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Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne

Excerpt from Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple (courtesy of Knopf Press)

Wineapple discusses the "deadly ambivalence about women and, more broadly, sexual bodies and fatherhood" that permeates the stories Hawthorne wrote in the years just after his marriage and in this excerpt asserts that one of those stories, "The Birth-mark," is, in a sense, "a fantasy of abortion" (pp.174-175).

"...with a series of tales about the misalliances of men and women, Hawthorne was writing stories unlike those about bachelors, wanderers, and masqueraders, and different too from his recent satiric sketches (174).

Take 'The Birth-mark,' published in [James Russell] Lowell's Pioneer and written not six months after his marriage, during Sophia's first pregnancy. A young scientist insists on removing the crimson birthmark on his wife's left cheek that galls and obsesses him; it's the 'sole token of human imperfection,' says he. With sexual anxiety thinly disguised as cosmetology, he prepares a stupefying concoction, which his wife obediently drinks. The fatal red mark disappears, but the potion kills her; the ideal cannot exist in disembodied form. This is the lesson that Aylmer, the scientist, has to learn... (174-175).

A slap at Emerson and transcendentalism, 'The Birth-mark' is also a murder story in which a man confronts marriage, and hence sexuality, with horror. Equally, he wants to prevent a birth. In this sense, Hawthorne's story is also a fantasy of abortion. The scientist kills his wife and what she produces so that he in some way can remain alone, untrammeled, asexual, and free from responsibility" (175).

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12127/

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