Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccinni’s Daughter” and the pursuit of perfection

April 13, 2008 by aaron

Failed attempts to attain perfection are a frequent subject in Hawthorne’s short stories; these attempts at perfection fail because Hawthorne’s protagonists are misguided and their own innate imperfections cloud their judgments. Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” both feature a male protagonist who desires to recreate a woman into their own view of perfection. However, a person’s desires often tell more about themselves than others: the belief that something is imperfect reflects the believer not the thing. Judith Fetterly, in her essay “Women Beware Science: ‘The Birthmark,’” argues that Hawthorne’s portrayal of women’s imperfections in “The Birthmark” and other short stories says less about the women than the men who fixate on these imperfections and try to reshape them. A more Freudian approach by Frederick Crews focuses on the birthmark and the garden as icons of feminine sexuality. Yet another approach is the more conservative approach taken by Hyatt Waggoner and Richard Fogle who argue a more psychological and religious aspect to Hawthorne’s writing. It is necessary to examine each of these three sometimes-conflicting views to fully explore Hawthorne’s writing and his perception of perfection.

Aylmer of “The Birthmark” is haunted by a tiny birthmark on the cheek of his wife that he “one day, very soon after their marriage” notices. Aylmer then mentions it to his wife stating that she “came so nearly perfect from nature that this [defect is] the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” As with most things, the meaning of this line changes and can be reinterpreted over time. Reacting to this remark from a feminist perspective, Fetterly argues that Aylmer’s “lofty talk [about wanting Georgina to be perfect] is but a cover of his central emotion of revulsion [at her feminine nature].” She adds that Georgiana’s innate flaw is not the birthmark but the female sexuality that the birthmark represents. Crews, remarking from a Freudian perspective, agrees with this assessment saying, “His medical curiosity and his willingness to risk Georgiana’s death…are thinly disguised substitutes for his urges to know and destroy her sexuality” (126). Waggoner is slower to condemn Aylmer’s behavior stating that Aylmer “does wrong things from a motive not in itself wrong” (108). Waggoner does not condemn Aylmer’s action as an attempt to control or even acknowledge Georgiana’s sexuality, but as just a man who is overrun by the desire to create perfection. This libido sciendi view of Aylmer is also reflected by Fogle who focuses on Aylmer’s Faustian desire to know and understand (120).

While it is obvious that Aylmer desires perfection and wishes to control nature, is the focus on Georgina’s sexuality by Crews and Fetterly just an effect of rampant Freudianism? It is possible to interpret the birthmark as a representation of Georgiana’s sexuality because Hawthorne’s stories tend to have a sexual undercurrent, but to reduce the entire story to an attack on the female persona as Fetterly does or the misplacement of lustful thoughts onto women as Crews does is an over simplification. Had Aylmer become obsessed with science after his marriage, these interpretations would have been correct, but Hawthorne states that Aylmer was “a man of science” who “left his laboratory… and pursued a beautiful woman to become his wife” and could only love his wife by “intertwining [his love with her] with his love of science.” From the beginning, the focus of Aylmer’s life is on science; his desire for perfection in his wife is just a manifestation of his need to know and create perfection. While he does focus on the birthmark as a representation of his wife’s female nature and sexuality, it is his love of science that pushes him to remove it.

The greatest argument for Waggoner and Fogle’s interpretation of “The Birthmark” is that, eventually, Aylmer achieves a flawed state of perfection, creates perfect beauty, and controls nature, but all are temporary and his perfections destroy each other because the greatest flaw in Aylmer’s attempts to gain perfection is his inability to understand real perfection in beauty and nature. His attempt to gain physical perfection is fettered by his belief that physical perfection is intrinsically part of beauty: beauty does not necessarily imply perfection because beauty can be defined by some thing’s imperfections as well as its perfections. Similarly, his attempt to gain a perfect understanding of nature was flawed because he believed that controlling nature was part of understanding nature; however, the control and the comprehension of nature are separate, so even though he was able to control nature by removing the birthmark he did not gain a comprehension of nature. Had he gained a perfect understanding of nature, he would have been able to remove the birthmark without subjecting his wife to failed trials and would have created perfection. The more modern and interpretive approaches taken by Fetterly and Crews take the same events and reinterprets them.

Fetterly argues that Aylmer does not approach the birthmark as a scientific mystery but evidence that his wife has an imperfect physical nature, so he is driven to make her perfect and “what perfection means is elimination.” She continues to argue that Aylmer desires to create new life but is unable to, so he fixates on Georgiana’s sexuality because it is her sexuality that allows her to create life. Aylmer attempts to manipulate life by breeding a plant that grows quickly and to recreate life by taking Georgiana’s portrait, but both attempts fail and he must destroy his own work. Aylmer is only successful at creating “imitations rather than copies,” so everything Aylmer achieves is “false and unnatural, like the gorgeous flowers of Rappaccini’s garden. The light is artificial, the figures are shadows, and the draught of immortality is the draught of death” (Fogle 121, Fogle 123). Thus, he is unable to control or even duplicate nature, and if Fetterly is correct, his failures cause him to focus on Georgiana’s sexuality both because it can both duplicate and create life and because it is beyond his ability to control.

