the plant’s descendants will be “ephemeral,” or short-lived. His natural descendants, too, would be only normal humans with mortal lifespans, and he grasps at something more than this, at escaping nature’s cycle of life and death.

He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium; "but," he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it." Not less singular were his opinions in regard to the elixir vitae. He more than intimated that it was at his option to concoct a liquid that should prolong life for years, perhaps interminably; but that it would produce a discord in Nature which all the world, and chiefly the quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find cause to curse.

Related Characters: Aylmer (speaker), Georgiana
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

During one of his breaks from preparing the materials necessary to remove the birthmark, Aylmer gives this account of scientific history to Georgiana. He seems to have firm opinions on the morality of certain long-sought scientific goals, specifically the ability to make gold out of other materials and the creation of a drink that would cause immortality. Aylmer believes that both of these goals are possible to attain, but that the use of either alchemy or an elixir of life would degrade the user and disturb the balance of nature, so scientists should not pursue them.

Aylmer again exhibits his pride here, particularly when he implies that he could mix an elixir of life if he wanted to. Additionally, he seems blind to how his current experiment with the birthmark might relate to either of these pursuits that he sees as immoral and prideful. He’s concerned about “discord in Nature,” but he never thinks that his own attempt to alter nature’s creation might have similarly negative consequences.

"And what is this?" asked Georgiana, pointing to a small crystal globe containing a gold-colored liquid. "It is so beautiful to the eye that I could imagine it the elixir of life."
"In one sense it is," replied Aylmer; "or, rather, the elixir of immortality. It is the most precious poison that ever was concocted in this world. By its aid I could apportion the lifetime of any mortal at whom you might point your finger. The strength of the dose would determine whether he were to linger out years, or drop dead in the midst of a breath. No king on his guarded throne could keep his life if I, in my private station, should deem that the welfare of millions justified me in depriving him of it.”

Related Characters: Aylmer (speaker), Georgiana (speaker)
Page Number: 185-86
Explanation and Analysis:

Aylmer is showing Georgiana his collection of scientific wonders when she asks about the golden liquid. This exchange shows the potentially dangerous power of science, since Aylmer claims for himself the ability to kill a king, an action that would upend old ideas of the supposedly natural order of the world, in which subjects must act in deference to their king. Furthermore, many people believed that kings were granted their power by God, so Aylmer’s ability to take this power away again suggests his attempt to act in God’s place.

Interestingly, Georgiana finds the poison very pleasing to the eye. On one level, this fact could prove that appearances, which are important in this story, do not always translate to some truth about moral worth. However, it could also imply that only death allows perfection; the perfect liquid causes death, and when Georgiana becomes perfect with the disappearance of the birthmark, she dies.

Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part.

Related Characters: Aylmer, Georgiana
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In perusing Aylmer’s bookshelf, Georgiana comes across a journal of all his experiments, and she discovers that Aylmer himself is far from perfect. Although Georgiana feels only increased reverence for her husband because of this, the revelation also makes Aylmer seem quite hypocritical. He demands absolute perfection from his already almost-perfect wife, when he himself has hardly met any of the scientific goals he has set for himself. This passage also casts further doubt on Aylmer’s ability to remove the birthmark safely; if he has rarely done exactly what he meant to do in his experiments, why will this one be any different?

Additionally, Aylmer’s failures may give some insight into his dislike of everything mortal and earthly. The narrator interprets his failures as the result of Aylmer’s faulty human abilities falling short of the divine ideals that populate his imagination. If he feels weighed down by the mortal shortcomings that nature has given him, it makes sense that he would do all he could to triumph over the mark of earthliness in his wife.

The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight. Then a hoarse, chuckling laugh was heard again! Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state.

Related Characters: Aylmer, Georgiana, Aminadab
Related Symbols: The Birthmark
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs at the very end of the story, as the birthmark disappears and Georgiana dies. It finally becomes clear that the birthmark existed for a reason that Aylmer could not perceive. He has ignored the importance of Georgiana’s single flaw,which kept her living on the earthly plane, and now that the flaw no longer exists his wife cannot remain with him, a flawed man, but must ascend to the higher heavenly plane.

Aminadab, however, does not seem surprised, and he even laughs at the scene. In fact, he might have known all along that this would be the result. The narrator suggests that earth has triumphed over heaven, presumably by thwarting Aylmer’s attempt to create a perfect being on the earthly plane. Essentially, Aylmer now pays the price for ignoring the fact that nature demands imperfection, and instead striving to do something that goes against the laws of nature. Ironically, Aylmer has achieved his ultimate goal of removing the birthmark; however, the results are not what he expected.