2. Definition: Gender-Based Violence
3. Close Reading: The Birthmark
3.1. The Conflict: Aylmer' s Disapproval
3.2. Aylmer Versus Georgina Or Science Versus Nature
4.1. Submissive Feminity And Nature
4.2. The Final Victory Of Nature
November the 25th marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is a day designated by the United Nation General Assembly that shall bring awareness to these issues that are globally omnipresent regardless of religion, culture or economic status of a particular country. Being a sad historic and cultural constant, the issue is also reproduced in literature. Violence against Women or gender-based violence is oftentimes entangled with the conceptualization of masculinity and therefore ever too often overlooked as a particular issue and therefore seldom identified or analyzed as such.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, The Birthmark which was published in 1844 in his short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse the topic of gender construction and gender-based violence are also discussed, partly overt sometimes rather covert. Interestingly, yet in true transcendentalist fashion, gender, and nature, man and technique are brought together presenting a suspenseful conflict.
Protagonists of the short story The Birthmark are Aylmer and his newly wedded wife Georgina. Aylmer who is a scientist and "proficient in every branch of philosophy" (Hawthorne, p. 199) plans to remove a red mark on Georgina's cheek as he disapproves of it for its "earthly imperfection" (Hawthorne, p. 199). Firstly, Georgina is inconclusive yet finally convinced by her husband that the removal of the mark that is shaped like a "human hand" (Hawthorne, p. 200) will lead her appearance to absolute perfection. Aylmer then plans various steps in order to remove the mark which ultimately succeeds when Georgina dies.
Whereas the physical abuse in the short story is quite overt other forms of abuse such as the mental abuse are way more subtle. After giving a short overview of the definition of gender- based violence, I will analyze the literary reproduction of gender-based violence within the short story with a focus on mental and physical abuse. As I will illustrate in this paper, it becomes apparent that the conflict of gender-based violence can be analyzed and decoded as a representative and broader conflict which links feminity to nature and masculinity to science.
Finally, the close reading of the short story will lead to an interpretation that shows two possible readings of the gender-based violence: The first being the solidification of a misogynist perspective, which positions the female in the altering hands of the male, being subject not only to the male gaze but also to physical and mental abuse, the second, being an emancipatory reading. Both observations are based on my hypothesis that argues that gender-based violence is used as a representative literary tool to demonstrate the discourse of nature versus science. As mentioned beforehand, I finally assume that gender-based violence in this particular case is used as a literary tool to empower the female: As the female is the personification of nature, which ultimately can neither be subject to male nor technological alterations. Female resilience, hence, the resilience of nature can be regarded as the ultimate trope of Hawthorne 's Birthmark.
My paper will try to avoid essentializing tropes such as femininity or masculinity as two inseparable natural phenomena, the analysis will rather focus on feminine and masculine tensions and power struggles with the notion that all genders are constructed precariously as well in actual life as in fiction.
2. Definition: Gender-Based Violence
Although the definition of Gender-Based Violence is predominantly rooted in scientific disciplines such as sociology and psychoanalysis, it serves as a helpful tool to analyze Aylmer's behavior and to decode the ways in which violence is perpetrated in Hawthorne's short story The Birthmark. Per definition, "[g]ender-based violence encompasses both violence directed towards a person on the basis of their gender, and violence that disproportionately affects persons of a particular gender. Gender-based violence can be physical, sexual or psychological, or a combination of two or more of these forms." (European Commission, 2017) Gender-based violence can be perpetrated by all genders, however, "[...] the majority of victims are women." (European Commission, 2017).
"The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as 'any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or private life." (World Health Organization, p.5)
Therefore, "[g]ender-based violence is a violation of a person's fundamental rights and is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality." (European Commission, 2017).
Given those definitions, it becomes clear that various types of violence against women, in our case, Georgina are performed throughout the short story. As my analysis will show, Aylmer is both psychological and physically violent towards his wife, which "operates as a means to maintain and reinforce women's subordination" (World Health Organization, p.5). Firstly, Aylmer uses gaslighting, lying and other communicational tools to perform "[psychological or mental violence" (ibid.) towards his wife. Gaslighting is a particular form of manipulation: The term describes one person "involved in lying and trying to convince [another person] that [they are] imagining things" (Gass, 1988). An example of manipulation and gaslighting is the constant mention of his disgust towards Georgina's birthmark and his challenge towards other opinions towards said birthmark that changes Georgina's very attitude towards her own mark.
Whereas she first mentions her attitude towards her birthmark with: "To tell you the truth, it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so." (Hawthorne, p. 199) she later is referring to the birthmark as an "object of your horror and disgust" (Hawthorne, p. 202) and therefore takes on Aylmer's attitude due to his manipulation that is rooted in notions such as "[n]o, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature, that this slightest possible defect-which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty-shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."(Hawthorne, p. 199). While physical abuse oftentimes comes with visible injuries, gaslighting is an invisible yet highly damaging form of violence, as it discriminates against the victim without overtly identifying the perpetrator.
Another factor in Aylmer's manipulation is the constant, albeit non-verbal disgust he is presenting in derogatory glances that "change the rose of her cheek into deathlike paleness" (Hawthorne, p. 201). Given the actual physical and mental impact his abusive actions have, it is evident to state that Aylmer conducts psychologically violence towards his wife.
