The Conclusions of Science Can be Ghastly - "The Birthmark" - Nathanial Hawthorne


Hawthorne's The Birthmark is undoubtedly replete with philosophical and theological themes and messages. I will briefly reflect on the one that stuck out most to me, namely, a period of time (which may still be going on) in which humanity believed that science could and would solve all problems. Certainly in the burgeoning years of the scientific method, when there were so many new and incredible discoveries, this was an understandable sentiment. But at the same time, we saw some of what "Scientism" can do when it is applied to human society, such as the racism, horrors of Social Darwinism, and the other ideological disasters of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century Scientism waned a bit, but in a lot of ways I think that it is making a return with the new frontier of digital technology that is being released to the world.

Will science solve all questions? The answer is no because there are whole sets of questions that are not directly related to empirical observation, and I think that is the point of the story ... Empirically, Georgiana is not physically perfect in her complexion. What does one do to imperfections, a scientist fixes them. The problem is that human beings are not simply physical bodies, let alone inanimate matter to be fixed, and so this is where philosophy, religion, moral wisdom is needed to act properly. There is a difference between describing the world and saying this is how the world ought to be

The Story 
The story centers around a scientist in the late 1700's who was at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, back in a time when possibilities seemed limitless as to what science could do. Science might provide man control over nature itself, allowing all types of miraculous productions. The man, Aylmer, takes a young wife named Georgiana who is absolutely stunning in every respect, a perfect work of nature, except a reddish mark on one of her cheeks which bothers Aylmer. He mentions this to her, and suggests at attempting to remove the mark, to her shock because she had never thought of it in a negative sense. The mark was the shape of a little hand, and its observers took it in varied ways, some claiming it heightened her beauty, others that it detracted from it. 

Either way, the mark upon a countenance which was so otherwise perfect represented to Aylmer the imperfection of nature. Nature never allows complete perfection in anything. And so maybe this is the role of the scientist, to do what nature could not do. "It was a fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. 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 whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death ..." Nature has been affected by Original sin and man's personal sins and so man traditionally thought of needing redemption from God. Here we get the sense that in Aylmer's mind that science might be the redemption of humanity. Science will do what nature cannot do. 

Aylmer becomes so obsessed with her imperfection that somehow all of their interactions have some underlying reference to it, to the point where his wife notices and become repulsed with his gaze and with herself. She becomes so repulsed with herself that she even brings up, after a dream that Aylmer has, the idea of her husband trying to remove the birthmark from her. She asks him about the dangers of such an attempt and says that even if there's the slightest chance of success that she will take any risk. "Danger is nothing for me; for life -- while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust -- life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove the dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!" And so Aylmer sets out confident that he can do what nature could not. He takes his wife down into their laboratory while he sets about finding the correct procedures. 

"As he led her over the threshold of the laboratory, Georgiana was cold and tremulous. Aylmer looked cheerfully into her face, with intent to reassure her, but was so startled with the intense glow of the birth-mark upon the whiteness of her cheek, that he could not restrain a strong convulsive shudder. His wife fainted." At this point, Aylmer's small, and very odd, assistant is called for help. Aylmer dresses up the laboratory with curtains, lights, and perfumes to make it an easier resting place for his wife. He even uses optical effects to create images and shadows over the walls. "... the illusion was almost perfect enough to warrant the belief that her husband possessed sway over the spiritual world." 

Aylmer even talks about finding the Alchemist's long pursuit, the formula for turning things into gold, as well as the elixir or life which could lengthen anyone's life. But he also claimed that doing such a thing would bring a curse from God upon the one who wields these things. "... the Elixir of Immortality. It is the most precious poison that ever was concocted in this world. By its aid, I could apportion the lifetime of any mortal at whom you might point your finger. The strength of the dose would determine whether he were to linger out years, or drop dead in the midst of a breath. 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." Part of also telling Georgiana about these things is to reassure her what a trifling affair just removing a birthmark. 

Eventually she realizes that she may be slightly drugged as this preparation process continues, but by this point, she has been so transformed against herself, that she hates the birthmark more than Aylmer. "Not even Aylmer now hated it so much as she." To pass the time though, she began reading some of the volumes in the laboratory. She picks up Aylmer's own manual of all his experiments and began to read through them all. While he never achieved the height of the goals that he set, she was taken in by him. "'It has made me worship you more than ever,' said she." In response he says, "'Ah! wait for this one success,' rejoined he, 'then worship me if you will. I shall deem myself hardly unworthy of it.'" 

When Aylmer takes his leave to go back into the heart of the laboratory, Georgiana gets up to follow him to mention something to him about how she's feeling. She sees him and his assistant working laboriously. He spots her and angrily pulls her aside, but she scolds him for not telling her of the risks of removing the birthmark because she wants him to have faith in her that her love won't fail him, regardless of the dangers. "'I submit,' replied she calmly. 'And, Aylmer, I shall quaff whatever draught you bring me; but it will be on the same principle that would induce me to take a dose of poison, if offered by your hand.'" 

Aylmer then admits that he had already drugged her heavily and its effects had failed. He is to the point of the edges of his skill and there is certainly danger. At this point, it doesn't phase Georgiana, as she has become so warped and obsessed with the birthmark, herself, that she would rather die anyway than fail at removing it. In fact, she is so warped that she honors Aylmer in her mind above any moment in the past because she realizes his quest for the prefect ideal and his refusal to settle for the real and actual which is always imperfect. 

Finally, the potion is ready, and Georgiana willingly accepts it from Aylmer's hands. She then falls into a deep sleep with Aylmer at her side making observations of the smallest changes. To his delight, the birthmark does fade from existence. Georgiana is awoken and sees how the hand has faded, and in the midst of her husband's rejoicing admits to him that she is dying. 

"Alas, it was too true! The fatal Hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark -- that sole token of human imperfection -- faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight. Then a hoarse, chucking laugh was heard again! Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence, which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of a higher state. Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present." 
1 - Hawthorne, Nathanial. The Birthmark