Scientific Tales of Obsession and Perfection

Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Hawthorne in the 1860s)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850), one of America’s towering works of fiction, did not consider himself a novelist. He wrote “romances,” he insisted–imaginative representations of moral problems, rather than novelistic depictions of social realities. A descendant of one of the Salem witch-trial judges, the Salem-born Hawthorne grew up in a somber and solitary atmosphere. His father, a sea captain, perished on a voyage when his son was just 4 years old, and Hawthorne’s mother spent the remainder of her life in mourning. After attending Bowdoin College, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce were among his classmates, he began to write. It would not be until 1837, however, when he published Twice-Told Tales, that the 33-year-old Hawthorne first gained public recognition. He lived briefly at Brook Farm and participated in the transcendentalist circle, but did not share their idealistic faith in humanity’s innate goodness.

Hawthorne was a secretive, painfully shy man. But no pre–Civil War author wrote more perceptively about guilt–sexual, moral, and psychological. “In the depths of every human heart,” he wrote in an early tale, “there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, the revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide.” In his fiction, Hawthorne, more than any other early 19th century American writer, challenged the larger society’s faith in science, technology, progress, and humanity’s essential goodness. Many of his greatest works project 19th century concerns–about women’s roles, sexuality, and religion–onto 17th century Puritan settings. Some of his stories examine the hubris of scientists and social reformers who dare tamper with the natural environment and human nature. (Digital History)

Hawthorne was born in Salem, MA, home of the famous 17th century Witch Trials in which Puritans convicted and executed several villagers of witchcraft based on no hard evidence. One of his ancestors, John Hathorne was a judge in these trials who never repented of his decision. In order to hide his relation, Hawthorne added the “w” to his name. It is this connection to the puritanical past of America and its legacy in the 19th century that influenced the themes and subjects of many of Hawthorne’s novels and short stories such as The Scarlet Letter, which was about the persecution of adulterers. Hawthorne was deeply critical about conservative puritanism, often accusing it of hypocrisy and taking away the individual’s right to think for himself and act as he pleases.


The American Renaissance

Hawthorne was one of the leading authors of a movement in American literature called “The American Renaissance,” which lasted from the 1830s until the Civil War period. Alongside other famous writers like Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick), Walt Whitman, and the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne was interested in crafting a uniquely American literature interested in issues like Democracy, freedom, individualism, self-reliance, industry, and modernization. Hawthorne and other American Renaissance writers were interesting in creating an American mythology based on its history of folktales and romances while writing literature that looked forward and argued for Enlightenment ideals like reason, logic, ethics, and rights. These writers wrote at a time of great change in America in which industry began to accelerate, the economy started to grow, the country progressed westward, and America began to establish its own identity as a nation.

As you read these two stories, I want you to consider how some of these aspects of The American Renaissance show up in the texts. For example, how do both of the stories sound like folk lore? How does Hawthorne use both stories in the way we normally tell folk tales, which is to teach moral messages and communicate cultural ideas? If we are to read them as warnings, then what values and ideas might Hawthorne be arguing for?


“The Birthmark”


(Georgiana, Illustrated)

Ethical questions to consider as you read:

1. Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? How do we define beauty and how is it socially constructed?

2. To what degree should we try to alter the body for cosmetic purposes?

3. What are the dangers of perfectionism?


Obsession in “The Birthmark”

Hawthorne’s critical take on humanity and its preoccupation with controlling the lives of others is evident in “The Birthmark”. First off, consider the theme of this week: obsession. We do not enter too far into the story when we are presented with the object of the scientist Aylmer’s obsession; his wife’s (Georgiana) small, hand shaped birthmark. Why is Aylmer so obsessed with his wife’s birthmark? Consider the following themes in the story that inform his obsession.


Early on in the story, Hawthorne narrates:

“Had she been less beautiful,—if Envy’s self could have found aught else to sneer at,—he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. 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.”

The more Aylmer stares at this small imperfection, the more obsessed he becomes with the possibility of its removal because it is the one, tiny flaw which spoils a nearly perfect beauty. Note what Hawthorne writes about how the birthmark would be perceived if she was less beautiful: it would not bother him and it would seem cute. Yet, the tinier the flaw, the more glaring it becomes. This is a product of the obsessive nature of the perfectionist. Why does everything need to be perfect for Aylmer? Consider what Hawthorne says about death and the struggle toward perfection by “toil and pain.” The birthmark reminds him of what he cannot control in life, and the perfectionist in him creates the illusion that he can indeed control all things. Why does he have such an inflated belief in himself? Consider this next theme:

Science in the 19th Century:

In the opening paragraph, Hawthorne writes:

“In the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke, washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife. In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature. 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 wrote this story during the beginning stages of the scientific revolution in the 19th century. Rapid advancements in technology and medicine were changing the lives of Americans and Europeans, and with stunning new discoveries in the fields of chemistry, biology, and physics, there was a widening belief that all problems could be solved by scientific inquiry. Yet, this may have left some doctors and scientists with an inflated ego. Their new knowledge of the natural world allowed them to play God. Mary Shelley criticized this tendency in Frankenstein by portraying a scientist who decided to create a human life with no consideration for the ethics of this decision.

Hawthorne also criticizes this megalomaniacal tendency through his characterization of Aylmer. Look carefully at the way he describes his scientific knowledge and abilities. He is absolutely certain of his capabilities and he presents his tools and chemicals more like the tools of God (for example, the potion which he could use to kill people) than like laboratory instruments. Yet, like Dr. Frankenstein, who never considered the ethics of creating a human life, Aylmer also never considers the ethics of his decision. Is it right to remove the birthmark? Is it worth the risk? What might be motivating his decision? I want you to consider this, because Aylmer never does.


Have you ever heard the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” ? Never more was this true than in this story. Georgiana at first describes her birthmark as a “charm” and Hawthorne narrates the following about its past:

“To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state of her complexion—a healthy though delicate bloom—the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size. Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand. It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders. Some fastidious persons—but they were exclusively of her own sex—affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana’s beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous. But it would be as reasonable to say that one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. Masculine observers, if the birthmark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw. After his marriage,—for he thought little or nothing of the matter before,—Aylmer discovered that this was the case with himself.”

Georgiana was considered a great beauty and her birthmark was her defining feature. Men fought each other for her and women were jealous. Yet, with just a few comments from her husband on the possibility of its removal, her opinion changes:

“Aylmer,” resumed Georgiana, solemnly, “I know not what may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps its removal may cause cureless deformity; or it may be the stain goes as deep as life itself. Again: do we know that there is a possibility, on any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little hand which was laid upon me before I came into the world?”

“Dearest Georgiana, I have spent much thought upon the subject,” hastily interrupted Aylmer. “I am convinced of the perfect practicability of its removal.”

“If there be the remotest possibility of it,” continued Georgiana, “let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust,—life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life! You have deep science. All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders. Cannot you remove this little, little mark, which I cover with the tips of two small fingers? Is this beyond your power, for the sake of your own peace, and to save your poor wife from madness?”

In just a day, the birthmark went from her defining feature as a great beauty to a stain that she would risk her life to remove. The eye of the beholder (Aylmer) completely changed her perception of her own beauty. Why did Aylmer’s opinion matter so much to her? Why does she so desperately want it changed?

Think about some of our present day beauties. Many of the most beautiful women in the world have a defining feature that may be considered a flaw. For example, Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford were considered in their primes to be the sexiest women in the world. They were both known for having a mole above their lips, a birthmark which became part of their trademarks. To remove them would have been to take away part of what made them stand out in a sea of beautiful actresses and models.

This then raises the question, what makes a person truly beautiful? I’m not necessarily looking for an answer like “inner-beauty” or “being a good person”, though I do agree with that sentiment. Instead, I am talking about aesthetic beauty. Is beauty about perfection, or is there some other element that influences it?


“Rappaccini’s Daughter” 


(Rappaccini’s Daughter By Gus Kosmopoulos)

Ethical Questions to Consider:

1. What effect do scientists have on their subjects and what effects do parents have on their children?

2. What can be “poisonous” about man’s pursuit of knowledge and his pursuit of love and desire?

3. How can the desire to possess and understand something result in destroying what we love?

Themes in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

The Poisonous Woman



(Eve and Poison Ivy)

The character of the poisonous woman has appeared in stories that span civilizations. The poisonous woman is often described as a temptress, a beautiful woman that seduces men and leads them to their ruin. The poison can be literal, as in the case of Rappaccini’s Daughter, or it can be metaphorical and what is “poisonous” could be something dangerous in another way. For example, Eve, pictured above fits the model of the poisonous woman as she gives the apple from the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, which leads to his (and humanity’s) down fall. The poisonous woman as a metaphor is usually used to illustrate the danger of giving into temptation, that pursuing our desires could be devastating.

I have also added above an image of Poison Ivy from the Batman comics. Her character is similar to Beatrice in that they are both literally poisonous due to experiments with botany. In most versions of the Batman stories, Poison Ivy is a scientist who becomes overzealous in her environmentalist causes and wreaks havoc with her villainous control over plants. She is usually depicted as seductively beautiful with a kiss that can kill her foes.

As you read this story, I want you to think about how Beatrice compares to these other famous poisonous women. Is she a villain or a temptress or is she more of a victim in this story?

Dante’s Divine Comedy 


(Painting by Elisabeth Sonrel, depicting Dante’s three meetings with Beatrice: at the May Day party, on a Florentine street, and in the Earthly Paradise)

Another famous literary character that Rappaccini’s Daughter shares a commonality with is Beatrice from the Italian poet Dante’s famous 13th century work The Divine Comedy. In this epic tale, Dante tells of his travels through hell (the inferno) purgatory (purgatorio) and heaven (paradiso). The Inferno is by far the most famous part of the epic. Guided by the great Roman poet Virgil, Dante sees the nine circles of hell, each one designed to punish a specific sin. He describes their eternal suffering in deep detail, and often depicts his political enemies suffering in hell, thus making it a political satire.

Rappaccini’s Daughter shares a name with Dante’s heroine of the story, Beatrice. Beatrice is characterized as a perfect woman, kind, beautiful, and free of sin. In the Divine Comedy, she appears at the beginning along with the Virgin Mary to help him on his quest and she becomes his guide in heaven. Dante based her off a real life woman named Beatrice who lived in Florence. He only met her a few times, but he was convinced of her perfection and admired her from afar.

Hawthorne makes a specific reference to Dante in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” at the beginning of the story when Giovanni, the young scientist, moves to town to begin his studies:

Giovanni, who had but a scanty supply of gold ducats in his pocket, took lodgings in a high and gloomy chamber of an old edifice, which looked not unworthy to have been the palace of a Paduan noble, and which, in fact, exhibited over its entrance the armorial bearings of a family long since extinct. The young stranger, who was not unstudied in the great poem of his country, recollected that one of the ancestors of this family, and perhaps an occupant of this very mansion, had been pictured by Dante as a partaker of the immortal agonies of his Inferno. These reminiscences and associations, together with the tendency to heart-break natural to a young man for the first time out of his native sphere, caused Giovanni to sigh heavily, as he looked around the desolate and ill-furnished apartment.

Giovanni is not only a decedent of one of Dante’s political enemies that he depicted tortured in hell, but he very well may have moved into the same place he had previous lived. Coupled with giving the object of his desire the same name as Dante’s love (who he also admires from afar) Hawthorne gives us the possibility that Giovanni could either be entering his own hell like his ancestor, or perhaps heaven via the path of Beatrice like Dante. As you read the story, think about the path Giovanni is on. Is he venturing toward heaven or hell?

Bio Ethics and Personal Relationships

As you read “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” I want you to continue to explore the question of Bio Ethics. Just as Frankensteinanticipated contemporary issues about genetic research and “playing god,” so does Hawthorne’s story anticipate the controversy over the genetic engineering of plants. The father’s research on poisonous and dangerous plants has created a species so dangerous that it has seeped into his daughter and made her poisonous as well. Thus Hawthorne may be questioning the potential effects of scientific research on the future generation.

Furthermore, we can read this idea of Beatrice’s poison as a metaphor. In what ways has she been “poisoned” by her father who has secluded her and inculcated her with his obsessive studies? In what ways has she been “poisoned” by the towns folk that spread rumors about her? Finally, in what ways has she been “poisoned” by Giovanni’s love? He falls in love with her and vows to save her from her poison, but how does this in turn cause her downfall? Is Beatrice at all to blame for these circumstances?

In what ways can we think of the metaphor of poison as love or lust? How might the drive toward knowledge and power embodied in scientific discover be similar to the drive toward lust and desired embodied in a romantic relationship?


“Power” By Adrienne Rich


Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

(The Young Adrienne Rich)

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was one of the best known writers of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Her work often criticized gender roles, sexual norms, and the political situation of women of the era.

In “Power” Adrienne Rich reflects upon the life of Marie Curie, the famous French, Nobel Prize-winning scientist who did pioneering research on radioactivity. One of the themes of Women’s Liberation in the 60s and 70s was to recovery “Women’s History,” meaning that they wished to emphasize the important, but often overlooked role that women played in history. Women’s History also entailed looking at history from the perspective of women and how women had been treated over the course of history.

Adrienne Rich looks at the side of Marie Curie’s life that few people pay attention to: her death due to radiation induced illness. Curie’s research on radioactivity paved the way for a multitude of scientific and technological advances and helped create modern medicine, energy sources, and industry. However, like many pioneers who ventured into new territory, she paid a big price with her health. Just how dangerous was this radiation? Literary scholar Chase Dimock (yes, I am citing myself, professors are allowed to do that!) explains:

      “At the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, any researcher who wants to access the lab books and notes of the legendary scientist Marie Curie must first sign a waiver acknowledging the danger of leafing through her papers. Over a hundred years after Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium, her lab book is still radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter.”

If you want to read the rest of my article on Marie Curie’s life and how it informed Adrienne Rich’s poem, here’s the link. (Dimock)

As you read Rich’s poem on the life of Curie, consider the way she describes her decline. Was it worth the fame and fortune to go through such a painful decline? Why do you think Curie “denies her wounds?”

Think about the poem in the context of Women’s Liberation in the 60s and 70s. Why would Rich be interested in talking about “power” and a woman who was both powerful as a scientist and literally unleashed a new form of power that would change how medicine, industry, and war would be run?

Consider the beginning of the poem. Why does Curie talk about the unearthing of the bottle? Think about what was inside the bottle, a charlatan’s probably fake cure for an ailment from many years ago. Why would that image and its unearthing trigger thoughts of Curie? How do they go together?

Could Curie’s experience as a “famous woman denying her wounds” represent something about women’s experience in the 60s and 70s?

How can we compare the toll that scientific discovery took on Curie’s body to that of Georgianna and Beatrice in Hawthorne’s stories?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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