In the late eighteenth century, a great scientist named Aylmer takes a break from his experiments to marry a beautiful woman named Georgiana. It is a time of many great scientific discoveries, and scientists feel that they’re uncovering all of nature’s mysteries and might soon even be able to create life. Aylmer has devoted his life to his scientific work, and would never leave the world of science. It seems that his love for Georgiana could only ever hope to rival his love of science if these two passions can somehow become connected.
The opening introduces the central themes of the story, setting a scene in which scientists are already trying to control nature and claim dangerous power for themselves. Although it is not yet clear whether Aylmer is among them, it seems foreboding that he might seek to mix his married life with his scientific passion. He’s clearly already obsessed with science.
One day soon after Aylmer and Georgiana are married, Aylmer asks his wife if she has ever considered trying to remove the birthmark on her cheek. Georgiana replies that she has not, and admits that she always thought it a “charm” of her appearance. Aylmer, however, tells her that he can’t stand the birthmark because it’s the only imperfect aspect of an otherwise perfect being. Hurt and angry, Georgiana questions why Aylmer agreed to marry her if he felt this way.
The very first mention of the birthmark occurs when Aylmer asks about its possible removal, foreshadowing the rest of the plot. Aylmer exhibits a willingness to openly criticize his wife, and he makes it clear that he highly values perfection. Georgiana expresses an initially positive attitude towards the birthmark, and shows an inclination to stand up for herself against her husband’s criticism—neither of which will last long.
The narrator describes the birthmark, which is small, pink, hand-shaped, and located on Georgiana’s left cheek. It becomes less visible when she blushes, but is more visible when she is pale. Georgiana has had many suitors, and they have reacted to the birthmark in different ways. Some of them have yearned to kiss it. Some have speculated that the mark came from a fairy touching Georgiana at the moment of her birth and giving her those most alluring qualities that allowed her to attract so many men. Others have simply wished the birthmark wasn’t there, so a perfect being could exist in the world. Women were the only ones who ever tried to claim that the birthmark actually made Georgiana ugly.
The birthmark has obviously been a present influence throughout Georgiana’s life, since everyone around her seems to have had their thoughts about it. Their generally positive attitudes explain why she isn’t bothered by the mark and suggest that Aylmer’s reaction to it is out of the ordinary, at least for men, and perhaps irrational. Any of Georgiana’s other suitors would have been content to have her with her imperfection, but she’s ended up with the one who can’t stand it.
If Georgiana weren’t so perfect in every other way, Aylmer wouldn’t be so bothered by the birthmark. But as time passes, he becomes more and more obsessed with it. He sees it as a manifestation of “the fatal flaw of humanity” that appears in all beings created by nature, marking them as destined for suffering and death. It constantly reminds him that death makes even the most perfect people, such as his wife, no better than the worst people. More personally, he thinks that it’s a symbol of the sins and moral faults that Georgiana possesses simply by virtue of being human.
Ironically, instead of appreciating Georgiana’s perfection, her relative flawlessness only makes Aylmer obsess more about the birthmark. He seems to take it as an almost personal offense that nature insists on reminding him that his wife will die, demonstrating Aylmer’s dangerous pride. He essentially wants to be married to a divine being, one who is morally impeccable and will never die or be degraded to the level of other humans. This says a lot more about his faults than about Georgiana’s.
Whenever the couple should be happy, Aylmer ends up talking about the birthmark, until it becomes the center of their marriage. Whether they’re waking in the morning or sitting around the fire at night, Aylmer always sees the birthmark and remembers that Georgiana is human rather than divine. Georgiana learns to shrink from her husband’s gaze, because he’s always looking at the birthmark with dislike.
Aylmer is already ruining his marriage through his obsession with his wife’s failure to be perfect. While Georgiana originally didn’t mind the birthmark, she now begins to reevaluate it, since her husband so clearly hates it.
One night, Georgiana brings up the birthmark herself for the first time, asking Aylmer if he recalls having a dream about it the night before. At first he doesn’t remember, although he admits that he was thinking about it when he went to sleep. Georgiana tells him that he spoke in his sleep of removing something from her heart. Aylmer finally remembers that he did, in fact, dream that he was trying to operate on the mark, but the further his knife went, the further the mark retreated, until he would have to carve it out of his wife’s heart to remove it.
