Aylmer’s Motivation in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”

Advisor: Eliza Richards, Associate Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

Why does Aylmer, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,” undertake his fatal experiment?

Understanding

Aylmer, the protagonist of Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” undertakes to remove the blemish from his wife’s cheek to satisfy his own spiritual strivings and to redeem what he sees as a failed career.

Hawthorne

Text

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark”, 1843.

Text Type

Literary fiction; short story.
In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

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Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 (Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story including how the characters are introduced and developed.)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading fiction
  • Analyzing and interpreting samples of purposeful writing
  • Writing for a variety of purposes

Teacher’s Note

This lesson explores some of the motives that drive Aylmer to attempt to remove the blemish from his wife’s cheek. Undoubtedly, you and your students will identify several, but in this lesson we focus on two: his striving for a more spiritually refined life and his desire to reconcile his private sense of failure with his public image of success.

To help with reading, we have uploaded a version of the story annotated with vocabulary assistance and comprehension questions. It is a Word document, so you can easily tailor it to your needs through revisions and additions.

The first interactive exercise focuses on vocabulary development. The second, well-suited for individual or small group work, asks students to outline a brief paper on the following thesis:

Aylmer undertakes to eliminate the birthmark from his wife’s cheek because in so doing he would realize his greatest scientific achievement and rescue his career from the failure he privately considers it to be.

The exercise gives students practice in structuring an argument, identifying textual evidence, and articulating connections between elements of an argument.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide

Background

Background Review Questions

  1. When was the story published?
  2. When was it set?
  3. What kind of scientist is Aylmer?
  4. What is the focus of this reading of the story?

At first glance “The Birthmark,” published in 1843, seems like a simple story with, as the narrator tells us, a “deeply impressive,” and presumably easily understood, moral. Yet, as with all of Hawthorne’s mature stories, when we look closely, we discover that “The Birthmark” is not as simple as it seems. The narrator — cool and detached, like many of Hawthorne’s narrators — leaves us with questions. How, for example, can Aylmer be “proficient in all branches of” science when his journal is a record of failure? Why does Georgiana drink the potion when she has come to doubt Aylmer’s skill? And then there is perhaps the most intriguing question of all: why does Aylmer undertake to eradicate the birthmark? The analysis we offer here explores that last question and in so doing reveals the complexity of this “simple” tale.

Since we are going to focus on Aylmer, it might be useful to say a few words about him as a scientist. The narrator describes him as a natural philosopher, which was what people called scientists in the late 1700s, when, it appears, the story is set. Although Aylmer worked in a variety of fields — geology, physiology, and physics, to name a few — he seems to have been essentially a chemist, an alchemist, to be more precise. Alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry, dates from ancient times. Alchemists tried to understand the composition of the material world by mixing and refining elements. According to scholars, this work led to the discovery of some useful products. However, there was also a spiritual, philosophical, speculative side to alchemy that led practitioners to search for compounds that would achieve physical impossibilities, like turning lead into gold, and even guarantee immortality. By the late eighteenth century that strain of alchemy was no longer taken seriously, and it is that strain in which Aylmer seems to work.

In this story Hawthorne marries an aging alchemist, whose best work may be behind him, to a nearly perfect young woman. Nearly perfect. What sort of challenge do you think that “nearly” would pose to a man who has been trying to perfect things most of his life?

Text Analysis

Setting the Stage: Paragraph 1

Close Reading Questions

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

1. The opening lines of a work of fiction bear close study because often in them an author will reveal important elements like setting or theme. In sentence 1 the narrator establishes part of the story’s setting. What does he include, and what does he leave out? Why might he make this omission?
He includes the time of the story but omits the place. Thus the narrator erases the wider world from the story. This helps create the closed, isolated environment in which Aylmer and Georgiana live. By making “The Birthmark” “placeless,” the narrator offers no locational context that might situate Aylmer and Georgiana in a community.

2. When is the story set?
If we can assume that the narrator is speaking at the time of the story’s publication, 1843, then the story would be set in the late 1700s.

3. Why does the narrator refer to the protagonist simply as a nameless “man of science”?
He wants to place immediate emphasis on Aylmer’s chief characteristic. The protagonist is first and foremost a “man of science.”

4. What opposition does the narrator establish in sentence 1?
An opposition between the spiritual and the scientific or “chemical.”

5. What does the word “chemical” refer to here?
It refers to the world of soot, fumes, and acid in which Aylmer has lived and worked most of his life.

6. Sentences 1 and 2 tell us that the story is set at a key moment of change in Aylmer’s life: he has just gotten married. Whenever a story focuses on newlyweds, what thematic questions immediately arise?
How will they get along? How will they adjust to each other? Will the marriage work?

7. What do sentences 1 and 2 suggest about the way Aylmer’s life will change now that he is married?
Sentence 1 tells us that his marriage has introduced him to a realm of spiritual or emotional experience far different from and more attractive than the “chemical” realm in which he had spent most of his life. Sentence 2 suggests that he hopes to refine himself, to put some distance between himself and the grime and soot of his work.

