Nathaniel Hawthorne & Dark Romanticism

Nathaniel Hawthorne &
“The Birthmark”
Symbolism and Figurative
Nathaniel Hawthorne
• Nathaniel Hawthorne
(born Nathaniel Hathorne; July 4, 1804
– May 19, 1864) was an American novelist
and short story writer.
• Changed his last name so he would be
disassociated with relatives that were
involved in the Salem Witch Trials
• Much of Hawthorne's writing centers
around New England, many works
featuring moral allegories with a Puritan
• His fiction works are considered part of
the Romantic movement and, more
specifically, dark romanticism
• His themes often center on the inherent
evil and sin of humanity, and his works
often have moral messages and deep
psychological complexity.
• Literary style and themes
• Hawthorne was predominantly a short
story writer in his early career. His four
major romances were written between
1850 and 1860: The Scarlet Letter (1850),
The House of the Seven Gables (1851),
The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The
Marble Faun (1860).
• Hawthorne's works belong to romanticism or,
more specifically, dark romanticism, cautionary
tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the
most inherent natural qualities of humanity.
Many of his tales and novels focus on a type of
historical fiction, though Hawthorne's depiction
of the past is used only as a vehicle to express
themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution.
Literary Terms
• Figures of speech / Figurative language - language that
creates imaginative connections between our ideas and our
senses or that reveals striking similarities between things we
had never associated before.
Simile - an explicit comparison using like or as.
Metaphor – an implicit comparison of one thing with another
unlike itself.
Extended metaphor – a detailed and extended metaphor
that stretches through most of a work to underscore the
work’s themes
Symbol – an object, person, place or even that signifies a
meaning beyond itself.
Archetype – literary element that recur in cultural and crosscultural myth.
Literary Terms, continued
• Allegory – a narrative which has two distinct levels of meaning: the
literal level and an abstract or figurative level; an “extended” symbol
that encompasses a whole work. In an allegory, the widely
recognized association of one idea with a more concrete or
perceptible thing (country and flag, love and rose) is extended,
possibly with a variety of other symbols, across a narrative with at
least two distinct levels of meaning.
• Contextual Symbol – symbols that generate meaning because of
the work they are in. Also called “private symbols.”
• Conventional Symbol – symbols that mean the same thing to
most people because they are so much a part of the human
experience. Also called “public” or “traditional” symbols.
• Myth – originally meant a story of communal origin that provided
an explanation or religious interpretation of man, nature, the
universe, or the relation between them. When an entire story is
allegorical or symbolic it is sometimes called a myth.
“The Birthmark”
• The first line of “The Birth-Mark” specifies that the main character,
Aylmer, is a “man of science” who lived in the “latter part” of the
eighteenth century. Since Hawthorne wrote the story in 1843, the
eighteenth-century setting makes “The Birth-Mark” a piece of
historical fiction and grounds the action in a historical period known
for its fascination with and faith in scientific developments and
technological inventions. The eighteenth century in Europe and
America is sometimes referred to as the “Age of Enlightenment” and
was characterized by a belief in the power of human reason to
order, apprehend, and even perfect social systems and the natural
world. Aylmer’s unshakable confidence that nothing is too
complicated for him to understand and master reflects this belief—
though his sometimes magical thinking also links him to the earlier
medieval alchemists whose works he collects in his library. Of
course, eighteenth-century scientists and theorists, however
objective and disinterestedly “rational” they aspired to be, inevitably
were influenced by their own values, assumptions, anxieties, and
politics—a problem that also plagues Aylmer in the story.
The Birthmark itself
• Where it is located?
• What does it look like?
• When does it appear and fade?
• How do various people see it?
– Aylmer
– Georgiana
– Georgiana’s lovers
– Georgiana’s rivals
What does this passage mean?
“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.”
Discussion Questions
1. Critics have read the birthmark as a symbol of many
things. What possible symbolic significance can you see in
it? Why is it important that it is shaped like a hand?
2. What do you see as Aminadab’s role in the story?
3. Why do you think Georgiana complies with Aylmer’s
plans, especially after she knows that he is uncertain of
4. In what ways do you find the characters and events in
this story realistic or unrealistic? If you don’t find them
particularly realistic, what effect does that view have on
how you read the story? Does it matter in what way the
characters and events are unrealistic?
Discussion Questions, continued
5. Why does Aylmer create a “secluded abode” within his
laboratory for Georgiana? What is the significance of his decision
to move her into his workplace?
6. What clues does the story provide about Georgiana’s
assessment of her husband’s scientific expertise? What does she
mean when she tells him she “worships” him? Are there
moments when she seems critical of him? When does she
challenge him and when is she submissive?
7. Why do you think Aminadab laughs his “hoarse, chuckling
laugh” as Geogiana dies?
8. Examine the final three lines of the story. Is the neatly stated
moral adequate to all of the issues raised by the story? Why
does Hawthorne capitalize the words “Time,” “Eternity,” and