This dream shows that Aylmer believes the birthmark to be deeper than a surface blemish, and reinforces the impression of it as a symbol connected to morality, life, and love, since Aylmer sees it even in Georgiana’s heart. It also communicates a sense of mortal danger connected to the potential removal of the birthmark, since Aylmer is literally approaching his wife’s heart with a knife to get it out.
Aylmer feels bad about the dream, but sometimes sleep brings to the surface feelings that people don’t want to acknowledge they’re experiencing when they’re awake. The dream makes him realize just how much he’s consumed by thoughts of the birthmark. Georgiana asks if it might be possible to remove it, acknowledging that the attempt could be dangerous. Aylmer admits he’s considered this possibility, and he thinks it could be done. Georgiana insists that he try, no matter how dangerous it might be, because the birthmark is ruining her life due to Aylmer’s disgust with it. Aylmer is elated at her willingness and is very confident that he can fix nature’s imperfection, partly because he’s already gotten pretty close to being able to create life through science. He compares his joy at removing the birthmark to that of Pygmalion when the woman he sculpted and fell in love with came to life.
Aylmer’s repressed concerns are coming out in ways that he can’t control, like talking in his sleep. He has also caused Georgiana to begin hating herself, even though she has never minded the birthmark before. In fitting with the times, Georgiana never even considers confronting Aylmer about his damaging attitude, but instead thinks only of how to change herself to meet his desires. Aylmer sees only that he can now unite his love of science with his love of Georgiana. By comparing himself to the mythological figure of Pygmalion, who fell in love with his own sculpture, Aylmer highlights his own arrogance, implying that Georgiana will be entirely his own creation once he’s removed the birthmark. Besides, Pygmalion’s statue only came to life with the help of the goddess Aphrodite, but Aylmer scorns the influence of God or nature in his experiment with the birthmark.
The next day, Aylmer tells Georgiana his plan to bring her to his laboratory, where he can closely monitor her while he treats the birthmark. Over the course of his life, Aylmer has used his laboratory to successfully investigate numerous aspects of nature, including the sky, mines, volcanoes, and springs. He has also tried to discover how nature creates human life, presumably with the goal of creating it himself. However, he gave up on this attempt because nature makes it easy to mess things up, only rarely makes it possible to fix things, and definitely does not allow the creation of life from nothing. Still, to figure out how to remove the birthmark, Aylmer returns to his old pursuits concerning the chemical origins of life.
The laboratory is the realm of pure science, where Aylmer thinks he’s in complete control. The attempt to create life through science demonstrates Aylmer’s willingness to play God, although it seems that he also realizes (on some level) that this is a bad idea. The narrator’s comments on what nature allows scientists to do don’t bode well for Aylmer’s experiment, if fixing nature’s creations rarely works. It’s also concerning that Aylmer is still using aspects of his research about the creation of life even after he decided that this was an unwise branch of science to pursue.
Aylmer brings Georgiana into his laboratory to begin the treatment. She feels nervous, and Aylmer tries to comfort her, but instead shudders involuntarily when he catches sight of the birthmark. Georgiana faints, and Aylmer calls for Aminadab, his assistant, to help him. Ignorant of all scientific principles, Aminadab is a physically strong, ugly but useful man. He has worked for Aylmer throughout his whole time as a scientist, but he doesn’t understand any of Aylmer’s work and just does what Aylmer tells him. He embodies the earthy, physical counterpart to Aylmer’s spiritual intelligence. Aylmer has Aminadab burn some incense to wake Georgiana from her faint. Seeing her, Aminadab mutters that he wouldn’t do anything to the birthmark if Georgiana were his wife.
Georgiana’s sudden lifelessness when she enters the laboratory foreshadows her eventual death in this place. Aylmer and Aminadab are quite clearly positioned as opposites, with Aylmer the intellectual man connected to the divine and Aminadab the simple, physical man connected to nature. Conventionally, the reader might be inclined to trust Aylmer’s judgment over Aminadab’s, particularly in matters of science, but Aminadab’s warning adds to the sense of foreboding around the birthmark’s removal. It also criticizes Aylmer for his unnecessary obsession with the mark.
