In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne described a young scientist who killed his own wife by pursuing “perfect future” (Hawthorne, 220) while trying to remove a birthmark on his wife’s face. His name was Aylmer. He was a good scientist according to any standard. He was smart, diligent, and “an eminent proficient” (Hawthorne, 203) in natural science.
Hawthorne was not against science; he was against “perfect science,” against the people who wanted a “perfect science.” Aylmer was so devoted to science that his marriage with Georgiana, his wife, was “intertwined with his love of science.” (Hawthorne, 203) A man loved science even more than his love of his own wife, no wonder he would sacrifice her life just for a perfect look on her face. Hawthorne was telling a truth, that a man has to be a good human first before he can be a good scientist.
In the story, Hawthorne gradually set out the idea that Nature is equal to everyone; there is no perfection in the nature. As he said, “Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions.” (Hawthorne, 205) Georgiana was a pretty lady; Nature has to bear a birthmark on her face in order to keep the balance, any attempt to remove it should and would result in disaster – that leaded us to another conclusion – Nature can not be changed or altered, or a punishment will come in someday.
Interestingly, Hawthorne’s idea about dream is very scientific, “Truth often finds its way to the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we practice an unconscious self-deception during our waking moments.” (Hawthorne, 207) This disclosed that Hawthorne himself was a good philosopher and scientist, which gave more credentials to this article.
Sometimes, people concentrate too much on what science can do and how important science is in our lives. They developed a false trust in science. Aylmer thought he was competent to remove the birthmark, “I feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and the, most beloved, what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!” (Hawthorne, 207) Also, “Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium.” (Hawthorne, 211) But science can never solve all the problems, nor can human develop such a science.
Even Aylmer himself, in his experiments, “Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.” Aylmer had realized this himself, that’s reason why he “can scarcely glance over and keep [his] senses.” (Hawthorne, 214) All the great scientific discoveries are originated from great failures, but people can only see the successes, not the failures.
Science will advance, step by step. But will never reach a “perfect science.” The pursue of “perfect science” can often lead to disasters because people live “once for all in eternity; to find the perfect future in the present.” (Hawthorne, 220)
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark,” The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, ed. R. P. Blackmur. New York: Penguin, 1980.