The Birthmark

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 selfsame 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. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark”

Poor Nathaniel Hawthorne--The Scarlet Letter is pretty much a scarlet letter on his career. We hear “Hawthorne” and we typically think only of this piece of his canon; too often, this very prominent mark on his name is the only one discussed in high school courses.

This is unfortunate, because Hawthorne produced some pretty great work during his six decades of life. One of his short stories and the inspiration for this post is “The Birthmark.”

In the story, a scientist (or perhaps more accurately, a pseudoscientist or an alchemist), Aylmer, falls in love with a woman who is incredibly beautiful. Georgiana is perfect in every way save one: she has a small birthmark, shaped like a tiny hand, on her cheek.

This birthmark is of little consequence to Georgiana’s many male admirers and suitors; in fact, it is “often called a charm” and is said to be the mark of a fairy who “at [Georgiana’s] 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.”

When Aylmer and Georgiana wed, all seems initially fine. But over time, the birthmark slowly becomes all that Aylmer can see in his spouse. And because of his disgust, it becomes all Georgiana can see of herself, too. And as the story continues, this seemingly skin-deep flaw gradually comes to be called the “fatal birthmark” by both of them.

Georgiana begins to believe that only the removal of the birthmark will restore joy to her life.

“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.”

And so, she agrees to allow her husband to remove the hated birthmark in his lab. She understands that the procedure may be dangerous, but she has become so convinced that life is miserable that she is willing to risk anything in order to remove the blemish.

Several treatments come up short. In a final attempt to remove the birthmark, Georgiana drinks a potion prepared by her husband. She falls into a deep sleep and as Aylmer watches with delight, the birthmark begins to fade. Georgiana awakes and looks in the mirror to see the final stages of its removal, but she tells her husband that she is dying at the rate the birthmark is fading: the treatment has been as fatal as the birthmark was perceived to be. In the end, the birthmark is gone--but so is Georgiana.

Wow. What a brilliant story, right? Especially when you analyze its deeper meaning. Which I'm totally not going to do, except with a few words...

A rare and incurable disease is not the same thing as a superficial birthmark, but then again, even Hawthorne wasn't really writing about a superficial birthmark. In this great piece of allegory, the birthmark represents the imperfections that make us human. Rob us of our imperfections, and we lose our humanity, much like Georgiana sacrificed her life in an effort to rid herself of something that she had ironically deemed "fatal."

But I'm going to deviate from Hawthorne's deep meaning and be slightly more literal. Hawthorne was, after all, a transcendentalist thinker, and transcendentalism is just a tad too esoteric for my simple mind.

What I'm getting at here isn't that we shouldn't seek cures for rare diseases. In fact, I hope and pray every day that a cure for cystinosis is found in my lifetime. I believe it will happen, and even if this cure isn't available to me, I know I will be around to see diagnosed members of the younger generation live without the disease.

What I'm actually getting at is that we can't allow a disease or condition to overtake our lives and become all we see. While raising funds for better treatments and a cure, we have to be careful that we are keeping a beautiful reality in check: disease is actually a small part of our identity that shouldn't define us and certainly shouldn't make us metaphorically uglier or fatally flawed. While living in denial won't work (there are medicines to take and appointments to keep in order for someone with a medical condition to stay healthy), it is important to realize that if you allow any part of yourself to become a negative focus in your life, it could soon become all that you see. While having a cure as your priority certainly isn't bad in and of itself, to think that your life is terrible right now without one--as Georgiana did in this tragic tale--can lead to a pretty miserable existence.

Trifling as it at first appeared, it so connected itself with innumerable trains of thought and modes of feeling that it became the central point of all.

Likewise (and this extends beyond medical conditions), becoming razor-focused on someone else's allegorical "birthmark" (even if you think you are helping them) can lead to unhealthy thinking on their part--this is the whole reason why bullying is such a serious issue.

Until now he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go for the sake of giving himself peace.

How we think about ourselves AND our flaws absolutely matters. Where we place our thoughts, there we place our lives. May life be rooted in joy (which is different than happiness and certainly allows for sadness) no matter the circumstances.