Chasing Perfection: Death Denial In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Birth-Mark”

by Shona M. Tritt , Michael Tritt

December 31, 2008


abstract

This paper examines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” from the perspective of Ernest Becker’s theory of Generative Death Anxiety, which proposes that much of human behavior is unconsciously generated to deflect consciousness and fear of death. Critics have characterized Aylmer as a man of his time, carried away by the idolization of science and/or as dominated by repressed fears of sexuality. Yet death anxiety more fundamentally explains the course and development of his scientific career and pursuits, the nature of his marriage relationship, and his fixation on his wife’s birthmark. Georgiana’s desperate desire to eradicate the mark (and the corporality it represents) derives from her own deep-seated anxieties about her mortality. Indeed, Aylmer and Georgiana’s determination to follow the experiment through to its tragic end can be viewed as an attempt symbolically to validate their human worth and meaning, notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of individual existence.

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“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity (ix)."
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Despite countless critical discussions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” there is little agreement about how best to understand the trials of the scientist Aylmer, and his wife Georgiana. At the heart of this debate is the question of what motivates Aylmer’s desire to remove Georgiana’s birthmark and equally problematic, though less often considered, why his wife so ardently accepts her husband’s project as her own. Psychological, historical, biographical, new critical, feminist and other approaches have contributed to a wide range of readings of the tale.1 Such diverse perspectives have offered much intriguing and illuminating discussion. Yet critics to date have not given due prominence to the extent to which death-consciousness is the veritable “mainspring” of Aylmer’s behavior and, at least to a degree, of Georgiana’s as well. In this regard, Ernest Becker’s depth-psychological theory of Generative Death Anxiety, which proposes that much of human behavior is unconsciously generated to deflect consciousness and fear of inevitable death, offers a most insightful approach to understanding the dramatic behavior of husband and wife and some of the central issues of the tale.

Humankind has, since time immemorial, struggled with the awareness and fear of mortality. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, building upon—and synthesizing—the work of psychiatrists and psychologists, existential philosophers and others, conceives a pervasive self-protective system at the core of human behavior generated by individuals to buffer themselves against the terror of death. Much of personal and social behavior in this context is an attempt symbolically to validate human worth and meaning, notwithstanding the ephemeral nature of human existence. Indeed, death anxiety is conceived as a prime mover of humankind. As Daniel Liechty suggests, it is “a problem quite unlike any other [...] more than just one emotion or fear among others. It is understood as the root anxiety, the energy simmering in the human unconscious, which literally defines humans as a species and, for better and for worse, sets our species apart from our animal siblings (italics mine, ix-x).

Literary critics have certainly remarked upon Aylmer’s (though not Georgiana’s) dread of mortality. John Gatta, for example, suggests that the scientist “struggles to avoid [...] the mortal limits [...] of his own nature “(407), Robert Micklus goes so far as to characterize Aylmer as “madly struggling against [...] the destructive blight of his earthly taint” (153), and Quinn and Baldessarini, notably title their discussion of the tale: “ ‘The Birthmark’: a Deathmark.” Even with this striking agreement about Aylmer’s desire to escape mortality, however, critics have not adequately considered the extent to which existential dread of death may be conceived as “a root anxiety,” generating not only his fixation upon the birthmark, but as well underlying the course and development of Aylmer’s over-reaching research, the nature of his strained marriage relationship, and even Georgiana’s desperate desire to follow her husband’s project, whatever the result, through to its conclusion.

The narrator of Hawthorne’s tale describes a fervent 18th century scientific zeitgeist heady with the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and “other kindred mysteries of nature” (36).2 Even so, Aylmer is singled out as a “man of science — an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy" (36), and as a zealous individual whose craving to unravel the greatest mysteries of nature seems unappeasable. Mentioned in connection with the most “ardent votaries" (36) of science, Aylmer ambitiously pursues bold and lofty projects from his “toilsome youth" (42) onward.

