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.
Mortality 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.
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.
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.
"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.”
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.
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.