The story revolves around the small, pink, hand-shaped birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek. This symbol can be interpreted in a few different ways, which can all work simultaneously.
In one sense, Aylmer sees the birthmark as a symbol of sin and moral degeneracy, and he imagines it ingrained not only on his wife’s skin but on her heart, indicating a significance beyond that of her physical appearance. However, Aylmer does not realize that because it’s a flaw, the birthmark connects Georgiana to the physical, natural world. As her “sole token of human imperfection,” the mark allows her to continue living on the earthly plane. Its removal kills her because she becomes too perfect for the world of flawed humans.
The hand-shaped mark also represents the grip of mortality, a reminder that Georgiana, a human created by nature, will one day die. Aylmer’s anxiety around the birthmark shows his general anxiety at the idea of mortality, largely because death makes everyone equal. Even Georgiana, his almost-perfect wife, will be no better than everyone else when she’s dead and buried. This interpretation implies that the eventual death of humans is in fact the major flaw which nature forces on all her creations, and Aylmer’s quest to remove the birthmark may also be a quest – an impossible quest – to make Georgiana immortal.
Alternately, the birthmark can be read as an allusion to 1 Peter 1:19 in the Bible, which says the faithful are saved from their sins by the “blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Georgiana is entirely willing to die for Aylmer’s desire for perfection, essentially sacrificing herself for his happiness. According to this Bible verse, she becomes Christlike when Aylmer renders her “without blemish” by removing the birthmark, and she thus becomes the perfect sacrifice, like Jesus, to atone for Aylmer’s own sins in attempting to control God’s creations.
The Birthmark Quotes in The Birthmark
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.
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.
"Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?" cried he, impetuously....
"Nay, Aylmer," said Georgiana with the firmness of which she possessed no stinted endowment, "it is not you that have a right to complain. You mistrust your wife; you have concealed the anxiety with which you watch the development of this experiment. Think not so unworthily of me, my husband. Tell me all the risk we run, and fear not that I shall shrink; for my share in it is far less than your own.... I submit... And, Aylmer, I shall quaff whatever draught you bring me; but it will be on the same principle that would induce me to take a dose of poison if offered by your hand."
"My noble wife," said Aylmer, deeply moved, "I knew not the height and depth of your nature until now.”
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.