The word “toilsome" has a particular force here, for it connotes the sense in which Aylmer exhibits, even when young, a “compulsive style of driveness" (Becker 23) in his desire to “ascend" (36) ever-higher in his researches. To be sure, although the narrator pointedly describes the way the scientist manages to achieve great renown early in his career, he is not satisfied with his accomplishments. Devoted “too unreservedly to scientific studies" (36), he feels he must push on “into the region of miracle" (36):

The pale philosopher had investigated the secrets of the highest cloud region and of the profoundest mines; he had satisfied himself of the causes that kindled and kept alive the fires of the volcano; and had explained the mystery of fountains, and how it is that they gush forth, some so bright and pure, and others with such rich medicinal virtues (42).

This account of the “pale” scientist and his activities, although placed at the point in the tale when Georgiana enters her husband’s laboratory, characterizes the self-imposed seclusion and activity of many years duration in which Aylmer literally immured himself in his laboratory day in and day from his youth onward. The narrator’s later description of Aylmer’s journal as documenting the history of his “practical and laborious” (49) scientific life complements this view of his early yearning to succeed in his pursuits, however arduous or daunting. As Lewis B. Horne suggests, “Aylmer without his aspirations would not be Aylmer” (40).

One might ask what initially directs Aylmer to his scientific path and especially why, once started on it, he “cannot discipline that part of himself which aspires to infinite power.” (423 Heilman) Charles Proudfoot, one of the few critics to address these questions, hypothesizes that Aylmer’s choice of a profession and the nature of his investigations derive essentially from Oedipal “desires, anxieties, guilt feelings and proverbial traumas of his childhood [that lead to his] eroticization of intellectual functions as a major defense” (375).3

Applying Generative Death Anxiety theory to an understanding of the motivations underlying Aylmer’s scientific pursuits offers perhaps an even more compelling perspective on the unconscious motivations of the protagonist – and his wife. While Ernest Becker builds upon—and to a degree subscribes to—Freud’s view of repression and of the unconscious motives of behavior, the anthropologist argues, significantly, that “Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality" (Becker 96). Thus, he suggests that:

...all the talk of blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all of these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot – especially as a child—understand and a condition that – as an adult—he cannot accept. (Becker 35)

From this point of view, the basic problem of life, differentiating our species from others, is a horror of creatureliness. Becker re-conceives Freud’s developmental stages, indeed his view of the fundamental instincts that govern human behavior, in light of this underlying fear. Though it begins in early childhood, when the individual discovers that the body is strange and weak and has wants that cannot be controlled, the terror extends throughout the life cycle. All individuals invariably are subject to the demands—and ultimately the weakness—of the body. Liechty describes the process by which this creates a “generative effect in which the move to deny and repress awareness of death and mortality is commonly expressed in an urge toward creativity and accumulation – to make one’s mark on the world and thus conquer death and insignificance on the symbolic level” (x). But, however much an individual accomplishes in life, mortality is bedrock. Thus, humankind is in a uniquely impossible situation:

He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature . . .

Yet, at the same time... man is worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. (Becker 26)

Writing about the way in which humankind responds to the “immutable law of death,” Freud himself describes the individual as “bound to struggle against this subjection, for it is only with extreme unwillingness that he gives up his claim to an exceptional position” (118). Seen within the context of this struggle, the “depth and absorbing energy” (36) of Aylmer’s scientific quest derives from his desperate longing to control his destiny; he is perpetually in flight from death and its challenge to the meaningfulness of his life. Aylmer thus wrestles to “justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; to stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, and show that he counts more than anything or anyone else” (Becker 4).

The age in which Aylmer lives, discussed by critics such as Robert B. Heilman and others, 4 no doubt contributes to Aylmer’s “deification of science” and to his perception of himself as a scientist-God. Doubtless, there is an impressive synergy between the scientific zeitgeist of the story and the view that Aylmer’s God complex essentially derives from his sublimated fear of his mortal—and imperfect—nature. As Becker suggests:

Society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism [...] it doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakeable meaning (italics mine, 4-5).

Aylmer’s need to believe in his (heroic) ability as a scientist is nurtured by the larger culture that has itself deified the role of Science. Within this milieu, Aylmer strives to have power over his environment and even life itself, and in so doing, to transcend his animal (and finite) nature. His desire to create larger-than-life (or death) significance is an extreme representation of the way individuals (and humankind more generally) ward off the universally-experienced existential terror of death and fear of the meaninglessness of existence.

