English 220-1 American Literature Survey
Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.
Discussion Questions: "The Birthmark"
1. What are the various meanings of the birthmark to the following: Aylmer, Georgiana's admirers, to Georgiana. Why did Hawthorne choose to make the birthmark a small crimson hand?
2. Two important American literature critics (Mark Van Doren and F. O. Matthiessen have admired the "purity" of the love between Aylmer and Georgiana. Do you agree with Van Doren who characterized the relationship between Aylmer and Georgiana as "involving scruples and devotions of the rarest, most beautiful, and it would seem the most unreachable kind" and with Matthiessen who said that Aylmer's love "will rest with nothing less than perfection."
3. What do you make of Aminadab? By the way, spell his name backwards. How are he and Aylmer connected?
4. In Leviticus 15: 19-33 it says: "If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean….But if she is cleansed of her discharge, then she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean…
Do the verses in Leviticus in any way enlighten our reading of "The Birthmark?" Also in Ephesians 5: 22-24 it says: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything." Do these verses contribute to your reading of the story?
5. A conventional reading of "the Birthmark" is that Aylmer is a tragic overreacher who looks to science for "an ultimate account of reality." He is guilty of Hawthorne's unpardonable sin, placing the intellect above the heart. The story itself is an indictment of modern science. Add to this reading the observation that until recently (and certainly at Hawthorne's time) modern science was basically a masculine endeavor: amoral, value-free, objective, and rational. How does this realization add to the reading of the story?
6. Barbara Eckstein claims that Georgiana's death is as much her doing as Aylmer's. How can this be? What is Georgiana's "sin" and is it in any way related to her gender? How can she be a participant in her own destruction?
7. Judith Fetterley claims that "The Birthmark" is a demonstration of how to murder your wife and get away with it! Assuming this is true (and that may be a huge assumption), why does Aylmer murder Georgiana? What is his motive?
8. Some scholars argue that when a woman reads "Rip Van Winkle" she is placed in a no-win situation. She either denies her sexuality and identifies with the male protagonist, or she associates with the female antagonist and thus sees herself as a flawed and hateful impediment to individuation. Do women readers face this same predicament in "The Birthmark?"
9. Aylmer may indeed see the birthmark as a sign of the inevitable imperfection of all things in nature and he sees in it a challenge to man's ability to transcend nature. Comment.
10. Read Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and see how you can apply the allegory to "The Birthmark."
11. If Aylmer were alive today, what would he be doing?
12. "The Birthmark" has been described as an "indictment of modern science." Do you agree or disagree?
13. What was your initial response to this story (which, by the way, was one of the first stories he wrote after his marriage)?