Crews agrees that Aylmer’s actions are based on sexual desire: “[Aylmer does] desire the very thing that offends his squeamish mind, and his dream…reveals a fantasy and sadistic revenge and a scarcely less obvious fantasy of sexual consummation” (126). Aylmer desires to both “know and destroy her sexuality” and he “both kissed and shuddered at the suggestive birthmark” (Crews 126). However, while Fetterly uses Aylmer to portray the disgust many men feel towards women, Crews argue that Aylmer’s actions are not vindictive but that they are a part of an obsessive need (112). The latter explanation is far better supported by the actual text. As Crews notes, the first paragraph of “The Birthmark” begins by stating that that Aylmer could only love his wife if he could intertwine his love of her with his love of science, and Hawthorne also states that Aylmer “invariably and without intending it…reverted to this one disastrous topic” — this disastrous topic being the birthmark. While Aylmer’s desire for perfection in his wife is understandable and Fetterly is a little unfair to him, he does overstep his bounds as both a scientist and a husband.

Aylmer’s mistakes are all repeated by Rappaccini; however, unlike Aylmer whose “purposes are controlled by human morality” (Fogle 129), Hawthorne leaves no question as to Rappaccini’s inherently evil nature: he is described as a man who would “sacrifice human life…for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge”. Rappaccini’s “weird marital plan for Beatrice and Giovanni, which envisions the coupling of two mutually immune monsters, points to the monstrosity of his own imagination” (Crews 127). However, Fogle argues, “[Rappaccini’s] sin is primarily in striving to rival God” (99). Regardless, Hawthorne’s focus is not on the inner blackness that may or may not pervade this man’s soul (Rappaccini himself always appears in the background shadows), but the results of Rappaccini’s drive for perfection.

The focus of Rappaccini’s drive for perfection is his daughter Beatrice and a beautiful garden, both of which are lovely and deadly. Rappaccini desires not just perfection in his daughter Beatrice but also wants to recreate the world in his own view of perfection with himself as God and Beatrice and Giovanni as a new Adman and Eve (whom he bestows the gift of poison upon as their own perfection) created in his own image to prove his innate perfection. Rappaccini’s goals are set far higher than Aylmer, but it is to be assumed that one’s goals should match one’s reach, and Rappaccini has quite the reach. Unlike Aylmer, Rappaccini is described as a man “fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature [who created a plant which] the offspring of his science, of his intellect.” This plant, as much a child of Rappaccini as his own daughter, is described as being magnificent with “purple gems clustering all over it [that] glowed in the air, and gleamed back again out of the depths of [a marble fountain].” Rappaccini’s daughter, like the plant, is a perfect specimen with an education and intellect that qualifies her to “fill a professor’s chair” and as “beautiful of the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much.” The beauty of both Beatrice and the plant strikes Giovanni, and for some, there is a tendency to focus on this aspect of the story rather than the striving for perfection.

Crews, as a proponent of Freudianism, focuses on the sexual undertones that pervade the relationship between Giovanni, Beatrice and the garden, and while he may be correct that this relationship is the main focus of the story, he notes that “Rappaccini is always taken as an embodiment of the libido sciendi [who is opposite in nature to his daughter] and nothing more is said” (125). Crews continues by arguing that Rappaccini, like Aylmer, is uncomfortable with sexual relationships and has created the walled garden to seclude his daughter from the world, and allows Giovanni to enter it as a “clumsy remedy” for this revulsion (127). However, as Fogle notes, this story has at least two themes, so whether this interpretation is Hawthorne’s intention is unclear; it seems much more likely that, for at least the focus of the story and Rappaccini’s intentions, one should take a more conservative approach.

This conservative approach to Rappaccini’s intentions is offered by Waggoner who says that although the libido sciendi theme is present and “Rappaccini with his black magic and his ‘insane zeal for science’…must be ever present…it is the present evil, a woman poisoned, that is the chief subject of the story” (118). Intertwined irrecoverably within this theme of “present evil” is the evidence of Rappaccini’s ascension towards perfection: the garden which seemed to be “the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty” evidences Rappaccini’s skill in reshaping nature, but his nature either by design or because of his own failures is imperfect because it is a harbinger of death. Baglioni claims that Rappaccini’s successes as a physician are only accidents of his twisted experiments meant to create death, but Baglioni is anything but an impartial witness and to a point we can ignore his accusations. Thus, is Rappaccini’s perfection truly evil and deadly or are these corruptions just the by-products of his attempts for real perfection and fatherly love? This question is answered quite simply by examining the text: although in the beginning of the story Hawthorne describes Rappaccini as being perceived as having the demeanor of “one walking among malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits which…would wreak upon him some terrible fatality” and as the story climaxes with Beatrice’s suicidal actions we see that Rappaccini intended for his daughter to be poisonous to keep her from “the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none,” Hawthorne describes Beatrice as a victim of “man’s ingenuity [and] of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom.” So it is clear that Rappaccini intentionally created this evil, but although he did want to help his daughter in his own twisted way, he did it mostly for himself and without concern for anything outside of his own mind.

