The Birthmark

Speculative Fiction of the nineteenth century would not be complete without someone attempting to “fix” a person they find abhorrent.   For generations, artists and writers have utilized the female form as a canvas.  Fantasy, fear, and other expressions of the creator took precedence over the actual women depicted (or making art alongside men).  Our authors in this project had, thanks to this cultural context, a vested interest in keeping “the feminine” just that, a separate, othered archetype.  Or, better yet, “the feminine” as a mirror for the presumed reader.  Every story in this blog has a male protagonist obsessing over a woman’s outward appearance and the desires it provokes in him until that woman is absolutely ruined (Franklin 25)

The possibility of perfection, of manipulating faulty flesh into something spectacular – this fascinated the writers of this era.  Uncomfortably, the bodies were often women’s, and their manipulation carried on without consent, or enthusiasm, in the case of Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark.

The pursuit of ideal female beauty, at the expense of actual women, is nothing new (or, sadly, nothing old).  What is remarkable here is the degree of the protagonist’s reaction.  Alymer doesn’t merely dislike the birthmark, he despises it.  In true misogynist fashion, he is obsessed with controlling what he loathes, and what he loathes is  proof of his wife’s humanity.  Her birthmark clouds her otherwise stunning face, blurring the otherwise crystal mirror of the proper, submissive wife prized by 19th century popular culture.  The modern reader will certainly grasp this battle for perfect appearances, but this gets more frightening the closer we look:  Alymer is so consumed with disgust at Georgiana’s appearance that he makes her a subject of experiments – he makes her raw materials.  He even brings in another man (his servant Aminadab) to help him “fix” her, “giving himself peace” (Franklin 26) – this is extreme even by 19th c standards.

Alymer finds his wife  beautiful except for her one fatal flaw: a birthmark on her face.  He obsesses over this mark, building a laboratory specifically for experiments designed to remove it, and eventually kills his wife in the midst of these tortures.  Hawthorne takes special care to describe Georgiana’s beauty, and her birthmark, and how little it should matter.  But he devoted more time to the one man to whom this pigment matters.  Alymer isn’t just disturbed at a “flaw” on his wife, he meditates upon it at length:

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 whome their visible frames return to dust (Hawthorne 25)

Aminadab

But what about that other man, Alymer’s assistant mentioned briefly above?  Hawthorne describes Aminadab in racialized terms (“swarthy”, “grunting”) but he has more dimensions that a prop meant to play into 19th c racism.

Aminadab has a surprising feature – he shows a brief moment of depth when he mentions that he wouldn’t change Georgiana’s looks at all if she were his (     ).  What a moment! What should the modern reader make of this?  Aminadab is never given full characterization (and neither have Georgiana or Alymer, for that matter).  In Hawthorne’s quest to impart a moral (or at least appear to), the characters he presents are better read as allegorical.  These are not fully realized characters, nor are they meant to be.  They are types, and the conceit here is neither expression nor emotional affect (as with Poe) – it is education.

But what does Aminadab teach us?  Jules Zanger, in his “Speaking the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark'”, draws a parallel between the character and racism, but industrialization:

These images of industrialism are further realized in the physical nature of alymer, the pale, slender philosopher, and of Aminadab, Alymer’s uncouth, shaggy, brutish “underworker”, in whom are objectified the division of roles that is the social product of the factory system (367)

However, his article suffers from lack of exploration within this character.  Like Alymer, the reader is to regard Aminadab as another tool in the laboratory.  But Hawthorne left fascinating details:  Aminadab never explicitly crosses the race-class boundaries in a stereotypical threat to the representative of white femininity.  Instead he calmly expresses admiration for Georgiana’s looks as they are.  Alymer either doens’t “hear” this, or chooses to ignore it.  The racist is denied their titillation of the sexually voracious other, as well as that of seeing the white man put him “in his place”.  Instead, as Zanger notes, we are confronted with the aspects of this character that make him “suitable” for hard labor, rooted in the physical instead of the more privileged intellectual world alongside Alymer.   Aminadab is large, he grunts, he laughs, he is described in rough terms – not the slender, efficient, reserved model of whiteness Alymer embodies.  Aminadab’s insistent physicality and usefulness to the socially superior Alymer mark him as a symbol of the lower classes in the 19th c – rough, rude, but trainable.

Décor in Hawthorne’s story

As with Poe, it is worth paying attention to the “look” of the story.  How are the rooms arranged, how are they decorated?  Industrialization in the 19th century allowed an astonishing amount and array of objects to be made, made ever cheaper, and distributed ever wider.  Interior décor came to the masses in this era.  Mass-produced decorative goods (curtains, furniture, knickknacks) became more affordable and highly desirable to the rising middle class.  Aesthetics literally “came home” becoming more democratic.  When Hawthorne published in 1843, this mass-aesthetic would have been just starting to disseminate, and the necessary cash to support this movement would also have been starting to filter into the hands of middle classes.

