‘The Birth-Mark’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1843

The magic trick:

Telling a fable with symbolism broad enough to allow for a variety of morals

Hawthorne Week on the magic tricks site.

That means we have some heavy moral burdens to take on. But that’s OK. That’s kind of the whole point of a short story, right? Plot and moral burden. Hawthorne is the master of both.

“The Birth-Mark” falls into the category of his work that deals with the moral implications of science. He dealt with similar intersections of magic and ego in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” among others. It’s as if the notion of progress is akin to playing God. Or maybe that’s not his point at all. Maybe it’s as if humans can’t ever appreciate what they have. We’re always focusing on the negative and wishing for what isn’t. That seems like it probably is his point. But it could also be something about marriage, and the way we divide our passions between the pursuit of our own talents and our more altruistic love of others.

It’s all of that. I don’t know how he does it. These morality tales play out along very serious lines. These stories are very much about big things. But there’s room for interpretation. “The Birth-Mark” doesn’t just teach one lesson. It teaches multiple lessons.

And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.

The selection:

“Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?”

“No, indeed,” said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. “To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.”

“Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” replied her husband; “but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”


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