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Playing with the (Birth) Mark: Aylmer’s Failed Attempt to Achieve Perfect Whiteness

by Dr. John Gruesser
Kean University

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Birth-mark" has been interpreted as a story about the duality of human existence, the preference for an idea over a human life, male fears of menstruation and/or female sexuality, the murder of a wife without legal consequences, and even nineteenth-century labor conditions and practices. Despite the striking diversity of these readings, they all agree on one key point: the obsessive nature of Aylmer’s reaction to the small crimson mark on Georgiana’s otherwise white cheek. Hawthorne’s decision to make a birthmark the focus of his story merits careful consideration. In some of his best-known fiction, Hawthorne depicts characters who are separated from other people because particular aspects of their appearance make them unusual. To cite two examples, The Reverend Mr. Hooper in "The Minister’s Black Veil" creates an unbridgeable gulf between himself and his congregation by donning a simple piece of black crepe; similarly, in The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan elders decree that Hester Prynne must wear a red A on her breast as a reminder to herself and the community of her sin of adultery. Like Mr. Hooper’s veil and Hester’s embroidered letter, the small, crimson nevus in the shape of a human hand on Georgiana’s face elicits a wide variety of reactions and symbolic interpretations from those who see it. What makes the birthmark noteworthy is that it is not something artificial a person chooses or is forced to wear; rather, it is a permanent part of Georgiana’s physiology. Attributable to "an overgrowth of blood vessels," as one encyclopedia puts it, the birthmark on her face is directly connected to Georgiana’s blood and all of the significance attached to that word, especially during the antebellum period ("Birthmark").

I will not assert here that the birthmark indicates that Georgiana possesses some amount of African blood and thus, given her eventual fate, should be seen as a tragic mulatta; nor will I suggest that Aminadab, who addresses Aylmer as "master" and is characterized by "his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him" (43), should be read as a black person. Instead, I want to concentrate on Aylmer’s and later Georgiana’s own extreme responses to her birthmark and suggest that they can usefully be read in the context of American racial politics. To illustrate this point, it might be useful for a moment to imagine a dramatization of Hawthorne’s story set in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Aylmer would be depicted as a Nazi scientist who comes to suspect that his new wife, hitherto assumed to be purely Aryan, is partly Jewish. Meanwhile, Georgiana, like a female Himmler, would come to despise that part of herself that betrays or is thought to betray her Jewish extraction. The aptness of this scenario may help to support my claim that the obsessiveness critics have so often noted in Aylmer’s response to his wife’s birthmark–and by extension in Georgiana’s own reaction to it–can readily be compared to that exhibited by persons harboring intense feelings of racial, ethnic, and/or religious prejudice. In an effort to contextualize this argument, before turning to the story itself, I will discuss the use of birthmarks in African American fiction and also draw upon Toni Morrison’s contentions about the shadowy presence of race in classic white American literature.

If the connection between birthmarks and race in fiction by white writers is not readily apparent, the same cannot be said about their presence in texts by black American authors. Similar to Hawthorne’s story, the presence of a small mole behind the left ear of the white baby Dodie Carteret is regarded ominously by the old black nursemaid Mammy Jane in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a novel about a brutal race riot fomented by Dodie’s father, which was based on events that occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. In two other turn-of-the-century novels, in contrast, birthmarks are employed as signs of royal African ancestry, birthrights that transform the lives of the characters who possess them. In Sutton E. Griggs’ Unfettered (1902), the protagonist, Dorlan Warthell, learns from an African emissary that the mark he bears proves him to be the descendent of a long-lost prince and thus heir to a fortune that will make him one of the richest men in the world. Likewise, in Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902-03), the seemingly white main character, Reuel Briggs, discovers on an expedition to the ancient city of Meroe that the lotus lily birthmark on his breast is the sign that he is a member of the Ethiopian royal family, and, as a result, he is hailed as King Ergamenes. One of the most intriguing fictional texts involving a birthmark by a black American writer is a little-known, two-page story by Ralph Ellison, which appeared in New Masses in 1940. Published nearly a century after Hawthorne’s "The Birth-mark," Ellison’s story, which bears the same title, concerns two African American characters, Matt and Clara, who go to identify the severely battered body of their brother Willie, the supposed victim of an automobile accident. However, when Matt searches below the navel of the corpse for Willie’s birthmark, he discovers to his horror that his brother has been castrated. The white policeman and white coroner warn Matt and Clara not to reveal that Willie was lynched or else they, too, may be hit by a car. More recently, the birthmark on the eyelid of the title character of Toni Morrison’s Sula (1974), like that on Georgiana’s cheek, elicits a wide range of interpretations in this novel about the lives of African American women set between 1919 and 1965. As this partial survey indicates, black American writers have frequently connected birthmarks with issues of race, and, in the cases of Ellison and Morrison, I would argue, have consciously evoked Hawthorne’s story in their racially inflected works.