The scientist’s early auspicious career, in which he “made discoveries in the elemental powers of nature that had roused the admiration of all of the learned societies in Europe” (42), surely reinforces his burgeoning self-image as a scientist-hero. But the “mythology” he constructs for himself is an imaginative ideal, involving a “lifelong struggle to defeat the ‘blight’ of his earthiness” (italics mine, Micklus 150), hence leaving him vulnerable finally to the realities of earthly experience.

Assuredly, there comes a point of inevitable defeat when he begrudgingly arrives at a “recognition of the truth [...] that our great creative Mother [...] permits us indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make" (42). This inescapable limitation to his abilities—and most significantly his feelings about such—is reflected in his journal:

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" (italics mine, 49).

The above passage conveys the sense in which Aylmer is intensely disillusioned: the gulf between his aspirations and his reach evokes the protagonist’s profound frustration at being “miserably thwarted by the earthly part” (49). In The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker suggests that the distress of “admitt[ing] this utter lack of control, let[ting] it rise to consciousness...would drive [an individual] to fear and trembling, to the brink of madness" (142). Doubtless Aylmer is brought to such a brink – and even beyond.5 His self-perceived failure over the length of his career undermines his sense of self-worth to the extent that he breaks away from his work, altering, at least temporarily, the focal point of his esteem-building project.

The protagonist abandons his laboratory in “the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace-smoke, washed the stain of acid from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife” (36). In so doing, he transfers his single-minded attention to Georgiana as a means through which to increase his self-esteem and in a more fundamental way, to fulfill his life. The narrator suggests that Georgiana has many “lovers,” and that she has “magic endowments that [...] give her sway over all hearts” (38). No doubt marrying a beautiful highly desired woman, in of itself then, contributes to Aylmer’s sense of achievement.

Yet his attachment to his wife goes deeper than self-aggrandizement through winning the hand of a socially-prized beauty. He comes to idolize her as the “one living specimen of ideal loveliness" (38). In so doing, he attempts to elevate himself by his marriage to her. Becker describes this process as a type of “transference"; the individual,

fix[es] his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object [...] if the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it. One has the highest measure for one’s ideal-striving; all of one’s inner conflicts and contradictions [...] purge in a perfect consummation with perfection itself (Becker 160-1).

No doubt the objectification and idealization of Georgiana as “divine perfection,” which serves Aylmer’s need for transcendence, coalesces with a dimension of the long-standing patriarchal representation of women in Western society as angelic, innocent, virtuous and pure.6

Idolization of this sort is ever precarious. Georgiana may have come “nearly perfect from the hand of Nature" (37) yet she inevitably falls short of perfection. Not long after getting married, Aylmer zeros in obsessively upon the small birthmark on her cheek. Becker describes the way in which “[t]he shadow of imperfection falls over our lives and with it–death and the defeat of cosmic heroism" (187). Such a shadow tragically descends over Aylmer (and Georgiana). Confronted with the tiny mark which he views as a “symbol of imperfection" (39) and an earthly flaw, the scientist desperately resumes the most ambitious of his “half-forgotten investigations" (43) struggling to affirm his (heroic) status as a scientist who can “correct what Nature left imperfect, in her fairest work!"(41). Alfred S. Reid suggests that it is “under the influence of love [that Aylmer] is seized once again with a renewed faith in the philosophy of perfectibility and resumes his spiritual inquiries" (348). But the husband is rather more essentially in the grip of denial than of love or renewed faith. Aspirations on such a grandiose scale mask insecurity and fearfulness: “as a denial of helplessness in the face of death, omnipotent thinking overcomes death" (Kauffman 97).

The scientist charges ahead in his arrogant project, at least ostensibly, “confident in his science” (44). Georgiana’s adulation, “You have deep science! All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders” (41), props up that assurance. Yet Aylmer should know better. Despite relentlessly confronting his human limitations, he is “unwilling” (42) to recognize the truth. Repression and “unconscious self-deception” (40) guard him from painful self-knowledge. 7

Aylmer’s often-discussed dream and especially his response to it manifestly illustrate such repression. During the imagined operation, for instance, the impossibility of cutting out the birthmark is evidently portrayed in the way the “deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the Hand” (40). The husband’s “guilty feeling” (40) in recalling the dream, his “concealing the real depth of [...] emotion” (4) it evokes, and the awareness it brings to him of the “tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind” (40) speak to the “Truth [...] that finds its way to the mind close-muffled in robes of sleep” (40). Aylmer nonetheless continues to deny that truth, doggedly promising his wife “heaven without tasting death” (53), despite the dream and his reaction to it.

