Friday, March 3, 2017

The Birth-mark

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches

Detail from The Laboratory, 1895, oil on canvas by British artist John Maler Collier (1850–1934). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
The latest edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction includes an entry for Nathaniel Hawthorne that discusses the themes in his work common to science fiction and acknowledges his influence on the genre. “His extensive notebooks outline dozens of projected science fiction works—some of which he was able to complete, while others he worked on unsuccessfully until his death—featuring a long line of doctors, chemists, botanists, mesmerists, physicists and inventors, who parade their creative and destructive skills through his fiction.” The fraught relationship between scientific experimentation and human ambition is the focus of many of Hawthorne’s works, including several that “stand as masterpieces of the genre”: “The Artist of the Beautiful,” featuring a robotic butterfly; "Rappaccini's Daughter," about a botanist whose daughter develops an immunity to poisonous plants yet becomes toxic herself; the comic “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in which a scientist concocts an elixir of youth; and “The Birth-mark,” the story we present as this week’s selection.

From his earliest days as a writer, Hawthorne was troubled by the deceptive attractiveness of the artificial. He wrote in his journal in October 1837:
Man’s finest workmanship, the closer you observe it, the more imperfections it shows; as in a piece of polished steel a microscope will discover a rough surface. Whereas, what may look coarse and rough in Nature’s workmanship will show an infinitely minute perfection, the closer you look into it. The reason of the minute superiority of Nature’s work over man’s is, that the former works from the innermost germ, while the latter works merely superficially.
A few days later he jotted down a story idea based on the human struggle for synthetic perfection: “A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible,—as to make a conquest over Nature.” This is the first hint of the themes and characters that would appear in several of his stories. He had previously toyed with a more specific plot idea: bachelors looking for wives who “would take none of Nature’s ready-made works, but want a woman manufactured particularly to their order.” These thoughts together formed the kernel of what would become “The Birth-mark.”

Hawthorne’s tale deals with surprisingly modern themes; it may well be the first American story tackling the subject of cosmetic surgery. The actress Lili Taylor referred to it when explaining her refusal to undergo rhytidectomy. The story also became news in January 2002 when the principles posed by Hawthorne were the focus of a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The council’s chairman opened the session with these comments:
[“The Birth-mark”] does deal with certain important driving forces behind the growth and appreciation of modern biology and medicine, our human aspiration to eliminate defects and to pursue some kind of perfection. Goals to which science and technology more and more have been put into service. But it also invites us to think about the human meaning of a birth-mark, being marked at birth. Therefore, it enables us to start talking about bioethics by locating our current concerns in relation to certain enduring matters and questions.
In Hawthorne’s story, a scientist, Alymer, has married a beautiful wife but soon becomes so distracted by a small hand-shaped birthmark on her face that it becomes “a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” His frequent, disturbing “gaze” upon her cheek soon affects Georgiana herself—to the point that she becomes willing to take whatever cure he can devise. In The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leland S. Person writes, “From an artistic point of view, Aylmer also represents a Pygmalion or modern-day plastic surgeon, creating or re-creating a woman as if she were a statue he is sculpting.” Similarly, notes the literary scholar Judith Fetterley, the tale is actually a “brilliant analysis of the sexual politics of idealization and a brilliant exposure of the mechanism whereby hatred can be disguised as love, neurosis can be disguised as science, . . . and success can be disguised as failure.”

Notes: On page 765, Hawthorne mentions the Eve of Powers, a then-famous statue of Eve by sculptor Hiram Powers. On page 774, the friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head is a reference to a legend in which the thirteenth-century philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon constructed a head that would speak to him about the progress of his projects.

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In the latter part of the last century, there lived a man of science—an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy—who not long before our story opens, had made experience of a spiritual affinity, more attractive than any chemical one. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.