with the (Birth) Mark: Aylmer’s Failed Attempt to Achieve Perfect Whiteness
Dr. John Gruesser
"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.
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:
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)
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
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