This is “Student Writers at Work: Jenn Nemec’s Jungian Psychoanalytic Reading of “The Birthmark,” Susan Moore’s Freudian Reading of “The Birthmark,” and Sarah David’s Lacanian Reading of “The Birthmark””, section 3.8 from the book Creating Literary Analysis (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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Literary theory provides a lens through which we view a literary work, be it in a New Critical close reading of a short story, a feminist or gender reading of a poem, or a reader-response interpretation of a dramatic play. In fact, the theory we apply to a literary work will partly determine what we find in the work and how we interpret that work. For this chapter, you will see how theory guides your interpretation. The three papers below, which came from the same class, focus on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (serialized in a magazine in 1843; published in a story collection in 1846). Jenn found Jungian theory fascinating, Susan was intrigued by Freud, while Sarah was challenged by Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of language.
In this section we trace Jenn’s writing process.
Exploratory Journal Entry
Aylmer, the central character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” attempts to attain what Carl Jung calls syzygy, or wholeness of personality. To achieve syzygy, one must integrate the four parts of the individual self termed shadow, anima, animus, and spirit, respectively. Despite his efforts, the gifted Aylmer fails to achieve this quaternion, for not only does he err in identifying his shadow, but he lacks the necessary wisdom of the spirit.
Aylmer misjudges his shadow, or the moral problem challenging his whole ego-personality. Although it is Aminadab, Aylmer’s faithful servant, who represents all the aspects of Aylmer’s personality which he would like to reject, Aylmer identifies Georgiana’s birthmark as the source of the evil he wants to deny and devotes all of his efforts to its elimination. Aylmer projects all his negative feelings upon his wife and recognizes her birthmark as the origin of imperfection rather than himself. The existence of the birthmark possesses Aylmer, who in turn becomes obsessed with it and its disposal.
The manifestations of both Georgiana’s animus and Aylmer’s anima are factors which contribute to the unattainability of syzygy. Georgiana’s dependence upon Aylmer as her source of logos allows her husband to administer whatever treatment he deems necessary to rid the couple’s life of the wretched birthmark. Additionally, Georgiana’s quest for logos draws her to the book in which Aylmer has documented all of his failed experiments. Through Georgiana’s discovery of Aylmer’s scientific blunders, readers learn that the removal of Georgiana’s birthmark is Aylmer’s ultimate opportunity to “touch reality, to embrace the earth and fructify the field of the world” (Jung 671), thereby satisfying his anima’s desire to possess the chaste White Lady side of Georgiana. Unfortunately, the encounter between Georgiana’s animus and Aylmer’s anima proves fatal—the woman’s reliance upon her husband’s ill-reasoning as he pursues his desire demonstrates that “when animus and anima meet, the animus [Aylmer] draws his sword of power and the anima [Georgiana] ejects her poison of illusion and seduction [the birthmark as blemish]” (Jung 673).
Even if the ambitious Aylmer had successfully perceived Aminadab to be his shadow rather than Georgiana’s birthmark, the scientist still would have faltered in his steps toward achieving syzygy, for he lacked the necessary component of spirit, or what Jung called the Wise Old Man or Woman. Although Aylmer is described as spiritual in opposition to the earthly Aminadab, “The Birthmark” concludes that despite Aylmer’s philosophical intelligence, he was by no means wise (“Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life the selfsame texture with the celestial”).
Despite his efforts, the gifted Aylmer fails to achieve the balance of the self, for not only does he err in identifying his shadow, but he lacks the necessary wisdom of the spirit.
Notes: Mapping of Ideas
|possesses Aylmer, who||Aylmer: Georgiana|
|is obsessed by it||Science|
|Aminadab: shadow||Georgiana: feminine side of Aylmer|
|logos, reason||Aylmer (ego) + Aminadab science, scientist (shadow) + Georgiana (anima)|
|Georgiana as object of experiment—Aylmer’s||Aylmer ≠ shadow + anima|
|Rejects shadow in name of anima|
|Science projects feeling of imperfection onto G|
Aylmer: In pursuit of syzygy\quaternion symbolizing wholeness fails because he misjudges his shadow and deludes himself into thinking science (reason) is pure and good for its own end—rejects wife (part of himself) for science while rejecting part of himself (his shadow). End must be tragedy.