Following the protagonist’s later “abortive experiment[s]” with the withering flower and the portrait, the narrator describes the way Aylmer “soon forgot these mortifying failures” (italics mine, 46). The language here pointedly echoes Georgiana’s earlier comments to Aylmer: “I would have you recall that dream” and “I wonder that you can forget it” (40). This is forgetfulness with a defensive design. Note additionally, the force of the diction that Hawthorne employs. The word “mortifying,” which denotes decay and death, is particularly suggestive.

Narrative description throughout the tale emphasizes the birthmark’s mortal dimension. One passage, in particular, is exceptionally resonant in this regard.

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 (39).

Much is suggestive here. Even the “highest and purest" are, willy-nilly, fashioned of the earthly, complementing the idea of the “ineludible" grip of mortality. The phrase “earthly mould" is highly allusive. Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and many other writers use it to represent the irremediable dross of worldly life, escaped only in death.8 The idea of mortality “degrading” the individual to the “kindred [of] the very brutes,” is redolent as well. “Kindred” connotes intimate connection yet the idea of intimacy with the “brute” challenges suppositions of culture and civilization, undermining the death-repressing assumption that somehow man is heroically different from—and transcends the fate of—the animals. Indeed, Aminadab whose voice is likened to the “growl of a brute” (46), and who is depicted as “incrusted by an indescribable earthiness” (43) may well be emblematic of humanity’s (and more particularly Aylmer’s) “earthly mould.” Thus, the narrator describes the scientist and assistant as the “composite man” (49), component parts of a whole: “the spirit burthened with clay and working in matter — and [...] the higher nature [...]finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part”(49).9

The hand-shaped mark on Georgiana’s cheek is compellingly linked to Aylmer’s own hand, when, angered that his wife has trespassed into his laboratory, the scientist seizes his wife’s arm with a “gripe that left the print of his fingers upon it” (51). 10 As the scientist’s “grip” recalls the “ineludible grip (30) of the birthmark, so his fingerprints reflect its shape. Similarly, at the end of the tale, the account of the way the “fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life” (40) resonates strongly with the earlier portrayal of the scientist’s life-long struggle to unravel such mystery (42). The linking of the hands in this way intensifies the sense in which Aylmer’s single-minded quest to remove Georgiana’s “fatal birth-mark” (51) is inextricably tied to his frantic desire to escape his own mortality.

But why is the birthmark in the shape of a hand to begin with? One of the “most expressive" and “most frequently appearing" parts of the body in symbolism, the hand is often associated with the power and the strength of Divinity/God (Cooper 78, Biederman 162). In the Old Testament, in particular, the hand of the Lord represents “God in the wholeness of his power and instrumentality" (Chevalier and Brant 466). In Exodus, for example, God tells Moses that only a “strong hand" will compel Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites.11 Yet hands also appear hundreds of times in more literal ways in the Bible; the human hand enables people therein (as in life itself) to perform all sorts of mundane—and other—tasks. Indeed, the expression, “the work of the hands" is often used in the Bible to express the human process of making or crafting.12 This latter emphasis not only upon the everyday instrumentality of the hands but on the way in which they are used specifically for fashioning or crafting is particularly relevant to “The Birthmark."

