Many of Hawthorne’s characters are burdened by inner conflicts which are never resolved into a tidy resolution. “The Birthmark”, however, has a more clearly defined moral than some of Hawthorne’s other work. The social significance of this story that was written over 150 years ago endures into our modern era with alarming clarity. An obsession with physical perfection and the battle between scientific progress and human morality are paramount in the minds of many in today’s society. This article will explore two primary points: first, it will focus on how “The Birthmark” compares to some of Hawthorne’s other work with similar themes; next, it will weave these themes together to show how his work explores these issues in haunting detail and could serve well as a mirror to modern-day values.
Hawthorne’s mistrust of science is evident in the “mad scientist” motif employed in many of his tales. In “The Birthmark”, Aylmer is a megalomaniacal scientist who thinks himself omnipotent: “No king on his guarded throne could keep his life if I, in my private station, should deem that the welfare of millions justified me in depriving him of it”. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, Dr. Rappaccini is a “mad scientist” conducting experiments on his daughter which involve poisonous plants. And in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the protagonist experiments with a fountain of youth elixir on his friends. Although Heidegger’s results aren’t fatal, as in the other two stories, they are, indeed, dismal and are no less subject to ethical criticism.
To put the theme of “The Birthmark” into a modern perspective, we need only to reiterate that the pursuit of physical perfection and the willingness to go to any lengths to get it is one of the grand themes of modern-day thinking. Georgianna’s birthmark symbolizes her liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death and she is willing to forego the danger involved to have it removed: “There is but one danger-that this horrible stigma shall be left upon my cheek… Remove it, remove it, whatever be the cost”. We need only recall the Phen-fen and Redux debacle of a few years ago and reflect on the present “perfection” techniques now being widely used such as breast implants, liposuction, and scores of other dubiously “safe” cosmetic surgery procedures to see that the mindset of Aylmer and Georgianna is still quite relevant today. While it is true that Georgianna did not appear to have an issue with her birthmark until Aylmer made it an issue, it must be stated that the influence of family and peers plays a significant role in the way people think about themselves and in their decision making. Let us compare the response of Georgianna to that of a modern woman who is contemplating plastic surgery. Author Kathy Davis takes us into the examining room of a health insurance agency on the morning for applicants who are seeking coverage for cosmetic surgery:
I have no idea what to expect as the patient enters the room. She is a slender, pretty woman in her early twenties who looks a bit like Nastassia Kinski… Hunched forward and with eyes cast downward, she begins to explain that she is “unhappy with what she has”. “I know I shouldn’t [compare] myself to other women”, she whispers, “but I just can’t help it.”
The Aylmers of today are the plastic surgeons and drug-peddling physicians who feed the unrealistic notion that a woman’s body is unacceptable unless it appears to be a jackpot winner in the “genetic lottery”. Despite the changes in cultural beauty ideals over time, one feature remains constant according to Davis; namely, that beauty is worth spending time, money, pain, and perhaps even life itself. The hand-shaped birthmark which pervaded the world of Georgianna and Aylmer also has an obsessive vice-like grip on our century-it is squeezing the life out of some, and the humanity out of others. As H. Bruce Franklin points out, “The Birthmark” is both an intricately wrought science fiction and a commentary of what Hawthorne saw as the fiction of science.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is another tale which explores research gone amok as the doctor has created a daughter who lives in a poisonous garden and is poisonous herself. Like Aylmer, Rappaccini sees himself as God-like. This argument is advanced by Franklin’s interpretation of the basic allegory in the tale: “Rappaccini, creator of the [poisonous Eden], in trying to be God exposes his daughter, the Adam of this inverted Eden, to a modern snake in the grass, Baglioni, who persuades the Eve-like Giovanni to introduce the fatal food into the learned fool’s paradise”. Rappaccini’s delusions of grandeur are apparent as he attempts to justify his experiment to his dying daughter: “Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvellous gifts… Misery to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful”. This air of omnipotence is nowhere more evident than in the physicians today whose life-prolonging machinery allows them to literally decide life and death. And we, of course, cannot forget the good Dr. Kevorkian and the euthanasia issue which has turned into a battle of rhetoric that theologians and scientists will probably never agree on. Aylmer and Rappaccini can best be likened by making a comparison of Georgianna and Beatrice. In his critical response to the stories, Madison Jones observes: “Both women die as the consequence of attempts, devised by human science, to purge their natures”. With both tales, Hawthorne sets human morality and science on a collision course that has not altered its path into the present day.