Decoration was now to become solidly affiliated with femininity.  Domestic spaces could now be personalized with goods and domestic styles promoted by a similar proliferation of women’s magazines and housekeeping manuals such as “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, “The Lady’s Amaranth”, or “The Lady’s Wreath” (Welter 5-6).   Small arts and crafts (hairwork, china painting, etc) were gendered art, and the lady of the house was charged with not only the physical well-being of its dwellers, but the general pleasure of the atmosphere as well.

This is not the first time we can see décor linked to women and femininity.  European art has a long tradition of boudoir paintings replete with the goods (eg draperies, soft lighting) that signaled sensuality and eros.  Originally, Georgiana is ensconced in a chamber worthy of any Renaissance artist painting his mistress as Venus.  The room is sex:  shadowy, lush, sweet smelling:

When Georgiana recovered consciousness she found herself breathing an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance…the walls were hung with gorgeous curtains…their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space…And Alymer, excluding sunshine, which would have interfered with his chemical processes, had supplied the place with perfumed lamps, emitting flames of a various hue… (Hawthorne, 28).

The reader, especially after trudging through the Poe section (top bar, tab labeled “Section 2 – Poe“), should be familiar with the psychedelic feel of the bridal suite Rowena dies in, and can recognize some of the same motifs here in Hawthorne.  The look of psychedelic art in the 1960s had partial roots in Art Noveau from the 19th century (source: Psychedelic art wiki), so there is a valid link here.  The interiors described in Poe and Hawthorne’s stories are proto-psychedelia: layered textures, jarring colors, and total sensory overload.  In Hawthorne’s case, however, this environment is sinister.

Alymer, to rid Georgiana (or himself) of the birthmark, needs to have a willing subject.  He needs to break down her already feeble resistance.  He traps her in this room, with no access to the outside world.  In this boudoir, she becomes a specimen, a cell on a slide, a fly on a pin.  She is kept, by way of this trippy decor and Alymer’s attentions, in a permanent state of excitation from pleasure and nervousness.  When she’s at her most chaotic and vulnerable, when she cannot think straight, he lectures her on a millenia’s worth of alchemical and proto-scientific histories.  This is as much a tool of dominance as any other he employs – with these he colonizes her mind.

Later in the plot, she is transferred to Alymer’s workroom in a jarring contrast of aesthetics. His lab is devoid of such sensuous trappings, “There was distilling apparatus in full operation.  Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles…The severe and homely simplicity of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement looked strange (Hawthorne 33).  The original bedroom, hearkening more to the bordello than the respectable middle class chamber, may as well be on another world compared to this dungeon-lab.

Female Ambiguity in “The Birthmark”

The Angel in the house could not be so without a veritable chorus of fallen, tempting, and otherwise subversive women to define her against.  For every submissive innocent in 19th century specific, there are her shadow sisters: the sensual, the sexual, the manipulative, the deadly.  It is impossible, even at the height of Victorian pretension, to have a completely innocent woman (especially a married woman, who was at once supposed to be pure and sexual.  Go on, figure it out, I can wait.)

Given the stew of misogyny in all avenues of culture, it’s not surprising that female characters (stand ins for real life women) were often constructed as duplicitous.  Sometimes this duplicity served their purposes, other times it seems to have been proto-cheesecake, as we can see in Hawthorne’s Georgiana.  And yet, she is not completely an object.  Although she is devoid of agency fairly early in the plot and duly dies at the end, rendering her a traditional 19th c “good girl”, she is not without some sense of sensuality, being at the center of her husband’s attentions.  Georgiana also goes through an explicit process of rebellion, self-doubt, and ultimately submission to her husband’s Alymer’s quest.

“Let’s Play Master and Servant”: erotic and troubling submission in Hawthorne’s tale

By 21st century standards, Georgiana is a wimp.  In her own time, this character would have been regarded differently.  She does mount some form of self-defense against Alymer, confronting him on his obsession: “[the mark]’Shocks you, my husband!’ cried Georgiana, deeply hurt…’Then why did you take me from my mother’s side?  You cannot love what shocks you!’” (Hawthorne 24).

However, after being worn down, Georgiana submits.  Submission, within literature as without, is a tricky thing.  For this character, her surrender is clearly on Alymer’s terms.  Far from becoming empowered, she becomes alienated from herself, and takes on Alymer’s disgust. “’If there is the remotest possibility of it…let the attempt be made, at whatever risk.  Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust – life is a burden…” (Hawthorne 26).

At this point, she (technically) willingly joins in this dominant/submissive relationship, a “consenting” subject of experiments, willing to be “fixed” to please him.  At this point it is unclear whether she is simply exhausted or has eroticized this experience for herself.  Or could it be both? As Hawthorne’s plot reaches its climax, his narrator makes note of Alymer’s documenting of Georgiana’s “sensations” (31), an eroticized description of Georgiana’s breathing the lab-boudoir’s atmosphere: “She fancied likewise…that there was a stirring up of her system – a strange, indefinite sensation creeping through her veins, and tingling, half painfully, half pleasurably, at her heart” (Hawthorne, 31).

Works Cited:

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark” Online Text,

H. Bruce Franklin,  Future Perfect: American Science Fiction in the 19th Century for both the text of the story and supporting material.  For convenience, I’ve cited Hawthorne from the printing in Franklin’s anthology.

Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” Online Text of Article

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s