Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” is the story of a Frankenstein-esque scientist attempting to remove a crimson birthmark from his wife’s otherwise pale face. This short story, filled with moral ambiguity and pseudo-alchemy, can be analyzed for its faulty ideology by taking a Deconstructive approach. A close look at this text reveals hypocritical binary oppositions, multiple perceived meanings, and ultimately, problematic ideologies. In “The Birth-Mark,” Hawthorne embraces certain binary oppositions and denies others, which shows his hand, revealing several ideologies that confuse and muddle the true meanings of the text. More specifically, Hawthorne attempts to draw the line between the earthly and the spiritual, while still holding onto ideologies that would combine those two ideals.
The text essentially attempts to draw several ideological lines that we, as readers, are supposed to conform to as we read. The most obvious dichotomy that the text uses is the difference between what is considered beautiful and what is considered ugly. Georgiana is considered a perfect being who has one flaw: the birthmark. Aylmer even says that she “came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature,” except for the “visible mark of earthly imperfection,” suggesting that even though she is considered a perfect being by all other measures, the birthmark is her one flaw that cancels out all of her beauty. However, while Aylmer does state that this one imperfection ruins the rest of her beauty, the text goes on to say that some of her suitors “would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.” This inclusion of adoration towards the birthmark destabilizes the usual division of beautiful versus ugly, conveying that while Georgiana is considered a perfect being with one mark of imperfection, she is still desired. Aminadab, Aylmer’s assistant, even states that “If she were [his] wife, [He’d] never part with that birth-mark.” Because of Aylmer’s scrutiny, Georgiana states that she wants to be rid of the birthmark either through Aylmer’s science or through death—she says that the birthmark “makes [her] the object of [Aylmer’s] horror and disgust.” Georgiana places Aylmer at the center of her problems, since Aylmer is the one who specifically brings his hatred for the birthmark to her, along with a remedy. However, other men in Georgiana’s want to preserve the birthmark, and even wish to kiss it. So, the text blurs the lines between beautiful and ugly while still keeping the patriarchal forces behind the dichotomy strong—the man is determined to scientifically fix his wife, no matter the cost, because beauty, to Aylmer, comes before livelihood. However, as we saw with Aminadab, Aylmer seems to be unique in his aspirations to remove the birthmark. This is important as we move from the binary opposition of beautiful versus ugly—or perfection versus imperfection—onto the binary opposition of earthly versus divine.
The relationship between earthly and divine in this text is most clear to see from the relationship between Aminadab and Aylmer. Aylmer is described as a “man of science” who “had made experience of a spiritual affinity.” Aylmer explores “mysteries of nature” which “open paths into the region of miracle.” In fact, Aylmer speaks to Georgiana about the Alchemists, who search for the Elixir Vitae, and who push the limits of natural science. We can see the extent of Aylmer’s capabilities when we examine how he attempts to remove the birthmark—he creates a clear concoction which revives a sick plant to perfect health that Georgiana ultimately drinks. This is to say that Aylmer pursues a sect of science that is mystical and alchemical—the word “sorcery” is even used when Georgiana reads some of the books that Aylmer keeps in his laboratory. So, we are to understand that Aylmer is not just an ordinary man, but a man capable of magical experiments. Aminadab, however, is referred to by Aylmer as a “man of clay.” He is described as having a low stature, a bulky frame, and shaggy hair, and he has seemingly none of the “gifts” that Aylmer has, having only “great mechanical readiness.” We are to assume, based on Aminadab’s description, the racialized background behind these two characters—Aylmer, the white master, and Aminadab, the servant of color. The dichotomy between Aylmer and Aminadab is a binary opposition that this text uses in order to differentiate man from the divine. Aylmer is almost described as a demigod in this text—he is capable of alchemy, of mystical and chemical brilliance that supersedes human science. Aminadab, meanwhile, is a man of the earth, who is not capable of such magic, and who is the servant of Aylmer. Aminadab is racialized, and considered more of a creature than the intellectual, white, Aylmer. It seems that the text draws a line between a white, intellectual being and a racialized, servant being. However, we must bring back into question the division between perfection and imperfection. The dichotomy between Aylmer and Aminadab helps us see how the text pushes Aylmer into the role of being a perfect human. If the text is suggesting that Aylmer is a perfect being, then he has no room for imperfection—but, as we see with the tragedy at the end of the novel, this is not true. Aylmer fails to remove the imperfection from his wife and keep her alive. The text, then, makes a statement on the imperfection of humanity. Georgiana is described as a perfect creation by nature, with one birthmark that cancels out all her perfection. In a futile quest to create perfection, Aylmer, the profound scientist, attempts to remove the imperfection from Georgiana, symbolically removing the imperfection from humanity. However, in the process, he kills the “almost perfect” human, proving that perfection is impossible.