Surely Aylmer may be conceived as one such individual maker, trying pretentiously to fashion a perfect being, though ironically “working in matter” (49). In effect, Aylmer is attempting to sculpt (through his science) the ideal woman, much like the mythological Pygmalion, working in marble, with whom he is compared (41). Yet Pygmalion could not himself bring his statue to life; he needed Aphrodite to do that. Despite humankind’s impressive powers of creation, mortal ability (and knowledge) is necessarily inadequate and transitory; the humanhand (unlike the Godly one) is thus symbolically linked (in the Bible) and in other sources to mortal weakness and to the “corporeal” (Cirlot 131). In Deuteronomy 8:17, for example, Moses warns God’s people not to assume that they can, through the power of their mortal hands, bring themselves prosperity. These creaturely limitations, signified by the human hand, are reflected in Hawthorne’s ingenious symbolism. For the birthmark, described throughout the tale as “tiny,” “little,” “smallest,” “pigmy,” and “minute,” is miniscule in size. The diminutive quality of the hand connotes its weakness. Indeed, in the Old Testament, in both Isaiah and Kings, for example, the literal source of the expression, “drained of power,” is in the original Hebrew “small of hand”. (Ryker, Wilhoit, Lonjman 361). The shape—and size—of the birthmark, then, reminds Aylmer of what he struggles hopelessly and endlessly to deny: he may be “permit[ted] [...] to mar, but seldom to mend [...] and on no account to make”(42). Ironically, the “fatal birth-mark” (51) that he abhors has been “stamped ineffaceably” on his wife’s cheek by the incomparably “strong hand”13 of the Creator. Georgiana asks her husband: “Cannot you remove this little, little mark [...]" (41)? Despite his pretention, Aylmer cannot loosen the “ineludible gripe" (39) of even so tiny a blemish.

Humankind’s mortal nature can be traced to Eden, which is pointedly alluded to in the earlier-cited phrase: “like whom their visible frames return to dust” (39). This passage has an especial force, recalling the momentous biblical text, Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” God speaks here after Adam and Eve have tasted of the forbidden fruit and is punishing humankind with expulsion from the garden. This reference in Hawthorne’s text, building upon the paragraph preceding it in which Hiram Powers’s statue of Eve is mentioned, critically activates the story of the moment not only when humankind was expelled from the bliss of the garden, but when “man’s peculiar and greatest anxiety” (Becker 70) death, was ushered into the world.

Of course it is Eve, the temptress, conceived as emotional and unable to control her appetites, who receives the ultimate blame for the fall into mortality. The birthmark comes additionally to symbolize woman, then, not idealized as Aylmer had originally conceived of her, but as the opposite: corporeal, degraded and fallen. 14

Jules Zanger perceptively locates a significant symbolic manifestation of that corporality in the association of the birthmark with blood, (“directly by kennings" and indirectly by its linkage to the flush in Georgiana's cheeks [368]), which he believes links the mark to “the menstrual aspect of woman's biological life" (369).15 Zanger discusses this symbolism in the specific context of 19th century social taboos and Hawthorne’s recent marriage preceding the tale to Sophia Peabody. Yet such taboos and derogative attitudes toward menstruation in particular and indeed toward other facets of woman’s biological nature (for example, pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation) reflect views of women deriving from their long-standing association with nature and the body. Indeed, social psychologists who study what has come to be called Terror Management Theory,16 “the cognitive architecture of psychological defense against awareness of death” (Arndt, Cook, Routledge 35), have recently found experimental evidence of an “existential perspective that emphasizes threats associated with women’s childbearing and menstruating bodies” (Goldenberg and Roberts 72).

Not only have women through the figure of Eve been conceived, then, as having brought death into the world, but they are also regarded as more creaturely and thus a trial (and a threat) to man who imagines he can transcend his biology and physicality. In “The Theme of the Three Caskets," Freud associates woman with Death, suggesting that among the “inevitable relations that a man has with a woman," is that of “the woman who destroys him... the Mother Earth who receives him once more" (121). Dorothy Dinnerstein likewise argues that woman is representative of “the body principle in all of us... the insistent rule of flesh, flesh which is going to die and which even when death is remote makes humbling demands" (126) . It is this “insistent rule of flesh," linked especially to woman, that Aylmer reads into the birthmark and that underlies his reactions to it.

A number of critics have suggested that Aylmer’s dread of the birthmark derives from his fear of sexual intimacy with Georgiana. Frederick Crews, for example, describes the elaborate contrivance of Aylmer’s laboratory as a “refuge from sex” (157).17 This fear of sexuality and sex itself is fundamentally rooted in a fear of death:

Born of the flesh, the man in love finds fulfillment as flesh, and the flesh is destined to the tomb. [...] The alliance between Woman and Death is confirmed [...] she [is] [...] the dreadful bride whose skeleton is revealed under her sweet mendacious flesh. Thus what man cherishes and detests first of all in woman – loved one or mother – is the fixed image of his animal destiny; it is the life that is necessary to his existence but that condemns him to the finite and to death (The Second Sex 165).

