The Birthmark

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Science, Nature, and Religion Theme Analysis

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.
Science, Nature, and Religion Theme Icon

“The Birthmark” centers around the conflict between science and nature. Aylmer cannot accept Georgiana as nature made her, and instead feels driven to use his scientific knowledge to erase what he sees as nature’s imperfection. The birthmark on Georgiana’s face is, by definition, a mark that formed in the womb. It is an entirely natural occurrence, and the narrator implies that the mark exists for a reason – to keep Georgiana imperfect enough to remain an earthly being.

However, Aylmer worships science and does not hesitate to use his skills to tamper with nature’s creations. Even before becoming fixated on the birthmark, he changes the natural life cycle of plants and considers how to make an elixir of life, which would make the drinker immortal. Aylmer himself is aware of the tenuous relationship between science and nature – he tells Georgiana that even though he probably could create an elixir of life, he doesn’t do so because it would go against nature. However, his vanity over his wife’s appearance seems to blind him to this danger in his experimentation with the birthmark. Normally, Aylmer excludes all signs of nature from his laboratory, even replacing natural sunshine with chemical lamps. At the moment the birthmark disappears, however, he opens a curtain and sunlight falls on Georgiana. And it is then, in the true light of nature rather than through the limited vision of science, that it is revealed that she must die.

The word “God” does not appear in the story. However, due to Hawthorne’s concern with religion in many of his works, it makes sense to look for religious implications in this story as well. “Nature” implies a sense of the divine, since in a traditional Christian view, God created the natural world. In working to change nature, then, Aylmer also attempts to change God’s creation.

In this story’s view of the world, science does not come out of natural processes, but instead works to overturn them. Aylmer’s scientific intervention results in Georgiana’s death, implying that scientists must not overstep their boundaries and go against what nature—and God—has willed to be a certain way.

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Science, Nature, and Religion ThemeTracker

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Science, Nature, and Religion Quotes in The Birthmark

Below you will find the important quotes in The Birthmark related to the theme of Science, Nature, and Religion.
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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I have already given this matter the deepest thought—thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a being less perfect than yourself. Georgiana, you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.

Related Characters: Aylmer (speaker), Georgiana
Related Symbols: The Birthmark
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Aylmer attempts to reassure Georgiana that he can definitely remove the birthmark as she has suggested he do. At the beginning of the story, the narrator remarked that Aylmer’s love of Georgiana could only match his love of science if the two loves were somehow joined together. Here, Aylmer expresses his delight that the two will, in fact, be joined as he uses his scientific wisdom to make his wife into a creature he can admire without reserve.

Aylmer also exhibits the first suggestions of his dangerous pride here. He suggests that he’s come close to achieving the knowledge necessary to creating a human being by means of science, the ultimate goal for a scientist seeking to understand and recreate everything that nature—and thus God—can do. Furthermore, Aylmer has no doubt that he can correct what he sees as nature’s mistake, and he’s already imagining how triumphant he’ll feel once he’s done so.

Aylmer compares himself to Pygmalion, a Greek mythological figure who sculpted a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with her. To Pygmalion’s joy, the goddess Aphrodite brought the statue to life. Aylmer sees himself as similar to Pygmalion because he hopes to, if not create a woman from scratch, create a more perfect Georgiana. Pygmalion can also be seen as a prideful figure, however, since he scorned all other women and only fell in love with his own art, so the comparison adds to the sense of Aylmer’s arrogance.

Here, too, at an earlier period, he had studied the wonders of the human frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air, and from the spiritual world, to create and foster man, her masterpiece. The latter pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside in unwilling recognition of the truth—against which all seekers sooner or later stumble—that our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.

Related Characters: Aylmer (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator relates one of Aylmer’s past endeavors in his laboratory—to create a human being. This attempt is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, published about thirty years before “The Birthmark,” in which Dr. Frankenstein creates a destructive monster in his attempt to create a human. The failures of both scientists to complete their experiments—and the fatal pride involved in attempting such experiments—link them together.

Trying to create life is the ultimate mark of a pride that puts Aylmer dangerously close to trying to imitate God. Aylmer has eventually had to admit failure in this area and bow to nature’s greater ability. However, he says at multiple points that he is using the knowledge he gained from his attempt in the process of removing the birthmark, which perhaps should be cause for alarm. The narrator heightens the sense of foreboding by remarking that it’s easy to ruin nature’s creations, but it’s very difficult to fix them. Again and again, the birthmark is labeled a sign of nature, so it’s very risky to try fixing it.

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.