For Teachers and Students (12): Discussion Questions for The Birthmark (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1846)

The Birthmark

1. Comment on how men and women were positioned with respect to science in the 19th century as depicted in the first paragraph.
2. Explain how the relationship between Nature and a scientist is portrayed in the first paragraph. Can you find similar references in the other parts of the story?
3. What does Aylmer’s name signify?
4. How does Aylmer perceive science and marriage in the first paragraph?
5. The birthmark on Georgiana’s face has “readability”. What does it tell us about the beholders, e.g. women, Georgiana’s lovers, masculine observers, Aylmer, the narrator?
6. What is Georgiana’s perception of her birthmark at the beginning of the story? Does her perception change later? If yes, explain why.
7. Why is the birthmark described as a manual?
8. Discuss the function of the birthmark as a metaphor in the story. What is the significance of the crimson hand?
9. What could be the reason(s) for Aylmer’s obsession with the removal of the birthmark?
10. What does the removal of the birthmark signify? Why does he want to eradicate the mark?
11. What does Georgiana’s name signify?
12. What does Aminadab’s name signify?
13. Read the following excerpt and explain the significance of Aylmer’s dream in the story: “The mind is in a sad state when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot confine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers them to break forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets that perchance belong to a deeper one. Aylmer now remembered his dream. He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.”
14. Discuss how the following two excerpts could help us understand the relationship between Georgiana and Aylmer: “…Danger is nothing to 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 this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life! You have deep science. All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders. Cannot you remove this little, little mark, which I cover with the tips of two small fingers? Is this beyond your power, for the sake of your own peace, and to save your poor wife from madness?”“Noblest, dearest, tenderest wife,” cried Aylmer. rapturously, “doubt not my power. I have already given this matter the deepest thought — thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a being less perfect than yourself. Georgiana, you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.”
15. Explain how the reference to Pygmalion functions in the story.
16. Examine how Aylmer’s laboratory and boudoir are described and discuss what they could signify in the story.
17. Locate the paragraphs in which Aminadab is portrayed and discuss his function in the story.
18. Comment on the following excerpt:“”Yes, master,” answered Aminadab, looking intently at the lifeless form of Georgiana; and then he muttered to himself, “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark.”
19. What do the volumes of Aylmer’s scientific library represent in the story?
20. Examine the following description of the laboratory to identify the metaphor used and discuss what message Hawthorne could be conveying through this metaphor: “The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. The severe and homely simplicity of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement, looked strange, accustomed as Georgiana had become to the fantastic elegance of her boudoir. But what chiefly, indeed almost solely, drew her attention, was the aspect of Aylmer himself.”
21. Why do you think Aylmer is often described as “pale”?
22. What does the following excerpt tell us about Georgiana and women in general the 19th century?: “Save on your account, my dearest Aylmer,” observed his wife, “I might wish to put off this birthmark of mortality by relinquishing mortality itself in preference to any other mode. Life is but a sad possession to those who have attained precisely the degree of moral advancement at which I stand. Were I weaker and blinder it might be happiness. Were I stronger, it might be endured hopefully. But, being what I find myself, methinks I am of all mortals the most fit to die.”
23. What is the significance of Aminadab’s laughter at the end of he story?
24. How would you interpret “The Birthmark” as a vampire story?
25. List some of the themes in the story.
26. What message(s) would the story be conveying to the reader? How would you apply these messages to the contemporary world we live in?

© Ali Nihat Eken, İstanbul, November 2007

Useful link: Advertising’s Image of Women

(About Nathaniel Hawthorne)

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