De Beauvoir describes ambivalent feelings toward sex: the flesh is “sweet;” “it is the life that is necessary to his existence”; “the man in love finds fulfillment in flesh”; yet man also feels repulsed and frightened because of womankind’s associations with the tomb. Such ambivalence is clarified by Otto Rank: “There exists a fundamental dualism in the masculine sex impulse, highly estimated as a pleasurable function of the ego while simultaneously rejected as a coercion to propagate – hence feared as a symbol of man’s death” (213). Indeed, Susan Griffith, recounting some of the terrifying images of women through the ages, includes woman as a “vessel of death ... [whose] suppliant flesh is a maw, a devouring hole, an abyss.”(83)

Recent empirical studies by a number of Terror Management psychologists support the extent to which sexual interactions can “provide a sense of union and transcendence [and yet can] remind people in a deeply threatening way of their animality and mortality." (Greenberg et al. 12) The extent to which man both paradoxically cherishes yet detests and fears the creatureliness of woman (and the flesh more generally) is symbolically represented in the way Aylmer responds to the birthmark toward the end of the story: “by a strange and unaccountable impulse," the husband kisses the mark even as “his spirit recoiled in that very act" (54).18

Shannon Burns submits that “Georgiana’s role in ‘The Birth-Mark’ has taken up little critical attention and that [...] her position in the tale is as central and complex as her husband’s” (155).19 Certainly her change in attitude toward the birthmark and her enthusiasm for her husband’s project to remove it, whatever the cost to her, beg for analysis. Although critics have focused less upon Georgiana than upon Aylmer, they have offered explanation of her growing hatred of the mark and her willingness to sacrifice life itself to remove it. June Webb describes Aylmer’s “almost Skinnerian [...] approach to Georgiana... his positive and negative reinforcement [that] drives her to the decision to permit him to go to work with chemicals on her body” (58). Burns similarly suggests that it is her husband’s “horrified reaction” (154) to the birthmark that causes Georgiana to want to get rid of it, while Barbara Eckstein locates the model for her submission specifically in the “romantic code” that affirms that it is “better for Georgiana to die for love and perfect beauty, the rewards of a heroine, than to live beyond the romance plot” (514). Judith Fetterley alternatively envisions Georgiana as more a victim of the patriarchal “cult of female beauty, a cult whose political function is to remind women that they are, in their natural state, unacceptable, imperfect, monstrous” (26).

No doubt Georgiana has been, like so many women over the millennia, “psychologically shaped [by patriarchy] so as to internalize the idea of [her] own inferiority” (Lerner 218). No doubt as well, however, given the extremity of her feelings toward the birthmark (“Not even Aylmer now hated it as much as she”[48]), the desire to eradicate it (and the corporality it represents) derives not only from an internalization of what Aylmer thinks and from social/cultural influences, but from deep-seated feelings independent of these.

In effect, Aylmer objectifies his wife, initially idolizing her as an object of beauty,20 and then later re-conceives her as flawed, requiring “improvement." Yet, surely the degree to which Georgiana partakes in such objectification and “participates in her own destruction" (Eckstein 515), derives partially, at least, from a deeply-rooted hatred of her creatureliness. Goldenberg and Roberts describe the hurtful course of self-objectification in women:

Objectification of women serves an important existential function – it strips them of their creaturely connection and thus provides psychic protection from the threat of death. Thus, it is not surprising that women objectify other women, and in addition, it is not surprising that women also objectify their own bodies, a phenomenon referred to as ‘self-objectification" and demonstrated by numerous studies. In other words, we suggest that women themselves participate willingly in the flight away from the corporeal, creaturely body" (Goldenberg and Roberts 78).21

The way in which women themselves flee the “corporeal, creaturely body,” may well be indicated early in “The Birth-mark.” Describing the various reactions to the mark on Georgiana’s cheek, the narrator specifically mentions some “fastidious persons [...] exclusively of her own sex” (italics mine, 38) who feel that the birthmark destroys her beauty.