Since Aylmer gravely blunders in identifying his shadow and is incapable of recognizing his dark side and integrating it with the other three archetypes—the anima, animus, and spirit—the scientist fails in his unconscious efforts to achieve syzygy, a complete Self in balance with itself. Thus Aylmer allows science to control his desire for perfection, which leads to tragedy—the death of Georgiana.
Professor John Pennington
Literary Theory and Writing
February 26, 20–
“Beyond the Shadowy Scope”: A Jungian Reading of Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”
In “Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Goodman Brown’s night journey of the soul, where Brown sees that all humans are tainted by original sin, even his wife Faith. The story ends with Brown’s death: “They carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” Hawthorne suggests that Brown’s inability to recognize the sinful nature of humankind leads to his miserable life, for humans must recognize the sinful side of the self. Carl Gustav Jung remarked that “it is quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering occurrence for him to gaze in the face of absolute evil” (670). Aylmer, the central character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” refuses to acknowledge the dark side of the self, symbolized in his servant, Aminadab, his shadow, or the “demonic image of evil that represents the side of the self we reject” (Richter 644). Instead, Aylmer projects his negative feelings onto his wife, Georgiana, and the hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek. Since Aylmer gravely blunders in identifying his shadow and is incapable of integrating this phenomenon with the other three principle archetypes—the anima, animus, and spirit—the scientist fails in his unconscious efforts to achieve syzygy, “a quaternion symbolizing wholeness, the quality of which people are usually in search” (Richter 644). “The Birthmark,” like “Young Goodman Brown,” shows the tragedy that can happen when people are unwilling to recognize sinful (or the dark) side of the self, for, as Hawthorne writes, Aylmer “failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present” (224).
Jung argues that the shadow is “the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide” (Storr 87). Thus Aylmer rejects the notion that he has a shadow, this shadow symbolized by his laboratory servant Aminadab. If Aylmer recognizes Aminadab as part of his self, then he must recognize “the dark aspects of the personality as present and real” (Jung 669); therefore, Aminadab’s existence poses “a moral problem that challenges [Aylmer’s] whole ego-personality” (Jung 669). Although Aylmer wishes to believe the two men are very different, “The Birthmark” offers evidence that the amalgam of the two creates an eerie whole: “With his [Aminadab’s] vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that encrusted him, he seemed to represent man’s physical nature; while Aylmer’s slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element” (Hawthorne 216). The text likewise offers proof that unconsciously, Aylmer recognizes Aminadab as the part of himself he chooses to deny. The scientist exclaims after the “success” of his ultimate experiment, “Ah, clod! ah, earthly mass! … you have served me well! Matter and spirit—earth and heaven—have both done their part in this!” (223). Aylmer subconsciously acknowledges that the two men are halves of his whole self—Aminadab comprises the earthly portion while Aylmer embodies the heavenly part.
Despite the unconscious recognition of Aminadab as his shadow, Aylmer projects his fears of the shadow onto Georgiana, insisting that her birthmark is to blame for his feelings of discord: “Selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s somber imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty … had given him delight” (Hawthorne 213). Aylmer becomes possessed with the birthmark and likewise obsessed with its disposal. Because Aylmer cannot come to terms with his failures as a man of science, he projects his negative feelings onto Georgiana and her birthmark; consequently, the blemish becomes a symbol for Aylmer’s own imperfections. The fault “appears to lie, beyond all possibility of doubt, in the other person [that is, Georgiana]” (Jung 670), and Aylmer’s “projections change the world into the replica of [his] unknown face” (Jung 669). By striving to eliminate Georgiana’s birthmark, Aylmer endeavors to “cleanse” himself of his own imperfections.
