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Tragic flaw in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” Essay

In literature a tragic flaw refers in plain words when the main character ends up dead or defeated a characteristic feature of the heroes of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil”, and “The Birthmark”. However this concept is even more extensive and best explained in terms of “Hamartia”. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica that word can be understood as an inherent defect in the hero of a tragedy or a moral flaw, other sources point out “Hamartia” as an error in judgment or accident that may lead the hero to ruin as a result. From “The Birthmark” the reader can notice how the story starts with a happy romance and end in tragedy due to the actions and attitudes performed by Aylmer, the hero.

The tragic flaw in “The Birthmark” is addressed to the religion and science, specifically the morality and sin (to defy nature, to play God), highlighted issues in novels and short stories of the American writer, “The theme of sin, especially secret sin. Hawthorne was fascinated with the idea of sin and punishment” (Smith, 2011). Aylmer, the hero is a scientist and philosopher passionate about his labor, until one day he develops a passion for a woman without neglecting his love of science, he thinks he can intersperse his two loves, thus indicates the narrator: He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own. (Hawthorne, 1843, para. 1) The passion of Aylmer for science and his wife Georgiana were his greatest strength to be a great scientist but also his greatest weakness can keep his affair with her.

His pride by scientific advances and his pursuit of perfection were overshadowing and underestimating the power of nature, it was growing in arrogance and overconfidence: “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.” (Hawthorne, 1843, para. 5) Such arrogance is the reason why the romance became in tragedy. Aylmer as devote scientist had been influenced by discoveries of the 19th century. For him the nature can be modified through science, nature is flawed and man can improve it. In a deeper sense, human life is imperfect because of the death, also the sin, imperfection is a symbol of the mortal life and one of the purposes of science is prolonging life; so perfection is seen as eternity, symbol of immortality.

In the case of Aylmer he is married with a woman he considers almost perfect, according to him she is so perfect that is insupportable see in her the birth-mark in her check, because that just emphasizes just a small imperfection that damages the beauty of a perfect work of art, something that recalled the mortal condition of Aylmer’s wife as the life of any other human, a fact that made of ​​the birthmark a nightmare for the couple as describes the story: It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions… The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting 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 birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight. (Hawthorne, 1843, para. 9)

Such symbol of mortality, such defect of nature in a work nearly perfect could be enhanced by the hand of a man of science as Aylmer who had one privilege in the story, “The privilege of a mortal man who is in possession of something good but wanting something better and in an attempt to improve it ends up destroying it” (Zanger, 1983). At the precise moment when the hero of the story was get carried away by his arrogance, the romance story between the scientist and his nearly perfect wife began to break loose in a series of events that would result in a tragedy with the death of his beloved Georgiana. So throughout this story can be also seen to Georgina as a heroine whose kindness and love for her husband made ​​her fall into the hands of death. Seeing the story from the perspective of two heroes, one male and one female can be observed how those characters get each one a “tragic flaw” from two parallel points of view. While one of them falls into sin and disgrace because of pride and arrogance, the other dies for wanting to please the whims of her husband.

Both heroes fall simultaneously making clear the repression of the time with regard to women and also Hawthorne’s vision regarding sin, as dictated within the context of 19th century. Following Georgiana and her tragic flaw as heroine it is notable how she is easily persuaded and dominated by her husband regarding the birthmark “Expression of his dominance is the ease with which he convinces Georgiana, after her momentary futile flush of resistance, that the mark on her cheek, which she, until that time, had regarded as charming, is, indeed, a terrible imperfection” (Zanger, 1983), being that the main aspect for her fall in the story. Two heroes, two parallel “tragic flaw” turning in a tragedy a romantic story. “The Birthmark” tells the story of a hero who loses his judgment to think that he as scientist can defy nature through his wife (who initially was disagreed but eventually gives in an act of love) and who intends to remove from the life those little imperfections that are in this story the bond that keep the soul on earth, because perfection is in the spiritual world not in the material one. “Alas! it was too true! The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame” (Hawthorne, 1843, para. 96)


Hayashi, Y. Science and Religion in “The Birth-mark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. Retrieved March 9, 2014, from http://www.kushiroct.ac.jp/library/kiyo/kiyo37/hayashiscience37.pdf Hawthorne, N. (1843) “The Birth-mark”. Retrieved March 9, 2014, from http://people.bu.edu/actaylor/The%20Birthmark.pdf Hamartia. In Britannica.com. Retrieved March 8, 2014, from http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/253196/hamartia

Ohio University. Aristotle & the Elements of Tragedy: English 250. Retrieved March 8, 2014, from http://www.ohio.edu/people/hartleyg/ref/aristotletragedy.html Smith, N. (2011, December 6). Nathaniel Hawthorne: An Overview of the Author and Thematic Analysis of Works. Posted to http://www.articlemyriad.com Zanger, J. (1983). Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”. Moder Philology, 80(4), 364-371.

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