Some of the selfsame processes may be conceived, therefore, to animate the behavior and attitudes of husband and wife. 22 This is not surprising since Becker’s Generative Death Anxiety theory provides, in its most universal sense, an explanation of human nature regardless of gender. Thus, the “romantic solution” earlier mentioned, which satisfies the individual’s need to “merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning” (Becker 160) through a romantic relationship, applies here as well. So Georgiana is more and more enamored with her idealized husband-scientist: “Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love – so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection” (52).

The ability of woman to find some sort of (symbolically) heroic, transcendent place in society has typically been limited by patriarchy. Science, for example, developed by and large without the inclusion of women in active roles. Aylmer can choose the role of questing scientist in search of the mysteries of life, while it remains for Georgiana to become, much like the freckled plant, simply an object for experiment. Woman has been denied a role in many areas of human endeavor which might offer the ostensible opportunity for dedication to a high ideal, or even to martyrdom, (such as in going to war), and has thus been deprived of a means of symbolic transcendence of death. As Simone de Beauvoir suggests, “The worst curse that has been laid upon woman was that she should be excluded from these [roles][...] for it is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal” (64). Perhaps more commonly than men, women have devoted themselves to another in a “self-absorbing” union. In Georgiana’s poignant situation, however, as in many real life situations, such absorption “becomes self-negating or masochistic when she sacrifices her individual personality and gifts by making the man and his achievements into her immortality symbol” (Becker 170).

Despite the symbolic, even allegorical dimensions of “The Birthmark,” in which Aylmer, Georgiana, and especially Aminadab seem representative types as much as genuine human beings, Hawthorne’s characters retain a remarkable “emotional validity”(Newman 37) and “psychological complexity” (Napier 32, Walsh 12). Some early critics argued that the story lacks realism because of the symbolic dimension of the tale, 23 yet a far greater number of readers have admired it (Newman 37). Hawthorne creates a finely balanced equilibrium between the symbolic and the realistic. He portrays, “by means of the symbol ... the ambivalence of motive and the ambiguity of experience that defined for him the texture of the human condition” (Martin 23). “The Birthmark” has been of particular interest to psychological critics because of this evocation of the “ambivalence of motive.” Assuredly, Hawthorne’s revelation of “the deeper psychology” (Crews 16), his acute dramatization and revelation of the basic drives that animate human behavior, have endlessly stimulated the imagination of his readers.

In an all too human (though extreme) way, Aylmer and Georgiana try desperately to affirm a significant role for themselves (and each other) that will enable them to rise above the evanescence of their mortal lives. Together, husband and wife yield to a disastrous preoccupation with the birthmark, the obliteration of which becomes in their imagination the promise of a meaningful life. By the end of the story, the couples’ entire sense of self-worth is hopelessly linked to their joint project: “the whole value of [...] existence was involved in the process now to be tested" (54).

“The human organism," writes Jerry Piven, is the animal whose magnificent capacity for thought and imagination is the very frailty constricting its perception of reality, molding, twisting, and sanitizing it from the terrors [of] consciousness [...]" (237). Georgiana and Aylmer tragically thwart that magnificent capacity in the struggle to affirm the meaning of their lives in an existentially terrifying world.

End Notes

1. The MLA bibliography lists 47 journal articles devoted to Hawthorne’s story from 1949 to the present. 

2. Citations of “The Birth-Mark” are taken from the Centenary edition of Hawthorne’s work and are noted by parenthesized page numbers in our text.

3. Proudfoot similarly argues that Georgiana’s own “unconscious unresolved oedipal problems” [account for] her masochistic and/or destructive wishes” (366). As with the husband, so with the wife; we would suggest rather that fear of death is the root anxiety.

4. See, for example, Male (81) and Scheer (108). 

5. Nina Baym characterizes “Aylmer’s new motive […as] a truly mad hatred of G’s birthmark” (italics mine, 40). Yet she emphasizes that “The question of why this birthmark so appalls him is not answered” (40) in the story. 

6. A number of feminist readings of the story have most insightfully suggested the way in which patriarchy contributes to Aylmer’s view —and treatment—of his wife. See, in particular, Fetterly and Skredsvig.

7. Psychological critics have long argued that Aylmer manifests the mechanism of repression. See, for example, Crews, who suggests that: “Aylmer’s art may thus be regarded as serving the cause of repression” and Sakinovsky who describes the “repressions that pervade this story” (275).