Of course, the significance with which African American writers have imbued birthmarks does not necessary mean that white authors and readers have seen them in the same way. Certainly Hawthorne knew from his study of seventeenth-century New England that birthmarks had long been regarded as marks of the devil and were deemed sufficient proof that the people who possessed them were witches. Although it is possible that tales of conjure men and women in the South and the practice of voodoo in Haiti suggested a link between witchcraft and African ancestry in the minds of white Americans, there is no concrete evidence that white writers connected birthmarks with African origins, in the same way that they did a bluish tinge to the fingernails, as Werner Sollors has established. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that Hawthorne seldom depicts African American characters in his fiction, although one example that does come to mind is Roderick Elliston’s servant Scipio in "Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent." In addition, most of his comments on slavery, particularly the ones in his 1852 biography of Franklin Pierce and his 1862 Atlantic Monthly article "Chiefly about War Matters," appear hopelessly reactionary in comparison to those of his white New England literary contemporaries Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville.

It is here, however, that Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which is only slowly beginning to receive the attention it deserves from Americanists, proves especially valuable. The Nobel prize winner’s study of American Africanism, which she defines "as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people" (6-7), is designed not to expose the racism of white literary texts. Rather, like Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism vis a vis colonialist texts, her purpose is to read American literature more comprehensively. She explains that her interest lies not in racism’s effect on its victims but rather constitutes "an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject" (90). "Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette," Morrison asserts in a key passage, "American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom" (7). Contending that the concept of freedom so often explored by white American writers was necessarily formulated in part as a response to those people in society who were enslaved and were thus, by definition, unfree, Morrison states in a passage that implicitly evokes Hawthorne, "There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness,’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated" (37).

The prefatory essay in Mosses from an Old Manse provides an example of the tendency of white authors to use the presence of slavery in American society to highlight conceptions of white freedom. Hawthorne labored for months on "The Old Manse," which immediately precedes "The Birth-mark" in this collection originally published in 1846. In his ruminations on the venerable house where Emerson wrote "Nature" and he himself composed the majority of the pieces in Mosses between 1842 and 1845, Hawthorne recalls his fishing trips on nearby rivers with his neighbor, the poet Ellery Channing, as liberating experiences: ". . .[T]he chief profit of those wild days, to him and me, lay . . . in the freedom which we thereby won from all custom and conventionalism, and fettering influences of man on man. We were so free to-day, that it was impossible to be slaves again tomorrow. When we crossed the threshold of a house, or trod the thronged pavements of a city, still the leaves of the trees . . . were whispering to us–‘Be free! Be free!’" (25). The objection that the references to "fettering influences" and "slaves" in this passage are entirely conventional only serves to validate Morrison’s point: white Americans so frequently contrasted their notions of and aspirations for freedom with that of the enslaved population in the South that they no longer were conscious of doing so; furthermore, critics of American literature have at times been guilty of the same oversight.

To paraphrase "The May Pole of Merry Mount," which with its references to Native Americans also has racial implications, I fear I have delayed too long and must darken my tale suddenly. Thus, I will proceed forthwith to address Aylmer’s reification of whiteness in "The Birth-mark." In the story, perfection, at least in the physical sense, appears to be associated with whiteness. Any deviation from the white norm apparently makes a person susceptible to ugliness, sin, evil, deformity, and mortality. The narrator refers to Aylmer, the person in the story who sets the standards for beauty, spirituality, and perfection, as the "pale philosopher" (42) and employs the word "pale" on three subsequent occasions in connection with him, including the statement "He was as pale as death" when Georgiana observes him in his laboratory (50). As scientist, husband, and arbiter, Aylmer deems Georgiana’s appearance not merely deficient but offensive to him, claiming that Georgiana’s birthmark "shocks" him, "as being the visible mark of imperfection" (37), a judgment echoed in the comparison made between it and a "crimson stain upon the snow" (38) and the use of adjectives such as "Bloody," "frightful," "spectral," "terrible," and "fatal" to describe it.

