Perfection and Obsession: the Underlying Themes of “The Birthmark”

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Updated: Oct 16, 2023
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A captivating narrative that dives deep into the human brain, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne examines the consequences of a preoccupation with perfection. This short novella provides an up-close and personal look at the perils of unrestrained ambition and the deep cost of attempting to dominate nature via its abundance of symbolism and metaphor.

Aylmer, a talented physicist, marries the stunning Georgiana and becomes the protagonist of the novel. Aylmer is distracted from Georgiana’s natural attractiveness by a little blemish in the form of a hand on her face.

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This blemish detracts from her otherwise flawless appearance in his eyes. However, the birthmark is more than simply a cosmetic fault; it represents a universal human condition, the “flaw” (or imperfection) that is inherent to every person.

Hawthorne’s depiction of Aylmer’s fixation is a biting assessment of our culture’s need for perfection. Hawthorne warns against the perils of unrestrained ambition at an age when scientific and technological progress promised to expand human potential. Instead of merely wanting to make his wife look better, Aylmer has a troubling drive to dominate, control, and play God by having the birthmark removed.

Georgiana’s anxiety rises as Aylmer continues his tests. Since she cares so much about her husband, she stops trying to protect herself and instead becomes an active part of his infatuation. This relationship is reflective of the cultural expectations placed on women during Hawthorne’s era, when women were generally considered as an extension of their husbands and their value was based on how well they conformed to these expectations.

Aylmer’s laboratory, a miniature version of the real world, is a great place to see his theories in action. There, scientists study and manipulate the natural world. Aminadab, Aylmer’s helper, provides an extra depth to the narrative. Aminadab, in contrast to Aylmer, finds the birthmark beautiful; he considers it proof of Georgiana’s humanity. In stark contrast to Aylmer’s grandiose ideals, his presence brings one back to reality and the natural order of things.

Tragically, the story’s finale, in which Aylmer succeeds in eliminating the birthmark, comes at the expense of Georgiana’s life. Aylmer overlooks Georgiana’s humanity, one of her most endearing qualities, in his pursuit of perfection. The birthmark symbolized the temporary aspect of existence, the beauty of death, and the faults that made us human.

For all times and places, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is a warning. The narrative has striking resonance in our times, as the need for perfection frequently takes precedence over true human connection. Aylmer’s sad story serves as a reminder of the price we pay for our fixation with exaggerated beauty standards and the continual need to accomplish more, do more, and be more.

In conclusion, “The Birthmark” is a fundamental analysis of society’s connection with perfection, and not merely a novel about a scientist’s fixation. Hawthorne expertly spins a yarn that prompts us to consider the price of perfection and to celebrate the frailties that make us human. The narrative ultimately serves as a reminder of the need of maintaining a healthy equilibrium between pride and modesty, as well as the deep beauty to be discovered in life’s flaws.

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Perfection and Obsession: The Underlying Themes of "The Birthmark". (2023, Oct 16). Retrieved from