Although “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was written in the mid-1800s, its themes and ideas are still a part of society today.
The 19th century was a time of change, just as this, the millennium, is a time of great change. Hawthorne’s ideas about science, beauty, and life still play a major part in our lives, despite many improvements. Even today, people try to play “God” and change things that nature has put in place. It’s human curiosity; how much can be changed, how many things can be perfected? The themes in this short story– religion, gender, and science–were relevant in Hawthorne’s day, and still are many years later. The theme of religion is hidden in the desire to erase the birthmark. In trying to “perfect” Georgiana, Aylmer is testing God’s creation.
He doesn’t believe that how God created Georgiana is perfect, and he is obsessive about making her his idea of perfection. Aminadab, Aylmer’s servant, tries to tell his master to leave the birthmark alone. He tells Aylmer that if Georgiana were his wife, he wouldn’t worry about something so trivial. However, the scientific ideas on Aylmer’s mind won’t let him forget the birthmark.
He believes he can remove it with the help of science. Even so, science has no part in creation, according to Hawthorne, and Georgiana’s death after the removal of the birthmark signifies that theory. Her death is Hawthorne’s way of showing that judgment and perfection are God’s duties–not man’s.
In today’s society we still battle this idea; is perfection attainable through science? Maybe people think sothousands have cosmetic surgery performed every year as a way of trying to make themselves more beautiful. Religion has taken a step back in society today, so the significance of perfection by God has also been moved to the back burner. But, underlying all the surgeries performed today, is the question: Is it right to change what was given to you by God? Perhaps, but it is not without consequence. Many cosmetic surgeries require painful recovery time or follow-ups, and even some may be dangerous to one’s health. Hawthorne’s gender bias reflects his times, naturally, but they are slightly exaggerated in this story.
Georgiana is a rational woman, but Aylmer won’t listen to her. She is a woman and, therefore, is not supposed to have anything to contribute. She agrees to all the attempts to remove her birthmark because she is submissive and can’t bring herself to tell her husband “no.” A “good” wife wouldn’t question her husband’s motives, so she allows him to perform tests and administer concoctions. Even at the moment of her death, as her birthmark is removed, she shows some happiness at pleasing her husband.
Georgiana’s worst fear is an unhappy marriage, and she would much rather die than have Aylmer look at her with disgust. Gender bias today is not as strong as it once was but it still exists. For some women, there is still that desire to be submissive and please men. Many women have overcome this, but there remains a gender bias in the workplace, politics, athletics and many other areas. With time, hopefully, people will come to realize that women are indeed equal to men, and deserve to be treated the same.
The scientific theme in “The Birthmark” is obvious from the start. Aylmer’s obsession is rooted in science. The dilemma is responsibility vs. possibility. There is a possibility that the birthmark can be removed, but it is the responsibility of Aylmer, as a husband and a scientist, to make sure that it won’t harm Georgiana. Aylmer forgets his responsibility and loses Georgiana because of it.
Scientific knowledge is indeed power, but Hawthorne seeks to remind us that with power comes a need for control and self-restraint. Scientific discoveries and the responsibilities behind them still plague us today. One well-known example is the cloning of Dolly the sheep.
While scientists saw this as a wonderful medical advancement, average people feared the next object to be cloned. Human beings are comforted with the idea that they know everything, and when a new theory is introduced they tend to separate into two groups: those who want to encourage change and advancement, and those who are afraid of what it will mean for their life, and shy away from that potential change. We’re much the same today as we were in Hawthorne’s time. We insist on questioning everything in our lives. We often lose sight of our beliefs and religion, and we still have trouble agreeing that both genders are equal. Also, the desire to play God is something that is almost instinctual in human beings.
We enjoy challenging modern advances and seeing if we can make things better, faster, smaller, less expensive, etc. Hawthorne’s story is, in a way, the equivalent of a billboard along the highway. It asks you to stop and consider what is happening, changing, and if responsibility is being taken. Much like in the 1800s, people today are coming up with new and amazing devices.
There will always be a fear of the unknown and science is the greatest unknown of all.