Georgiana is awakened by the powerful fragrance in the beautiful room that her husband has prepared for her in his laboratory. Surrounded by curtains, it’s entirely cut off from the rest of the world, and Georgiana almost feels like she might be in an enchanted room in the sky. Aylmer does not allow sunlight into his laboratory because it would ruin his experiments, so he instead uses chemical lamps to light the room. He feels confident that he can keep Georgiana perfectly safe in his lab. When she wakes, it takes Georgiana a moment to remember where she is, and she automatically covers the birthmark with her hand. Aylmer reassures her that he now loves the birthmark because it will be so wonderful to get rid of it.
In the laboratory, Aylmer has created an environment entirely of his own making, excluding nature. He doesn’t even allow natural light in, replacing it with a light created by science, which acts as a metaphor for his general approach to life. He thinks the laboratory is a space where he’s entirely in control. The fact that Georgiana feels she might be in the sky adds to the sense of Aylmer acting as God, with this as his heavenly lair. Additionally, Aylmer’s sudden supposed love of the birthmark demonstrates that uniting his love of science and his love of his wife is already strengthening his love of both.
Georgiana pleads with Aylmer not to look at the birthmark. To cheer her up, he gives her a demonstration of his more elegant scientific abilities. First, Aylmer causes a number of optical illusions, making it look like he is summoning spirits. When Georgiana thinks she might want to see the outside world, he conjures up very realistic images of it within the room. Georgiana is enchanted.
These performances make Aylmer seem as though he has some divine power to control the spirit world, along with the power to create an imitation of the natural world. However, both of these are only illusions, just as Aylmer’s control over nature turns out to be just an illusion.
Next, Aylmer presents Georgiana with a pot of dirt. As she watches, a plant sprouts and flowers. Aylmer tells her to pick it and smell its scent, because it will soon die and leave only its seeds to continue its existence on earth. Georgiana tries to pick the flower, but as soon as she touches it, the whole plant turns black and dies. Aylmer says this was the result of overstimulation.
Aylmer tries to display his power over nature and the life cycle. However, the plant’s death casts doubt on science’s ability to control life and reminds the reader of the inevitability of mortality that Aylmer so fears. The mention of the plant’s seeds acts as a reminder that the natural way of overcoming mortality is to reproduce, so that one’s children can live on, but Aylmer never even considers this option.
To make up for the plant’s death, Aylmer creates a portrait of Georgiana by a scientific process similar to early photography. However, the image comes out blurry except for the shape of the birthmark, which dominates her cheek. Aylmer hastily destroys the image. He’s embarrassed by these failures.
The birthmark’s clarity against the rest of the blurry picture suggests that perhaps the birthmark has some supernatural power that disregards the rules of science. Furthermore, the image acts as a representation of Aylmer’s obsession, as it only allows him to see the birthmark, to the exclusion of all other aspects of his wife.
In between his hours working on the treatment, Aylmer tells Georgiana about alchemy, the early branch of science that sought to turn various materials into gold. He believes this feat is possible, but also that anyone wise enough to achieve it would have too much moral sense to make use of it. Similarly, he thinks that he could create an elixir vitae (also known as an elixir of life—a liquid that would make the drinker immortal), but that to do so would violate nature and result in the drinker’s misery. Georgiana is shocked that he would even consider pursuing this kind of power, but Aylmer reassures her that he would never actually go after these discoveries. In fact, he’s only telling her about them to show that their current experiment with the birthmark is nothing in comparison.
Aylmer seems to lack self-awareness. He has obviously thought about the morality of science and its interaction with nature, and passes judgment on those who pursue alchemy or the elixir of life without a thought for the moral implications. However, his pride blinds him to the fact that his own experiments with the birthmark might have moral implications, as well. The elixir of life also brings up the issue of mortality. Ironically, Aylmer thinks the elixir would be harmful to the drinker, yet he can’t accept the mortality of his wife and in effect attempts to make her immortal by removing her one mark of mortality, the birthmark.
Georgiana hears Aylmer talking to Aminadab in the inner room of the laboratory. When Aylmer emerges again, he directs Georgiana’s attention to his cabinet of scientific wonders, showing her a perfume powerful enough to spread over an entire country. She asks about a vial of beautiful golden liquid that she imagines could be the elixir of life. Aylmer tells her that it’s actually the most powerful poison in the world. He says he could use it to kill a king if he thought it the best course of action for the general populace. Georgiana is horrified, but Aylmer tells her that applied carefully, the poison can also work to remove skin blemishes. However, he won’t use it on his wife because her birthmark requires a solution that will go deeper than the skin.