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” introduces a scientist who shares Aylmer’s confidence that he can reverse natural processes with the same result: bad science putting others at risk. At first glance, Heidegger seems more playful and less dangerous than Aylmer and Rappaccini: “My dear old friends… I am desirous of your assistance in one of those little experiments with which I amuse myself in my study”. But according to Madison Jones, our response to his virtues does not make him any less diabolical. Heidegger’s attempt to manipulate nature by granting eternal youth might be paralleled to today’s issues of genetic engineering and cloning. Both are attempts to manipulate the natural order of things. The dichotomy of Hawthorne’s time and ours can be merged when we consider an issue such as cloning. Dr. Bruce Donald of the Church of Scotland offers: “Faced with such a fertile prospect, the human imagination runs riot… we might clone humans to select out genetic defects or select for desirable traits (Donald). Some would argue that this is a good thing but Donald contends that the motives proposed turn out to be for the benefit of the person who wants the cloning done, not for the person so produced. This sounds remarkably close to Dr. Heidegger’s motives, because we have evidence to support that he created the elixir “for his own amusement” rather than chiefly for the benefit of his friends. With these three tales, Hawthorne extends his list of scientific grievances.
While these three stories offer immediate insight into modern concerns, other Hawthorne tales do the same although they may not be quite so straightforward. “Ethan Brand” presents another scientist whose pride leads him astray. In this story, Hawthorne creates a model of self-destructive perfectionism; Brand ruins himself as surely as Aylmer kills Georgianna (Bunge 30-32). In “The Artist of the Beautiful” Owen tries to make machinery look natural, but his art, like Aylmer’s science, is a hopeless attempt to evade reality. And “The Prophetic Pictures” introduces us to a painter who thinks he can predict the future, and thus, control time. He has a madness not unlike Aylmer’s and with similar consequences. The modern significance of all these stories can be tidily summed up with one observation by Richard Harter Fogle: “Man’s chief temptation is to forget his limits and complexities…”
Hawthorne’s foresight into the future was quite remarkable. Although his work is dated, the ethical questions which he raises remain valid today. Georgianna’s absorption of Aylmer’s obsession can be likened to today’s women jumping on the bandwagon of fad diets and questionable cosmetic procedures. On another point, Hawthorne’s suspicion of science seems a little less unreasonable now that it might have in his day when we consider our capacity to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons. Fogle comments that while Hawthorne’s conception of science has generally been considered old-fashioned by his critics, the joke would seem to have turned against them with the growth of modern science and technology. Aylmer, Rappaccini, and Heidegger all represent the claims of modern science, from the miracle diet pills, cosmetic surgeries, and anti-aging creams and potions, to Minoxidil, to Viagra which allows the “soldier”on permanent KP duty to finally issue a sharp military salute. Some of our “miracle” science appears to work, but some has dire consequences.
Finally, we have examined how Hawthorne’s themes form a common bond to modern-day practical and ethical questions. Hawthorne, himself, had an obsession with his ancestral past, so it is ironic that he produced work that would prove to be a prelude to the future. Hawthorne wants us to see that “human perfection” is an oxymoron. On this point, Fogle notes that Aylmer’s tragic flaw is failing to see the tragic flaw in humanity. Hawthorne’s “mad scientists” cannot come to terms with the fact that humanity and imperfection are inseparable. But still today, we are no less apt to buy into the rantings of our own mad scientists and snake oil salesmen on late night infomercials who infest our society and promise us perfection. Madison Jones sums up the foresight of Hawthorne supremely: “Like many a reformer in our day, Aylmer would have human nature reconstituted or else not at all. Hawthorne, if unconsciously, was looking well ahead. But genius has always been at least one part prophecy”. Hawthorne’s moral makes a plea to us to accept our own imperfections. This moral can be expressed through a quote from-of all people-David Letterman. In an interview that I remember from a few years ago, Letterman was asked by an actress what he would change about his physical appearance if he could. Letterman’s reply was, “Well, I wouldn’t change anything. I figure, these are the cards I was dealt-what the hell- I’ll play ’em”. Hawthorne would have probably liked Letterman.
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