¶ … Reductive Entrapment: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark"
In the essay "When We Dead Awaken" by Adrienne Rich, the author frankly alludes to the artistic captivity that male writers place women in, arguing that women have always been trapped and explored by poets [footnoteRef:1]and will no doubt, continue to suffer this experience. While some might argue that women are acting as the muse to the poet, and the male poet is placing women upon a pedestal, this is far too simplistic a viewpoint to hold, as Rich demonstrates. Rather, poets create these one dimensional women and enshroud them between the words of the poem, locking them into this eternal reality. In this case male poets are exerting a form of artistic tyranny. Yet as Rich shows us, this state of captivity is indeed a reductive place to be, with all meaning diminished into a battle of holding on to beauty and youth, implying that women are creatures to whom these are the most important things of all. Hawthorne deftly showcases all of these issues in his short story, "The Birthmark," demonstrating the danger of these dynamics not in a didactic fashion, but as Vladimir Nabokov would refer to as, "a violin in a void."[footnoteRef:2] Hawthorne's story acknowledges and mourns the subjugation of women in artistic captivity. [1: 1, 2 Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" New Bulgarian University. www.nbu.bg. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/5/rich/writing.htm] [2: Vladimir Nabokov. Invitation to a Beheading. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) p. 7.]
Adrienne Rich clarifies artistic captivity as the female experiences it via the male writer quite aptly:
And there were all those poems about women, written by men: it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women frequently inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth -- the fate worse than death. Or, they were beautiful and died young, like Lucy and Lenore.[footnoteRef:3] [3: 3 Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" New Bulgarian University. www.nbu.bg. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/5/rich/writing.htm4Edgar Allen Poe. "The Raven." (London: George Redway, 1885), p. 17. William Wordsworth. "Lucy." Poetry Archive. www.poetry-archive.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/lucy.html Nathaniel Hawthorne. "The Birthmark." Online Literature. www.online-literature.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/]
Rich demonstrates the in the world of the male poet, the female is allowed to take center stage, but only if she is beautiful. Edgar Allen Poe unforgettably refers to "…the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore"[footnoteRef:4] in "The Raven," and William Wordsworth among his many Lucy poems, mentions: "A lovelier flower / on earth was never sown"[footnoteRef:5] though little else does the reader know about these women. A pervading lack of depth acts almost like a death sentence to these characters and one observes this dynamic clearly in Nathanial Hawthorne's short story, the "Birth Mark." Upon Aylmer's delicate repulsion of Georgiana's birthmark, Georgiana realizes on some level, however subconsciously, that so much of her value in this marriage is dependent upon her appearance and how lovely or unlovely she appears in the eyes of her husband. Such a realization naturally has a deadening effect upon her reality and Georgiana states, "Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust, -- life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!"[footnoteRef:6] [4: ] [5: ] [6: Nathaniel Hawthorne. "The Birthmark." Online Literature. www.online-literature.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/]
Aside from showcasing Georgiana's realization that her merit in this marriage is founded upon how she looks, such a statement also reveals the cleverness of the writer. The birthmark upon Georgiana's cheek doesn't just take any shape, but is in the shape of a hand, perhaps loosely symbolizing the burden that she has suffered via taking Aylmer's hand in marriage. This...
When Aylmer refers to her birthmark as an earthly sign of imperfection which shocks him, Georgiana replies: "Shocks you, my husband!' cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. 'Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!'"[footnoteRef:7] [7: Nathaniel Hawthorne. "The Birthmark." Online Literature. www.online-literature.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/]
This directly reflects Rich's observation of how Sylvia Plath and Diane Wakoski portray man in their feminist poetry, "It strikes me that in the work of both Man appears as, if not a dream, a fascination and a terror; and that the source of the fascination and the terror is, simply, Man's power-to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman."[footnoteRef:8] In this example in Hawthorne's story, we have at once Aylmer, dominating, rejecting and tyrannizing his wife. Her initial reaction is sadness and anger but we see that she later accepts his criticism and essentially seeks to do precisely as her husband says, becoming a graceful automaton who is willing to risk her own life for the sake of his approval. [8: Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" New Bulgarian University. www.nbu.bg. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/5/rich/writing.htm]
Hawthorne deftly illuminates the manipulative and callous character of Alymer, simultaneously demonstrating how Aylmer represents the textbook example of a man in the world of Plath and Wakoski. When Aylmer first inquires if his wife has ever considered getting her birthmark removed, she says, "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.'"[footnoteRef:9] The people in Georgiana's life strove to assist her in seeing that mark as a unique asset that blessed her face, if Aylmer was less tyrannical and domineering or had a high degree of sensitivity, he would've stopped the conversation there. But his tyranny has a more serpentine quality to it, and Aylmer tries to cajole his wife through flattery that she "…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."[footnoteRef:10] Like Poe and Wordsworth, Aylmer is placing his wife on the highest pedestal, yet at the same time, undermining and destabilizing her sense of self-worth, similar to the way Poe and Wordsworth shrink the sense of value of the women portrayed in their poetry, making them simply beautiful creatures and little more. [9: 9 Nathaniel Hawthorne. "The Birthmark." Online Literature. www.online-literature.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/] [10: ]
Aside from spotlighting the propensity of male poets to tyrannize and reject women in their work, Rich highlights the trend of contemporary male poets to practice a degree of "… phallocentric sadism and overt woman-hating which matches the sexual brutality of recent films."[footnoteRef:11] Hawthorne bestows his heroine with the ability to pinpoint this brutality in her husband, even though she allows herself to succumb to it. Georgiana asks her husband to recall a recent dream, where he was performing invasive surgery on her birthmark: "the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away."[footnoteRef:12] Hawthorne deftly demonstrates the savage tyranny that pervades Aylmer's psyche, showing the reader how the issue of the birthmark is not a matter of removing her earthly flaw but an inability to love her completely and a desire, perhaps, to destroy the rare and matchless qualities of his wife, or perhaps, a masked desire to destroy her completely. [11: Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" New Bulgarian University. www.nbu.bg. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/5/rich/writing.htm] [12:, 12,13Nathaniel Hawthorne. "The Birthmark." Online Literature. www.online-literature.com. Accessed December 10, 2010. http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/]
Rich's observation of the element of women-hating alive in most contemporary poetry is just as living in Hawthorne's story when one considers Georgiana's dramatic dismissal of her own life and well-being and the manner in which her husband essentially supports such dismissal. The quote state earlier where Georgiana entreats her husband to either remove the birthmark or take her life, is met merely with a reassurance by Aylmer of his vast capabilities and talents of science. Aylmer says nothing of the value of his wife's life or safety to him, an absence…
Georgiana is beautiful and doesn't even think about the birthmark until her husband points to it and then goes into a deep state of misery because of that. In order to relief her husband of the misery, she agrees to drink the potion which leads to her death. Emily on the other hand is not so obliging. Though she has suffered enough at the hands of her father who wanted