With these two liquids Aylmer exhibits his willingness to use science to have a large-scale effect on the world, along with his pride in thinking he might be worthy to decide whether a king’s death would benefit an entire population. Also, it’s ironic that Georgiana thinks a poison looks like it could be the elixir of life, but it also suggests that immortality of the soul, if not the body, can only be found in death. This is essentially what will happen to Georgiana at the end of the story. Finally, Aylmer once again interprets the birthmark as something that goes to the very heart of Georgiana’s being, rather than as a simple skin blemish.
Throughout their discussions, Aylmer has been asking Georgiana about her physical well-being, and she’s starting to think that he may have already begun treating her through the air or her food. She even thinks she might be feeling some sort of influence on her body that’s making her blood and heart feel odd. But the birthmark doesn’t look any different, and by now she hates it even more than Aylmer does.
Georgiana isn’t worried by the fact that Aylmer has already started the treatment without notifying her or telling her anything about what it involves. He might be changing her very physical composition, but she seems fine with it, submitting entirely to his every whim. However, Aylmer seems to be failing so far.
While Aylmer works, Georgiana reads the books in his laboratory, which recount the achievements of famous scientists throughout history. These men were far ahead of their times and believed themselves to have gained power over nature and the spiritual world through their studies. They didn’t know where nature would set limits around the power of science. Georgiana is even more interested in Aylmer’s journal of his own experiments. It shows that he sees the physical aspects of science as always having spiritual implications. However, Georgiana discovers that he has failed to achieve most of what he aimed for, defeated by his own earthly imperfections, and the journal is in fact a sad record of human inadequacy. Even so, it makes Georgiana love and respect her husband more than ever.
These books show that science has a long history of potential conflict with nature, and Aylmer is following in the footsteps of countless other men who thought they could control nature through science. However, the narrator makes it clear that nature does create boundaries for science, even if it’s unclear precisely what they are. Furthermore, Aylmer’s journal proves that he himself is far from perfect, despite demanding perfection from his wife. He’s far more human than he would like to believe. Georgiana’s intensified adoration of him, even if misguided, speaks to her complete submission to him and adds to her “perfection” as a wife. She loves Aylmer more for his imperfections, even though he loves her less for hers.
Aylmer finds Georgiana reading his books and scolds her for it, saying that reading his journal almost makes him go crazy, but Georgiana assures Aylmer that it has only increased her admiration of him. He tells her to suspend judgment until after he has removed the birthmark, when he’ll actually deserve her praise. Aylmer then asks Georgiana to sing for him, which she does, and her singing makes him happy. When he returns to the inner room of his laboratory, Georgiana realizes she forgot to tell him about a strange feeling in the birthmark which has made her restless, so she follows him. She is fascinated by the sight of all the machines and instruments that her husband uses for his experiments, although they make the room far less pleasant than the one where she’s been staying. While he is cheerful enough when in Georgiana’s presence, she notices that here Aylmer is intense and worried as he keeps watch over Aminadab’s work.
Contrary to being oblivious to his failures, Aylmer seems to be very bothered by them, perhaps explaining why he cares so much about succeeding in this experiment so that he can have a perfect wife and come a little closer to perfection himself. When Georgiana enters the inner laboratory, science is revealed to be far less elegant and perfect than Aylmer has made it seem through his demonstrations for Georgiana. In fact, it is far more dependent on Aminadab’s physical, earthy abilities than Aylmer would have it seem. Furthermore, Aylmer is obviously not as confident as he wants Georgiana to think he is.
When Aylmer catches sight of Georgiana, he gets angry and accuses her of not trusting him. He even suggests that the presence of the birthmark in the room will ruin his work. Georgiana replies that he has deceived her by pretending to be so confident in the treatment when he was actually very worried about it. She tells him that he must be honest with her, for she would do anything he asked of her, even drink poison. Aylmer is impressed, and reveals that he has already been treating the birthmark, but to no avail. There’s only one option left to try, and it could be dangerous. Georgiana retorts that the only danger lies in the continued presence of the birthmark, which would make both of them go mad.
Aylmer seems not to deserve Georgiana’s devotion, since he doesn’t fully trust in her devotion to him. Georgiana, on the other hand, reaffirms her complete submission to her husband when she says she would drink poison for him. This moment also foreshadows the fact that Aylmer’s medicine will in fact act as a poison. Finally, Georgiana’s attitude towards the birthmark has completely reversed since the beginning—she would now rather die than go on living with it on her face.
