Ambiguity of “The Birthmark”
There are numerous instances of ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”; this essay hopes to explore critics’ comments on that problem within the tale, as well as to analyze it from this reader’s standpoint.
In New England Men of Letters Wilson Sullivan relates Hawthorne’s usage of opposites in his tales:
He sought, in Hamlet’s telling words to his palace players, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” and to report what he saw in that mirror. . . .“Life is made up,”, Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud.” In the pages of his finest works, both marble and mud are held in a just, unique, and artistic balance(95).
Henry James in Hawthorne mentions how Hawthorne’s allegorical meanings should be expressed more clearly:
I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world. The only cases in which it is endurable is when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent, and the failure complete. Then the machinery alone is visible and the end to which it operates becomes a matter of indifference (50).
When one has to grope for, and fumble for, the meaning of a tale, then there is “failure” in the work, as Henry James says. This unfortunately is the case of “The Birthmark.” The meaning is so ambiguous in so many occasions in the tale that a blur rather than a distinct image forms in the mind of the reader. The words of the narrator regarding the mark might well apply to the readers’ interpretation of the meaning: “It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne”:
Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent [my italics], for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind (548).
Ambivalence, or the simultaneous and contradictory attitude and/or feeling toward an object, etc., may well be the cause of the extreme ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty in the mind of the reader of “The Birthmark.” Intentional ambivalence on the part of the author in order not to offend too many may be a plausible explanation for the author’s ambiguity. H.J. Lang in “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne?” states:
In trying to measure the extent of their [Hawthorne’s short stories] ambiguity we must say what we mean by that word. Roughly, there are three sorts of ambiguity relevant to our theme: first, there is the ambiguity inherent in language, especially language used for poetic purposes; second, there is the ambiguity of human conduct, or, rather, the inescapable doubt we encounter once we try to get beneath the surface of the obvious in motivations. Both sorts of ambiguities are very important for Hawthorne. . . . third sort, which we might call ambiguity of external action. External action is paradoxically ambiguous only,...