“The Birthmark” – Women
“Everything he has to say is related, finally, to ‘that inward sphere.’ For the heart is the meeting-place of all the forces – spiritual and physical, light and dark, that compete for dominance in man’s nature. . . .” (McPherson 68-69). McPherson’s “heart” is the key to understanding the role of women in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale, “The Birthmark.”
Only imperfection is what nearsighted Aylmer sees in the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek. But he is unfortunately oblivious to the virtue in her soul, the deep beauty contained in the depth of her love for him. The wife’s virtue leads her onward and upward; the husband’s lack thereof and inability to appreciate virtue in his Georgiana leads him downward and downward.
The concept of women is established in the very opening paragraph of “The Birthmark.” The narrator introduces Aylmer as a scientist who found “a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one,” referring to his love for Georgiana. She is portrayed as having meaning in Aylmer’s life – not in first place, but in second place to his scientific interests.
Even after Aylmer has “persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife,” he is not capable of loving her properly, unselfishly, because he “had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” The narrator seeks to justify this error or lack in Aylmer by explaining that “it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy.” Already at the outset of the tale, the reader perceives that Georgiana is going to be shortchanged in this marriage. She is exposed to the problem initially when her husband asks whether “it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?'' Aylmer is in quest of physical perfection in his wife; unfortunately he discounts her inner, spiritual value so clearly manifested in her comment: ``To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.'' In using the word “simple” she is being honest and not sarcastic; she is being humble and respectful of others’ (parents?) evaluation of herself. The reply comes from a virtuous woman. “Hawthorne himself was preoccupied with . . .the conflict between pride and humility” (Swisher 13).
But Aylmer overlooks the precious and pursues the superficial by asserting that the birthmark is “the visible mark of earthly imperfection,” and that it “shocks” him. Georgiana perceives a lack of love in his overdone negative reaction to the birthmark: ``Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!''
The narrator includes observations of other women regarding the mark: “Some fastidious persons -- but they were exclusively of her own sex -- affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect...