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The Ambiguity of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark

Ambiguity of “The Birthmark”

There are numerous instances of ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”; this essay hopes to explore critics’ comments on that problem within the tale, as well as to analyze it from this reader’s standpoint.

In New England Men of Letters Wilson Sullivan relates Hawthorne’s usage of opposites in his tales:

He sought, in Hamlet’s telling words to his palace players, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” and to report what he saw in that mirror. . . .“Life is made up,”, Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud.” In the pages of his finest works, both marble and mud are held in a just, unique, and artistic balance(95).

Hawthorne’s juxtaposition of opposites, of “marble and mud” within “The Birthmark” is a contributing factor to the ambiguity within the story. How could someone like Aminadab possibly be working side by side with the intellectual scientist, Aylmer? How can Georgiana proceed with the experimental cure after reading Aylmer’s scientific journal and after witnessing firsthand the failure of the flower and photograph experiments? Peter Conn in “Finding a Voice in an New Nation” makes a statement regarding Hawthorne’s ambiguity: “Almost all of Hawthorne’s finest stories are remote in time or place. The glare of contemporary reality immobilized his imagination. He required shadows and half-light, and he sought a nervous equilibrium in ambiguity” (82).

Hyatt H. Waggoner in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” testifies that Hawthorne’s ambiguity has proven to be an asset in the contemporary era when readers like such a quality in fiction:

Since ours is an age that has found irony, ambiguity, and paradox to be central not only in literature but in life, it is not surprising that Hawthorne has seemed to us one of the most modern of nineteenth century American writers. The bulk and general excellence of the great outburst of Hawthorne criticism of the past decade attest to his relevance for us (54).

Henry James in Hawthorne mentions how Hawthorne’s allegorical meanings should be expressed more clearly:

I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world.

The Psychological Dimension of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark

The Psychological Dimension of “The Birthmark”

This essay will analyze Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” in order to demonstrate that it is a “psychological” short story both in its themes and in its emphasis on the moral-psychological aspect of the main characters.

There is probably unanimity among literary critics that Hawthorne is a “psychological” writer. Consider some of their statements chosen at random from various critiques of Hawthorne’s literary works: Stanley T. Williams in “Hawthorne’s Puritan Mind” says:

What he wrote of New England was . . . .the subconscious mind of New England. It was. . . . unforgettable case histories of men and women afflicted by guilt, or, as he called it, by “a stain upon the soul.”. . . .

His were grave and acute reflections upon the way in which the Puritan mind worked. . . .” (43)

Edmund Fuller and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living” state that Hawthorne liked to “explore uncertainties of belief that trouble a man’s heart and mind” (31). Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” states that Hawthorne’s interest tended toward the heart and the psychological effects of these moral and ethical issues” (13). A. N. Kaul considers Hawthorne “preeminently a ‘psychological’” writer – “burrowing, to his utmost ability, into the depths of our common nature, for the purposes of psychological romance. . . . He was deeply preoccupied with the modern themes of alienation, isolation, and guilt consciousness – and with modern spiritual problems generally” (2). There appears to be more agreement among literary critics regarding the interpretation of Hawthorne as a “psychological” writer than upon any other aspect of his writing.

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…athaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Literary World August 17, 24, 1850.

Peckham, Morse. “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

Swisher, Clarice. “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

Waggoner, Hyatt. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Six American Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Richard Foster. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.

Williams, Stanley T. “Hawthorne’s Puritan Mind.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

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