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Literary Theory and Writing
April 5, 20–
A Lacanian Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”
The focal point of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” is a mysterious mark: “In the center of Georgiana’s cheek there was a singular mark.… 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 had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek … to give her such sway over all hearts” (Hawthorne 170). However, Aylmer sees the birthmark very differently from other men, “selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death” (170). This discrepancy confuses the reader and causes him or her to examine the true meaning of the birthmark. As the reader examines Aylmer’s struggle to define the birthmark, his quest to rid Georgiana of her birthmark takes on new meaning.
Aylmer’s quest to create perfect aesthetic beauty in his wife’s appearance is analogous to Jacques Lacan’s idea of searching for unity through language. Jacques Lacan is a student of Freud; however, he examines psychoanalysis through its relationship with language. Essentially he takes Freud’s beliefs and applies them to language. While he agrees people are driven by their desires, he thinks problems stem from our inability to create a stable language. Lacan believes that everyone starts off in a pre-linguistic unified state because one cannot separate the self from others. This unified state only lasts until the child learns that he or she is separate from others, thus entering Lacan’s Symbolic stage. After realizing he or she is a separate entity, the person then tries to identify images using language. However, since a signifier, a word, triggers the signified, an image or context represents language, and according to Lacan since there is no stability for signifiers, confusion occurs over the signifier representing one specific image. This confusion causes the person to feel a sense of loss. He or she then wishes for that wholeness or unity he or she had before and longs for the pre-linguistic state. This search for wholeness or the Real stage is ultimately unattainable. Reading “The Birthmark” from a Lacanian point of view, the reader can see that Aylmer’s confusion over the signifier of the birthmark and his desire for unity, both of the signifier and the separateness of his loves, lead him to try to create perfect beauty in his wife as a way to regain his lost unity.
Language is a signifier that triggers the signified, but Lacan only acknowledges the signifier. He believes that “there is nothing that a signifier ultimately refers to” and “because of this lack of signifieds … the chain of signifiers … is constantly sliding and shifting and circulating” (Klages 2). Georgiana’s birthmark becomes the signifier in Aylmer’s search for unity. To Aylmer the birthmark is “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death”; however; some of Georgiana’s former “lovers were wont to say (the birthmark gave) her such sway over all hearts,” thus seeing the birthmark in a positive light (Hawthorne 170). Aylmer’s apprentice, Aminadab, even tells him, “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark” (175). Because the birthmark, the signifier, does not result in one specific meaning, it causes confusion for Aylmer.
Since Aylmer realizes that signifiers do not always signify one meaning, he begins to feel fragmented. He also feels fragmented by the separateness of his love for science and his love for Georgiana. Hawthorne writes: “It was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of a woman” (169). This sense of separation occurs in Lacan’s Symbolic stage. Language occurs in this stage because as the person is able to differentiate between the self and others he or she struggles to define the differences with words. Aylmer was already able to differentiate between what the birthmark meant to him and what it meant to others and since the meaning is not the same he feels a sense of separation over this lack of unity. His “awareness of separation … creates an anxiety, a sense of loss” (Klages 3). This feeling of separation of his two loves adds to the feeling of loss over the lack of a stable signifier for his wife’s birthmark. He then wants, as Lacan would say, “to stabilize, to stop the chain of signifiers so that stable meaning … becomes possible” (Klages 2). Aylmer begins his search for unity, which can only be found in the Real stage, but realizes it can only be reached by “intertwining itself [the love for his wife] with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own” (Hawthorne 169).
As previously mentioned, the Symbolic stage is where language happens and a person begins to separate the self from others as well as beginning to differentiate language. This sense of loss creates a longing to return to the wholeness of the pre-linguistic stage. A person would then be in search to find this unity in the Real stage, and although “you can never get back” to that unity “you always want to” (Klages 7). Aylmer relates finding his unity to ridding his wife of her birthmark and his desire becomes so strong that the birthmark “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” (Hawthorne 171). Aylmer thinks he finds an opportunity to find unity by attempting to create something that will remove Georgiana’s birthmark.
Aylmer believes that by uniting his love of science with his love for his wife he will end the separation he feels between the two loves, and by removing the birthmark he will also remove the confusion over the signifier. Aylmer begins his search for unity, the Real stage, by trying to remove the birthmark. He attempts several times, all inevitably resulting in failure as the Real stage is unattainable. He first surrounds her with beautiful holograms, then presents her with a plant, which she kills, and thirdly tries spraying the air with perfume. All of these attempts fail, but Aylmer does not give up hope that he will be able to remove the birthmark and therefore find unity. Aylmer’s desire for unity causes him to believe he can achieve unity once again and keeps him persevering to find a “cure” for Georgiana’s imperfection and therefore the Real stage. Finally Aylmer mixes a drink, telling his wife, “The concoction of the draught has been perfect.… Unless all my science have deceived me, it cannot fail” (178). Georgiana drinks the potion and falls asleep. Aylmer watches her until he notices that the birthmark “is well-nigh gone!” (179) Aylmer is elated with his success, believing he has found the perfect beauty, his wholeness, for which he was searching only to hear his wife cry out, “Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!” (179) He comes to her side “as the crimson tint of the birthmark … faded from her cheek … and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight” (179). Aylmer’s experience of this perfect beauty, his unity, was fleeting because just as the birthmark was fading away, true wholeness or reaching the Real stage is short lived and unattainable. In the end Hawthorne shows Lacan’s claim that “the ideal concept of a wholly unified and psychologically complete individual is just that, an abstraction that is simply not attainable” (Bressler 129).
Aylmer’s confusion over the birthmark, the signifier, coupled with the separation of his loves, eventually lead him on his unsuccessful quest for unity in perfecting Georgiana’s beauty. Aylmer’s confusion caused by the unstable signifier, the birthmark, is presented along with the impossibility of returning to the pre-linguistic wholeness everyone desires. Since “language shapes and ultimately structures our unconscious and conscious minds and thus shapes our self-identity,” Alymer’s distress over language manifests itself as his desire to get rid of the birthmark (Bressler 129). By reading “The Birthmark” from a Lacanian point of view, the reader is able to define Aylmer much differently than in other readings. Instead of seeing Aylmer as evil and striving for ultimate perfection or reading into the evils or dangers of science, the reader sees Aylmer as a more humane, regular person in the Symbolic stage searching to find unity in the Real stage. This also allows the reader to understand why he tries so desperately to cure—but ultimately kills—his wife over something as seemingly insignificant as a birthmark.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. Print.
Klages, Mary. “Jacques Lacan.” University of Colorado at Boulder. Dept. of English, U of Colorado at Boulder, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2012. <http://www.colorado.edu/Enghsh/ENGL2012Klages/20031acan.html>.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Literature: Reading and Writing with Critical Strategies. Ed. Steven Lynn. New York: Pearson, 2004. 169–80.