Left alone again, Georgiana thinks about how amazing Aylmer is. She’s overwhelmed at his love and glad that he strives for perfection rather than being happy with something less than what he truly desires, because she thinks this makes his love pure and honest. All she wants is to be able to satisfy him for a single moment, since she knows that as soon as he’s satisfied, he’ll want something even better.
It almost seems that the more Aylmer’s flaws become apparent, the more completely Georgiana submits herself to his will. She also perceives that Aylmer’s never-ending desire for something more than what he has is impossible to fulfill, but she’ll still do whatever she can to try. This is perhaps the height of “female virtue” in this historical period, and another display of her perfection.
Aylmer enters carrying a glass of colorless liquid, anxious but claiming that the medicine is perfect. Georgiana says if she didn’t have him to think about, she’d probably rather die than live. She feels this way because she has enough moral sense to see her own faults, but not enough strength to fix them, so she simply goes on being unhappy with herself. Aylmer insists she will not die, and to demonstrate the effect of the liquid, he pours it into a plant with blemishes on its leaves, and the leaves become entirely green.
This is the first indication that Georgiana feels unsatisfied with her own morality, rather than just wanting to be rid of the birthmark because Aylmer hates it. Aylmer’s successful demonstration with the plant here echoes the failed demonstration with a different plant earlier. Though this plant with its blemishes is meant to be like Georgiana, the one that died might also be like her, casting doubt on the medicine’s success.
Georgiana says she didn’t need Aylmer to prove the liquid’s effect, because she trusts him completely. She drinks the liquid, pronouncing it delicious and saying that it satisfies a thirst she has felt for days. Then she falls asleep. Aylmer watches her anxiously, observing every little change in his wife and writing them all down in his journal. His entire self-worth is invested in the result of this experiment. Though he doesn’t know why, he kisses the birthmark, but still feels disgusted by it. Georgiana herself seems disturbed in her sleep by his kiss. The birthmark slowly begins to fade, but its disappearance is like “the stain of the rainbow fading out of the sky.” Aylmer is joyous with his success.
Georgiana again displays her submission to Aylmer and her willingness to sacrifice herself to his egotistical experiments. Aylmer seems to suddenly feel a connection to the birthmark, now that he thinks he has control over it. When it starts fading, he feels he has for once met his goal, but the narrator implies that the mark’s disappearance also takes something beautiful away from Georgiana’s face. It is now clear of blemishes, but not special as it was before. Aylmer seems oblivious to any such loss.
Aylmer pulls back a curtain, and sunlight falls on Georgiana’s cheek. He hears Aminadab laughing and congratulates him on their mutual success, saying that earth and heaven worked together to make it happen. Georgiana wakes and sees her reflection in a mirror. She seems glad that the birthmark is fading, but then she starts to look worried. She expresses her pity for Aylmer, and he doesn’t understand why, saying instead that she’s perfect now.
Nature begins to make its power felt here, as natural light enters the room for the first time and Aminadab, the man of the earth, is heard laughing with apparent triumph. Aylmer experiences a brief moment of oblivious happiness, thinking he has created perfection, but Georgiana senses that not all is as it should be.
Georgiana tells Aylmer that he has done well to aim so high in his ambitions, even if in doing so he has “rejected the best the earth could offer.” She reveals that she is dying. The birthmark was the only thing keeping her divine spirit connected to a human body, and as the birthmark disappears entirely, her soul goes up to heaven. Aminadab laughs again—earth celebrating its victory over the spiritual. The narrator laments that mortality always triumphs on earth, and if Aylmer could only have taken a broader view of life and time, he wouldn’t have lost his chance at happiness. In fact, his union with Georgiana would even have joined him to a divine being. But he couldn’t appreciate what he had, and so he threw away his best chance at perfection.
Even as she knows she’s dying, Georgiana comforts and praises Aylmer rather than criticizing him for essentially killing her. Ironically, mortality triumphs precisely because the only sign of it on Georgiana has gone, and so she becomes too perfect to remain human. Aylmer has essentially succeeded in his plan to make his wife perfect, but he didn’t take into account the fact that perfection can’t exist on earth. He could have appreciated being married to a woman who was as close to perfect as she could be, but in seeking complete perfection, he has wasted his only chance at being close to a divine creature. In effect, nature has triumphed over science even though science has completed what it meant to do.