8. See Spenser, The Fairie Queen, Bk. 1 Canto 7; Shakespeare, The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine, Act 1, scene1; Milton, “Nativity Ode,” XV; and Keats, “Epistle to My Brother George.”

9.Aminadab has been the focus of a great deal of critical discussion. That he is representative of man’s physical nature is obvious in every description of him. It is indeed strange, then, that Aminadab, described as a “thing of senses!”(55) incisively comments: “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark.” Does Hawthorne intend irony in the “primitive” Aminadab’s acceptance of Georgiana’s mortal imperfection? Hugo McPherson notes: “Though Hawthorne calls Aminadab’s talents ‘earthly,’ […] the ‘underworker’s’ awareness of Aylmer’s delusion suggests that […] he is wiser than his master – that he is intuitively in touch with human nature”(222). For further discussion of the critical response to Aminadab, see Rees. 

10. There are several other passages in the text that may also be interpreted to indicate (though less forcefully) the association of the hands. Note, for example, some of the diction used with Aylmer: he “handled physical details […]” (49); “his grasp[…]” (49); “lay his hand on the secret of creative force.” (36). For further discussion of these associations, see especially Horne, as well as Lang and Youra. 

11. See Ryker, Wilhoit and Lonjman 361, and Ex 3:19-20; 6:1:1; 7:4-5; 13:9; 14; and 16.

12. See Deut. 28:12; 31:29 and Psalms 90:17.

13. The phrase the “strong hand of God” appears in Psalms 136:12; Ex. 6:1; Job 5:15; Isaiah 40:10 and in dozens more places in the Bible.

14. Kary Skredsvig asserts that Hawthorne’s innovation in “The Birth-Mark” is that he combines in Georgiana the traditional literary representation of woman as both idealized and fallen. (98)

15. Fetterly (26), Baym (41), and Eckstein (515), also note the biological dimension of woman as a factor in the treatment of Georgiana. The hand is described as “crimson” eight times in Hawthorne’s text, supporting Zanger’s emphasis on the color of blood. Additionally, however, Olderr (61) and Devries (236) suggest that more generally in symbolism a red hand may signify a “warning of death.”

16. For an effective introduction, particularly to the empirical research conducted by TMT psychologists, see: “A Perilous Leap from Becker’s theorizing to Empirical Science: Terror Management Theory and Research.”

17. See also Lesser, Baldessari, Zanger, Fetterly, Baym and Lammers who discuss this element of sex. Lammers uniquely proposes that the birthmark is “connected with ‘health’ and various other positive ideas associated with redness or blood – including ‘the triumph of blood,’ ‘roses,’ ‘blooms,’ ‘a brilliant glow,’ heart,’ and ‘blushes’”(41). 

18. Lammers uniquely proposes that the birthmark is “connected with ‘health’ and various other positive ideas associated with redness or blood – including ‘the triumph of blood,’ ‘roses,’ ‘blooms,’ ‘a brilliant glow,’ heart,’ and ‘blushes’”(41). 

19. See also Walsh: “They [critics] have paid practically no attention to Georgiana […] a fully developed character” (13). 

20. Shakinofsky (4) and Fetterly (24) specifically discuss Georgiana’s objectification.

21. These researchers and others have conducted a number of fascinating experiments that illustrate that existential concerns in particular can fuel women’s self-objectification practices and desire to attain cultural standards for women to be thin (Goldenberg, Arndt, & Brown, 2003).

22. Critics as a rule have been loath to view Aylmer and Georgiana as being similar. Lewis B. Horne is perhaps typical here when he writes: “Her husband, of course, is not of the same make” (40).

23. In 1847, for example, the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine wrote: “Unfortunately in Mr. Hawthorne’s stories, it is the human being himself who is not probable or possible” (Newman 37), whereas Henry James suggests about “The Birthmark” in particular, that there is “something stiff and mechanical in the story” (James 355).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Shona M. Tritt "Chasing Perfection: Death Denial In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Birth-Mark”". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/m_tritt-chasing_perfection_death_denial_in_natha. December 31, 2008 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2008, Published: December 31, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Shona M. Tritt