The Birthmark

Hawthorne, Nathaniel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Jan-28-1997


A devoted scientist, in a brief step from his laboratory pursuits, marries a beautiful woman with a single physical flaw: a birthmark on her face. Aylmer becomes obsessed with the imperfection and his need to remove it. The tale evolves around his progressive frenzy to use his scientific skills to render his bride perfect and the faith of his submissive wife that the union can survive only if he accomplishes his goal. The author tells us that Aylmer "had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies . . . " and, in the secrecy of his laboratory he prepares the potion for Georgiana which results in the disappearance of the birthmark and the death of Aylmer's experimental subject.


Hawthorne had his own obsessions that included a horrified fascination with "cold philosophy." He approached the Romantic notion of the ability of science to destroy art (beauty) in the form of fictive "horror stories" of biological research out of control. He embodied this concern in his several characterizations of scientists, who were also physicians, working in isolation in their laboratories to gain intellectual control over the mysteries of nature.

Although the notion of amoral, or immoral, experimentation is dated in these period pieces, the concerns remain ethical problems in the modern world of medicine. See also Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter (annotated in this database), The Scarlet Letter, and Dr. Heidegger's Experiment (also in this database).


First published: 1844. Modern Penguin collection Introduction by Michael J. Colacurcio.

Primary Source

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Selected Tales and Sketches



Place Published

New York



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