The Unattainability of Perfection: A Critical Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”

Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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Perfection is one of the most sought-after qualities in society. People are willing to shell out large sums of money for dieting plans, training regimens, and plastic surgery – all in an attempt to be perfect, whether that means having a slim waist, a defined core, or a more attractive nose. However, nobody is flawless. Even if an individual alters their physical appearance to what they believe to be “perfect,” they will nonetheless have other, non-physical faults that will limit their ability to attain perfection. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a 19th century American writer, expressed his feelings about the attainability of perfection in his fiction.

In particular, in "The Birthmark," Hawthorne uses the birthmark as a symbol, the characterization of Georgiana, and the foreshadowing of Georgiana's death to promote the unrealistic nature of perfection; Hawthorne highlights the impracticality of flawlessness so that society, in general, will stop going to great lengths trying to achieve the unachievable and, instead, spend their collective time more productively. To begin with, to endorse the improbability of perfection, Hawthorne establishes Georgiana’s birthmark as a symbol of earthly imperfection.

For instance, the birthmark is described as being “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature […] 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” (Hawthorne 14). From this, it is evident that the birthmark represents, not only the mortality of humans, but that while humans are mortal, perfection is elusive. Hawthorne goes so far as to indicate that the birthmark is “a symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death […] [and that it is a] symbol of imperfection […] [of which] the spectral hand […] wrote mortality” (14).

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Although Georgiana is otherwise a beautiful woman, her birthmark keeps her from being flawless. Hawthorne promotes the unrealistic nature of perfection in that, even though many may be relatively close to achieving perfection, there will always be one small factor that stands in the way – in Georgiana’s case, it is her birthmark. Moreover, Hawthorne’s characterization of Georgiana’s physical attributes, most notably her birthmark, accentuates the unlikelihood of achieving perfection.

Specifically, “in the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek there was a singular mark […] [that] wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness” (13). It is interesting to note that, although Georgiana is labeled a gorgeous woman, the only aspect of her physical appearance that Hawthorne describes in detail is that of her birthmark – the symbol of imperfection. Hawthorne does this intentionally to fully emphasize the notion that perfection is unattainable and that it is wrong for people, such as Aylmer, to believe otherwise.

Furthermore, Aylmer deems his wife’s birthmark as having “an almost fearful distinctness […] [whose] shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand” (13). From this, a connection is made between the birthmark and mortality, in that Georgiana’s birthmark is depicted as being in the shape of a human hand and not, for example, the hand belonging to G-d. This serves as a reminder that Georgiana is human and that, so long as that is the case, it is unfeasible to achieve perfection of any kind.

Similarly, Hawthorne evokes the unlikelihood of attaining perfection by foreshadowing Georgiana’s death. For instance, Aylmer dreams of “attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark, […] [whose] tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart […]; [Aylmer] was […] resolved to cut […] it away” (15). Even in Aylmer’s dream, it appears difficult to achieve perfection – and the dream world is not reality. As a result, Hawthorne is commenting on the fact that, in the real world, it is virtually impossible to attain flawlessness.

Later on, Aylmer insists that Georgiana touch the “perfect and lovely flower […] [which] no sooner […] suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire” (18). From this, Hawthorne makes the point that perfection is unattainable. The moment Georgiana touches the otherwise perfect flower, the plant dies – foreshadowing Aylmer’s impending failure. This failure, in addition, is foreshadowed when Georgiana, reading through her husband’s folio of past experiments, discovers that “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures” (20).

This example of foreshadowing Georgiana’s death, again, indicates that their intention for perfection is not a fruitful one. To advocate the degree of difficulty associated with achieving perfection, Hawthorne, in his short story “The Birthmark,” employs the birthmark as a symbol of imperfection, characterizes Georgiana’s physical attributes, and foreshadows Georgiana’s death; from this, Hawthorne hopes people will acknowledge the senselessness inherent in trying to be perfect and use their time to accomplish more realistic goals.

It is evident that Hawthorne’s outlook on the inability to achieve perfection is sensical. For example, people the world over spend not only time, but their hard-earned money, on various products and endeavors that they believe will bring them closer to perfection. However, no matter how “close” these people get, they will never be fully capable of obtaining perfection. Instead of getting plastic surgery, a toupee, using steroids, or dieting excessively, people would be better off accepting who they truly are. That is the closest anybody will ever get to achieving perfection.

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The Unattainability of Perfection: A Critical Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”. (2016, Aug 11). Retrieved from

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