Written by Caitlin Smith
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” is an 1843 short story that primarily deals with issues of perfection and self image. With today’s perfection-seeking culture, where we tailor our lives to fit societal expectations on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, this story is especially relevant. It follows Aylmer, a scientist dabbling in alchemy, as he tries to remove a birthmark from his wife’s cheek. He is the only one who sees a flaw in her, and his overzealous attempts at perfecting her lead to her death.
In classroom discussion, I noticed that everyone seemed to be condemning Aylmer with ease, but this passage from the end of the story gave me pause:
Thus does the gross Fatality of Earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence, which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of a higher state. Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time, and living once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present.
I think that we are all, in a sense Aylmer, “fl[inging] away the happiness” that could make our lives whole. We all strive for that “profounder wisdom,” but it’s much easier talked about than actually found. While Hawthorne’s example in “The Birth-Mark” is of a man projecting unattainable perfection onto a woman who ultimately meets her demise because of his actions, in the real world, Aylmer would want to attain perfection himself. It is easier for us to comprehend the consequences of a perfection-based life when there is clearly an antagonist and a victim; when they are one and the same, as they tend to be within individual persons, we don’t want to recognize the problem. We all “[fail] to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time,” as time is what anchors us in reality. Though different religions might offer respite from the existential dread that a finite amount of time lends itself to, we still know it’s there and still strive to “find the perfect Future in the present,” because that’s all we have. Even as we make progress accepting our own imperfections, others inevitably take their place. Nobody wants to be imperfect, and the limited scope of human life pushes the Aylmer inside us all to do as much self-improvement as there is time for.