In response to her husband’s habit of shuddering whenever he beholds the birthmark, Georgiana grows to loathe it as much as he does, referring to it as "this odious hand" (39) and begging Aylmer to remove "this hateful mark" even if it kills her in order to prevent her from going insane (41). When Aylmer, frantically engrossed in efforts to eradicate the birthmark, informs his wife that only one possible treatment remains to be undertaken but it is fraught with danger, Georgiana hysterically declares, "There is but one danger–that this horrible stigma shall be left upon my cheek! . . . Remove it! remove it!–whatever be the cost–or we shall both go mad!" (52). Instead of revolting against a husband who has become so obsessed with an insignificant aspect of her appearance that he can hardly bear to look directly at her, Georgiana comes to worship Aylmer and detest that part of herself he finds offensive. As the following passage reveals, she has been brainwashed by his rhetoric about the beauty and perfection of whiteness and in the process she internalizes his prejudices. Georgiana

considered the character of Aylmer, and did it a completer justice than at any previous moment. Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love, so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection, nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of. She felt how much more precious was such a sentiment, than that meaner kind which would have borne with the imperfection for her sake, and have been guilty of treason to holy love, by degrading its perfect idea to the level of the actual. (52)

However, if Aylmer’s "perfect idea" of whiteness is really a delusion, then "the actual" is precisely what he cannot see.

Indeed, from the start of the story, there is ample evidence that Aylmer reacts to the birthmark not in a lofty and principled way but rather in an unscientific and fanatical manner. Significantly, the narrator’s initial description of the birthmark does not reify whiteness:

. . . in the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek, there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state of her complexion,–a healthy, though delicate bloom,–the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed, it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood, that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But, if any shifting emotion caused her to turn pale, there was the mark again . . . . (37-38)

If this passage privileges any color, it is rose or pink, the blending of red and white. Moreover, most people regard Georgiana’s mark as either becoming or inconsequential, and those who do criticize it are referred to as "fastidious persons . . . exclusively of her own sex" (38). Yet in comparison to these negative reactions, Aylmer’s proves so maniacal that the mark assumes the character of a fetish for him. In time, he can think of little else and even his dreams are filled with images of the birthmark. Untroubled by the blemish before their marriage, after the ceremony Aylmer chooses to make it an obsession:

selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birth-mark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight. At all seasons which would have been their happiest, he invariably, and without intending it–nay, in spite of a purpose to the contrary–reverted to this one disastrous topic. Trifling as it at first appeared, it so connected itself with innumerable trains of thought, and modes of feeling, that it became the central point of all. (39)

The narrator’s use of the word "selecting" emphasizes the arbitrary nature of Aylmer’s fixation on the birthmark.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that at the conclusion of the story too much whiteness, as in the work of Melville and many other nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers, results not in perfection but something horrifying and deadly. As the potion Aylmer has prepared for Georgiana begins to work, the birthmark starts to fade, and he believes he has achieved his greatest success, Aylmer himself sounds a note of alarm, when he remarks, "But she is so pale!" (55). Telling his now totally white wife that she is "perfect!" (55), Aylmer fails to recognize that she is also moribund. Shortly thereafter the narrator ironically echoes Aylmer’s triumphant declaration, describing the newly deceased and thus very pale Georgiana as "the now perfect woman" (56). Although this epithet registers the extent of Aylmer’s folly, the ending of the story fails to indicate whether Aylmer himself realizes that he has killed his wife in an obsessive pursuit of a delusion or he remains convinced of the perfection of whiteness. In the 1931 novel Black No More, which like Hawthorne’s story is frequently categorized as a work of science fiction, George Schuyler envisions the invention of a process that turns dark skin white to satirize white and black race chauvinism. No longer able to discriminate against people with darker skin color, white Americans stop reifying whiteness. In fact, because the black-no-more treatment renders African Americans somewhat lighter in color than white Americans, the latter proceed to segregate themselves from people with lighter skin. Read in the context of American racial politics, "The Birth-mark," published nearly ninety years earlier, depicts the imbalanced psyche that motivates and the fatal consequences that result from the reification of whiteness.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume I. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1998.

"Birthmark." Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. 1998 ed.

Chesnutt, Charles. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969.

Ellison, Ralph. "The Birthmark." New Masses. 2 July 1940: 16-17.

Griggs, Sutton E. Unfettered. A Novel. 1902. New York: AMS, 1971.

Gruesser, John Cullen. Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Literature about Africa. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Birth-mark." Mosses. 36-56.

_____. "Chiefly about War Matters." 1862. Tales, Sketches, and Other Papers. The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Volume XII. Boston: Houghton, 1887. 299-345.

_____. "Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent." Mosses. 268-83.

_____. The Life of Franklin Pierce. Boston: Ticknor, 1852.

_____. "The Maypole of Merry Mount." Baym. 1245-52.

_____. "The Minister’s Black Veil." Baym. 1252-61.

_____. Mosses from an Old Manse. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Volume X. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1974.

_____. "The Old Manse." Mosses. 3-35.

_____. The Scarlet Letter. Baym. 1306-1447.

Hopkins, Pauline. Of One Blood; Or, the Hidden Self. The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 439-621.

Kennedy, J. Gerald and Liliane Weissberg, eds. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

_____. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Schuyler, George. Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940. 1931. College Park: McGrath, 1969.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White yet Both. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.


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