Secondly, Aylmer uses physical violence in form of the actual removal of the birthmark. With potions and poison in form of a "liquid" (Hawthorne, p. 210) in order to 'perfect' his wife physical violence is perpetrated. The short story shows, that Aylmer uses both variations of violence without overt malicious intention. He rather is delusional driven by the "earthly imperfection" (Hawthorne, p. 199) which may be also a hint for a pathological issue on his part yet is not a reason to classify such behavior in any other form than violence. Besides the observation that violence is established at least in two different shapes, it is crucial to notice that the violence towards Georgina is performed by her husband Aylmer, therefore classified as domestic violence. The discourse of the domestic sphere is substantial as the short story takes place in the secluded sphere of the house of the married couple. Per definition, domestic violence is violence that is conducted by a partner or any other family member towards another member of the domestic household (see Hegetary, et al., 2000).
Psychological and physical abuse and violence is established throughout in Hawthorne's short story and as it clearly linked to the gendered characters, Aylmer and Georgina, the concept of gender-based violence is reinforced. While the physical abuse is rather overt it becomes clear that the psychological abuse is rather lasting and the initial action regarding the violence that is perpetrated.
3. Close Reading: The Birthmark
The physical and psychological violence that can be identifies as Gender-bases violence is displayed throughout the short story and shows a power imbalance between the male and the female which is mirrored again in a power imbalance in terms of science and nature and man and nature. The following analysis will show instances of violence within the short story that feed into the misogynist reading, which proves that "[violence negates women's autonomy and undermines their potential as individuals and members of society." (World Health Organization, p.5). Whereas real life gender-based violence is a blatant and horrendous issue and furthermore a source of physical, mental and spiritual harm, the gender-based violence perpetrated in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story The Birthmark can be exposed to a theoretical analysis of such; the short story shows that Georgina as a representative of the female elevates beyond the violence.
3.1. The Conflict: Aylmer's Disapproval
The narrator establishes Aylmer's persona as a scientist who "persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife" (Hawthorne, p. 199) but finds himself struggling with his ideal that love and his studies, nature, and science must serve as "congenial aliment[s]" (Hawthorne, p. 199) to each other. The conscious analysis of these contrasts that strive for perfection does not prevent him to take Georgina as his wife although he marries her being aware of the red mark on her cheek. The mental abuse starts with his knowledge about the mark and while simultaneously establishing various reasons why this mark is unacceptable for him: He disapproves of the mark as it is "this slightest possible defect- which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty" (Ibid.). He also names it a "visible mark of earthly imperfection" that "shocks" (Ibid.) him. As mentioned, the struggle of love versus science that 'rival' with each other in terms of "depth and absorbing energy" (Ibid.) is extended in Aylmer's "faith in man's ultimate control over nature" (Ibid.). Both notions strive to obtain ideal perfection that marks the victory of science over nature. Aylmer is established as the violent perpetrator of the short story. His perspective on nature and science are the sources of his violent behavior. Aylmer's disapproval of the mark is fed by the notions of perfection and ultimately science. It eventually leads him to believe that he as the scientist and therefore the representative of science, in general, is able to perfect the flaws of nature, namely the mark of his wife Georgina, who can be seen as a representative of nature. Proof of the connection between nature and his wife are given in the text. Not only assumes Aylmer that the birthmark was given to Georgina "from the Hand of Nature" (Hawthorne, p. 199) but he also reads into the very meaning of the birthmark with a reluctant attitude: "It was the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, on one shape or another, 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, p. 200-201). As he decodes the birthmark as a sign of mortality, it becomes obvious that he rejects firmly any hint of nature or humanity.
To give context to his strong and a rather radical perspective other reactions towards the birthmark are introduced: "Some fastidious persons-but they were exclusive of her own sex-affirmed that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous"(Hawthorne, p. 200). But besides the female perspective also "[m]asculine observers, [...] contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a flaw" (Ibid.). However, yet another perspective is introduced namely the transcendental power that the birthmark might have. Lovers of Georgina, of whatever gender, said "[...] that some fairy, at her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there, in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand." (Hawthorne, p. 200). All notions make clear that Georgina's birthmark is part of a discourse that emphasizes her outer appearance. If it is disgust, admiration or the idea of a supernatural effect- all reactions show that the 'abnormality' provokes a reaction in some shape or form. The idea that the reaction is based on two conditions, one being the gender of the beholder and one being the admiration towards Georgina is crucial as it puts Aylmer's male perspective as Georgina's lover in perspective. The disgust and his admiration for her seem contradictory as he is both mirroring the female and the male perspective and also interpreting Georgina's mark as a "fatal flaw of humanity" (Hawthorne, p. 200) which contradicts the idea of a supernatural positively connotated power. While he may not agree with a positively connotated supernatural power, he definitely feeds into the idea of a negatively connotated supernatural power as he finds the mark to be linked with mortality (Hawthorne, p. 201). Aylmer's perspective oscillates between the described positions of the genders and he finds himself rather on the disliking spectrum of admiration towards Georgina. This is crucial for the following analysis for Aylmer may be male but his behavior towards his wife's imperfection is rather promoted by his lack of admiration: "You cannot love what shocks you!" (Hawthorne, p. 200).
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- Hannah Grünewald (Autor), 2019, Gender-Based Violence And The Resilience of Femininity In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Short Story "The Birthmark", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/888634