Rappaccini achieves his perfection, but it is so vile and destructive that those who are the emblem of his achievements reject it: “my science…have so wrought within his system, that he now stands apart from common men, as thou dost, daughter of my pride and triumph.” Aylmer also achieves a destructive perfection but he destroyed “the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame.” These men’s failures to gain perfection are more emphatically destructive than the spiritual failures because they try to not just correct themselves but nature; nature, Hawthorne warns, is far too powerful to be manipulated by any imperfect human being.

Aylmer and Rappaccini are unable to see that the perfection they are trying to attain is destructive of what they desire. They believe that they will attain scientific perfection, but their actual goal will be the destruction of the natural. Through this, Hawthorne warns the reader that scientific perfection will be achieved through understanding nature rather than manipulating it. Hawthorne also warns that although Aylmer and Rappaccini see themselves as men of science, they also do not completely understand what they are attempting. Similar to Frankenstein, they do not realize that the use of science to control nature can destroy the balance of nature itself, so they continue to pursue their idea of perfection, but instead destroy the beauty and balance of nature. Aylmer brings death and Rappaccini creates death.

In the end, putting aside the more extreme interpretations of these works of literature that detract from the original intention, we see that Aylmer and Rappaccini are both given the chance to change their ways and reform, but both fail to do so. “Aylmer is given a remarkably good run for his money [and] Hawthorne gives him a very long rope,” and “Hawthorne treats [Rappaccini] with sympathy and at the end leaves us feeling a certain pity” (Fogle 119; 100). However, both fail to recognize the salvation they are offered and they forge ahead blind to the world and the consequences of their actions.

To help Aylmer and Rappaccini gain perfection, Hawthorne presents Beatrice and Georgiana as possible guides in the men’s quests, and they represent the human aspect that the men abandon to achieve perfection. Hawthorne warns that by abandoning and destroying the human aspects of themselves, Aylmer and Rappaccini fail to achieve perfection and destroy all those around them. Crews argues, “the real enemy [Rappaccini fights] is ‘the condition of a weak woman’” (128). However, corrupting Beatrice is not the end goal of Rappaccini, but it is part of the solution to his own desires, and evidences his total abandonment of all that should be dear to him for his quest. There is perhaps no better way to illustrate the effects the men’s one-sided quests for perfection had on their women than through the words of Rappaccini’s daughter. When she realizes that everything she wants has the possibility of being hers but is summarily ripped away, she finally admits to herself what she had always known and confronts her father saying, “[your] fatal love of science…estranged me from all society of my kind…thou inflict[ed] this miserable doom upon thy child…I am going, father, where the evil, which thou hast striven to mingle with my being, will pass away like a dream.” It is this abandonment of all human concerns and concerns for humanity that illustrate that “[Hawthorn] is more engaged in his Faustian quest for knowledge…than most critics have seen” (Crews 119).

It is no surprise that both Georgiana and Beatrice die drinking the antidote to their ills because the only antidote to the restrictions and expectations placed on them was their own death. Fetterly would agree that these women died to escape the pressure of their own existence and welcomed death. Georgiana bade Aylmer that should he “either remove [the birthmark] or take her life.” One cannot assume that Aylmer set out to kill her, but it is obvious that Georgiana would rather have died than cause revulsion in the man she loved. This power that Aylmer had was not enough: he needed this power and perfection itself to be truly happy with his wife. Similarly, Georgiana went to her death willingly; revealing in her final moments that the evil in Giovanni and Rappaccini was far greater than the evil foisted on her by them both. These features in the story have a very strong feminist undercurrent, but Fetterly notes that while “the implicit feminism in ‘The Birthmark’ is considerable … ‘The Birthmark’ is by no means explicitly feminist, since Hawthorne seems as eager to be misread and to conceal as he is to be read and to reveal, still it is impossible to read his story without being aware that Georgiana is completely in Aylmer’s power.”

Hawthorne warns against the extremity of these attempts to gain perfection because while these men pursue perfection of body, mind and soul, they forget that they are human. Had they restrained themselves and worked to improve themselves in small pieces and not been as egotistical as to think they could immediately recreate themselves and their worlds, they would have been able to correct their flaws that caused their failures. Furthermore, Hawthorne warns that, “The Unpardonable Sin which consists of a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity,–content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart.” (Steward, The American Notebook, 106). The failure to gain perfection devastates the lives of these men and those who live within their shadows. Hawthorne warns that the blind quest for perfection reaches deep into one’s life and obliterates it entirely.


Crews, Frederick. The Sins of the Father. New York: Oxford UP 1966

Fetterly, Judith. “Women beware Science: ‘The Birthmark.’” 1978.

Fogle, Richard. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and The Darkness. University of Oklahoma Press 1964

Stewart, ed. The American Notebooks. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1932

Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne, a Critical Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press-Harvard University Press 1955

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