Aylmer’s inability to correctly perceive his shadow leads to his difficulties with integrating the contents of Georgiana’s animus, “the masculine side to the female self” (Richter 644), with his anima, “the feminine side of the male self” (Richter 644); these factors further inhibit him from achieving the quaternion of syzygy. According to Jung, “The animus corresponds to the paternal Logos [reason, logic] just as the anima corresponds to the maternal Eros [love, desire]” (672). Following this theory, Georgiana’s dependence upon Aylmer as her source of logos allows her husband to administer whatever treatment he deems necessary to rid the couple’s life of the wretched birthmark. Additionally, Georgiana’s quest for logos draws her to the book in which Aylmer has documented all of his failed experiments: “Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures.… It [the folio] was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man… and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part” (220). Through Georgiana’s discovery of Aylmer’s scientific blunders, readers learn that the removal of Georgiana’s birthmark is Aylmer’s ultimate opportunity to fulfill his “desire to touch reality, to embrace the earth and fructify the field of the world” and break his cycle of “no more than a series of fitful starts” (Jung 671), the culmination of his life’s work. In Aylmer’s glorious attempt to rid Georgiana of her imperfection, he tries to satisfy his anima’s desire to possess the chaste “White Lady” imago. Unfortunately, the encounter between Georgiana’s animus and Aylmer’s anima proves fatal—the woman’s reliance upon her husband’s ill reasoning as he pursues his desire demonstrates that “when animus and anima meet, the animus [Aylmer] draws his sword of power and the anima [Georgiana] ejects her poison of illusion and seduction [the birthmark as blemish]” (Jung 673). Aylmer is left alone with his shadow, Aminadab, whose “hoarse, chuckling laugh [is] heard again” (Hawthorne 224) at Georgiana’s death as the chilling tale of “The Birthmark” concludes.
Had Aylmer recognized Aminadab as his shadow rather than projected his disgust onto Georgiana and her birthmark, and had he successfully integrated the contents of both his wife’s animus and his anima, the scientist still would have faltered in his steps toward achieving syzygy: for he lacked the necessary component of spirit, what Jung believed the presence of a wise old man or woman symbolized (Richter 644). Although Aylmer was a scientist of great philosophical intelligence and enormous potential, “The Birthmark” concludes that he was by no means wise. The closing lines of Hawthorne’s story read, “Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life the selfsame texture with the celestial” (224). Aylmer’s misguided projections onto Georgiana led him to “an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable” (Jung 670). Each part of Aylmer—the scientist, the husband, the lover—lost its sustenance in the death of Georgiana, for Aylmer “failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present” (Hawthorne 224).
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” spins a psychological web in which central character Aylmer becomes entangled. Riddled by obsession with his wife’s birthmark, a man of superb intelligence fails to recognize his dastardly shadow, which his ominous servant, Aminadab, embodies. The encounter between Georgiana’s animus and Aylmer’s anima proves disastrous, for when the contents of the two cannot be integrated, death and destruction arises. In addition to these failures, Aylmer lacks the vitally important spirit; consequently, he cannot achieve the quaternion of syzygy which he unconsciously seeks. Jung remarked, “It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself” (670). Aylmer’s demise is a testament to Jung’s observation, for Hawthorne’s character is but a pathetic example of how the intricacies of personal evil can blind the most enlightened man of science and leave him muttering in the dark corners of his soul.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading. Ed. William Vesterman. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993. 212–24. Print.
———. “Young Goodman Brown.” Mosses from an Old Manse and Other Stories. 1846. Gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg. n.pag. Web. 6 July 2012. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/512/512-h/512-h.htm#goodman>.
Jung, Carl Gustav. “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford, 1989. 656–76. Print.
Richter, David H., ed. “Jung.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. New York: Bedford, 1989. 643–45. Print.