Through this denial of perfection to Aylmer, both in himself—unable to complete the task of creating perfection—and in Georgiana—unable to be rid of imperfection—the text suggests that Aylmer is not a mystical, intellectual being after all, but rather, a human being with hubris and flaws of his own. Aylmer and Aminadab are then put onto the same pedestal—they are both human beings with flaws. This brings us back to the binary opposition of earthy versus divine—Aylmer becomes a man of the earth rather than a spiritual being, because he cannot solve the issue of removing imperfection. He kills Georgiana, an “almost perfect” creation, because of his immense pride in his own ability to cure imperfection, but he falls flat. This text, through Aylmer’s actions, destabilizes the very dichotomy it was attempting to create. Aylmer wanted to draw the line between beautiful and ugly—between perfection and imperfection—by perfecting something that only had one flaw holding it back, but he fell short and became imperfection itself.
The text, while originally trying to say that beautiful and ugly are two opposite ideas, tries to say that ugly is the only thing that is attainable. Ideologically, we as readers are conditioned to believe that this is not true, and that beauty—and perfection—are the very thing we are supposed to strive for. This text, however, states that imperfection is the only thing that we can attain. When Georgiana drinks Aylmer’s potion, her birthmark does go away—but she dies immediately after. She dies because now that she no longer has her birthmark, she is literally a perfect being, and cannot exist on Earth—she symbolically becomes a divine being. Georgiana’s death then symbolizes that the only thing that Nature and Earth can create is imperfection, and our hubris-filled attempt to create perfection is a fool’s errand.
This is the reading that the text seems to prefer—and the one that as readers we can naturally latch on to, because the ideological concept of perfection versus imperfection is so easy to comprehend in our society. However, there is a conflict with this interpretation of the text. By embracing the binary opposition between the earthly and the divine, the text also embraces all of the current imperfections in society. The relationship between Aylmer and Aminadab is particularly relevant in this case—by embracing that imperfection is natural and earthly in the text, the text is also stating that the hierarchical power difference between Aylmer and Aminadab is acceptable and natural. Aminadab and Aylmer are two sides of the same coin—Aylmer is an intellectual whose science borders on the mystic, and Aminadab is described as a lowly brute, but they are both earthly creatures. If the text embraces this idea that while Aylmer and Aminadab are both inherently flawed but that Aylmer still holds power over Aminadab, then they embrace a racialized society. The text asserts, by Georgiana’s death, that we should accept this society—a society with racism and classism, with white people and people of color separated by their individual “imperfections.”
The meaning of the text is ultimately undecidable—it forces us to hold our societal ideology of beauty as true, and yet there is conflicting evidence in the text that tells us that the binary opposition of perfection versus imperfection is impossible. The “true” meaning of the text, the meaning where we are supposed to acknowledge that perfection is unattainable and not change our society for the better, is the meaning that best caters to the warped ideology of beauty that our society favors. The only reason we don’t pay attention to the other meanings in the text is because the one meaning we prefer is ideologically constructed. The true meaning of this text cannot be fully found, because we cannot fully separate ourselves from the ideologies that our modern societal traditions have forced upon us.