Guest Post: “The Birthmark” by Peggy A. Pennock

This week we have a guest post from beloved Mariners’ Church parishioner and Trustee, Peggy Pennock. Peggy serves as a secondary school English teacher to area students, and offers this reflection based on the story “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (To read the story, click here). It also ties into the themes for this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Trinity, and the Gospel for the day, Luke 6:36-42.

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In the short story, “The Birth-Mark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the protagonist, Aylmer, a brilliant scientist, is obsessed with transforming his wife, Georgiana, into the perfect woman.  He is confident that he can accomplish this feat by creating a liquid elixir that will not only remove the birth-mark on her face, but by getting to its root, her heart, he can wipe out what he thinks is the evil part of her. Indeed, he is successful in getting rid of her birthmark, but in the process, the innocent woman dies, for he ends up killing her soul, her spirit.  So, what is wrong with this scenario?  Aylmer has the audacity to play God, for he thinks that science is much smarter than Nature.  He achieves what he deems is human perfection through the totally unintended consequence of Georgiana’s death.  He is a hypocrite who thinks that he can judge others, change them, and remake them into his own image, just as Pygmalion did when he fell in love with his sculptured statue, Galatea.   What arrogance!

As Christians, we learn early in our studies that man is created in the image of God.  Therefore, whatever flaws or imperfections we have (subsequent to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace); whatever sins or iniquities we commit, God forgives, for God is love eternal; and He loves us unconditionally. That is why angels always rejoice in Heaven over the repentance of one sinner (Luke 15:10).

What is apparent in the full context of Hawthorne’s tale is that the red, hand-shaped birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek — far from being an imperfection — actually symbolizes God’s hand manifesting itself from her heart and soul.

When Aylmer rejects the best that nature has to offer, he is, in actuality, dismissing the existence and the authority of God and all that God has created. Like the Pharisees, who constantly challenged and rejected Jesus, even labeling him a blasphemer, Aylmer snubs the advice of Aminadab, his strong, grubby, lab assistant, who tells him: “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark.” Blind to the truth, even when it is staring them in the face, Aylmer and the Pharisees are more concerned about their own power and taking matters into their own hands.  And the result? Aylmer ends up empty, confused, and utterly defeated:  he is without Georgiana his wife, without love, without hope, without meaning, without a soul.  And the Pharisees missed the boat altogether, for they are still waiting for the King of the Jews, the Messiah on the white horse, to rescue them.

How could this happen? To answer this question, we must first take a look at chapter 7 in Matthew, verses 1-5, in which Jesus says:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, let me pull out the mote out of thine eye: and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?  Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (KJV)

Aylmer is definitely shortsighted spiritually.  His blind faith in science prevents him from seeing that Georgiana is already as perfect as a woman can be.  In spite of her birthmark, which she thinks is attractive and has been so often referred to as a charm by others, she is beautiful on the outside and within. She radiates love, innocence, compassion, grace, and light. She loves her husband so much that she is willing to do anything to make him happy, even if it means that his experiment to wash away her birthmark might not work. In this instance, she lays down her life for him. But Aylmer’s eyes are so fixed on the birthmark that he cannot see the arrogance in his eye which is a stain on his own soul.

The theme of this story is stated succinctly in the movie, The Notebook, by the character Noah, who does everything he can to keep his wife’s memory alive while she is in the final stages of dementia. He looks his doctor in the eye and says:  “Science only goes so far, then comes God!”  Indeed.  This is the very reason we attend church on a regular basis and are one body in Christ.  We want our lives to have meaning and purpose.    By honoring our Lord, by worshipping Him, we seek to do his will; and in so doing, we keep our memory of His word alive in us.   We strive toward perfection to grow spiritually, not to outdo or be superior to God. For without God, we are nothing. We humble ourselves before Him every Sunday, we participate in community prayer, praising him in our petitions, and by making “a joyful noise” in the singing of our hymns and anthems.

Though our style of worship has become rare in the 21st century, more than anything else, it allows us to meditate, to listen to His holy Word, and to communicate with Him during the service and in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

Yes, Hawthorne’s tale proves that it is foolish to play God. After Aylmer’s experiment fails, Aminadab responds with a “hoarse, chuckling laugh,” thereby revealing his disgust with Aylmer. It is at this moment in the story when we ascertain that religion has definitely triumphed over science.   But most of all,  we re-affirm our faith, for in this case – and in all others – God has the last word; and to paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer, His will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Aylmer could learn much as a follower of Christ.  He would realize that science is merely a tool.  Its proper place in our cosmic world is to be subservient to God, but it could never surpass Him.  In the words of the Good Shepherd, Jesus assures an inquisitive Thomas who asks:   “Lord, … how can we know the way?”  with “I am the way, the truth, and the life”  (John 14: 5-6).  Christ is “the light of the world,” the great I AM, and anyone who follows him “shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8: 12).

In these troubling times in a world that rejects law and order, moral values, and seeks to bring harm to and destroy others, we are free to trust in the one true God.  We are free to rise above the destructions around us and open ourselves to our Saviour.  In getting close to Christ, we open our hearts, we open our doors, we open our eyes to witness and experience grace, forgiveness, mercy, and “peace that passeth all understanding.”  What more could a person want?  What more could an individual need to lead a fulfilling life in this world and in the next?!   Like Georgiana, we are all imperfect in some way.  But it is this mark of imperfection that allows us to recognize that man needs something beyond science and his own existence. He needs the hope of salvation; he needs to follow the path to “the way, the truth, and the life.”  He needs God.