8. Sentence 1 tells us that Aylmer has established a spiritual relationship. Sentence 2 tells us what that relationship is, his marriage, which has come after a process of refinement — he left his lab, dusted off the soot, scrubbed his hands, and only then married Georgiana. These sentences suggest what Georgiana means to him. What is that meaning?
She represents his connection to a more spiritual existence. She is the culmination of his spiritual striving, the end of his quest to refine his life and connect to a higher level of spirituality, or as the narrator says in paragraph 56, “to quench the thirst of his spirit.”

[1] In the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient [skilled] in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity [relationship or connection] more attractive than any chemical one. [2] He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke, washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife.

Courtship and Marriage in the 18th Century

An 18th Century Wedding

Paragraph 1 cont’d

9. What opposition does Hawthorne establish in sentence 3?
An opposition between the love of science and the love of woman.

10. In sentence 4 Hawthorne explains why the love of science might rival the love of woman. State the reasons in your own words.
Students will, of course, come up with various paraphrases, but essentially Hawthorne suggests that science, like love, can nourish both the mind and the heart, but it may offer something more alluring than love in the promise of acquiring the power to create new worlds.

11. Why is sentence 5 an odd statement for the narrator to make?
The narrator is omniscient, yet here he admits that he does not know a key aspect of Aylmer’s attitude toward science. Why? Paragraphs 22 and 51, analyzed below, suggest an answer.

12. In sentences 6 and 7 the narrator adds the final details to the stage setting before flipping the switch on the action. Although this is a time of change for Aylmer, what will not change for him?
His devotion to science will not change.

13. What question does the narrator raise in sentence 7?
Which will prove stronger, Aylmer’s love for his wife or his love of science?

14. What themes has the narrator introduced in this opening paragraph?

  1. The opposition of spirit and science
  2. Aylmer’s striving for a more spiritual life
  3. The role of Georgiana as Aylmer’s link to a life of greater spiritual refinement
  4. The fate of Aylmer’s and Georgiana’s marriage
  5. Aylmer’s faith in the power of science to control nature
  6. Love for a woman v. love of science
[3] In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. [4] The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial [well-suited] aliment [nourishment] in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. [5] We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature. [6] He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly [too completely] to scientific studies ever to be weaned [separated] from them by any second passion. [7] His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.

Paragraph 3

15. How does Aylmer refer to the birthmark in this exchange?
He refers to it merely as a “mark,” a neutral term that implies no judgment of it.
[1] “Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?

Paragraph 4

16. How does Georgiana interpret the birthmark in paragraph 4? Does she see it in a positive or negative light?
She calls it a charm, a term with positive connotations.
[1] “No, indeed,” said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. [2] “To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.”

Paragraph 5

17. How does Aylmer refer to the birthmark in paragraph 5? How does his attitude toward it change as he addresses Georgiana?
At first he seems not sure how to interpret it. It is the “slightest possible defect,” which may actually be part of her beauty, but then he quickly reveals what he really thinks: it is “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”
[1] “Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” replied her husband; “but never on yours. [2] No, 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.”

Paragraph 7

18. Why might it be said that sentences 6 and 7 make the birthmark a symbol of Georgiana’s sexuality?
The language associates the birthmark first with attractiveness (it lured lovers), then with desire and intimacy (those lovers wanted to “press their lips” to it).

19. How do women interpret the birthmark and why?
They see it a blemish that destroys Georgiana’s beauty. The narrator suggests they are motivated by jealousy. In an ironic way their claim that the mark destroys her attractiveness actually testifies to how beautiful she actually is.

20. What does the birthmark’s resemblance to a hand suggest?
Its hand-like shape suggests its grip on Georgiana. It is “holding” Georgiana in two ways: it’s holding her down, which is to say that it is linking her to life on earth, and it’s holding her back, which is to say that it stands between her and perfection.

21. In what sentence does the narrator state his view of the birthmark? How does he interpret it?
He states his view in sentence 10. He sees it as a minor flaw that does not distract from Georgiana’s beauty.

22. In sentence 11 the narrator tells us how some men interpreted the birthmark and suggests that Aylmer saw it the same way for a while. How would you characterize their interpretation? What language separates this view from Aylmer’s later response to the birthmark?
These men took what might be called a reasonable view of it. To them it was a mere blemish; they “contented” themselves with simply “wishing” it would go away. They did not come to obsess over it, as Aylmer eventually did.

23. What, according to the narrator, determines how people will interpret the birthmark?
“Differences of temperament”

24. What does this suggest about Aylmer’s interpretation of the birthmark?
That it is really a construction of his own temperament.

[1] To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. [2] In the usual state of her complexion — a healthy though delicate bloom — the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. [3] When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. [4] But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. [5] Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size. [6] Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say 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. [7] Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand. [8] 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. [9] Some fastidious persons — but they were exclusively 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. [10] But it would be as reasonable to say that one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. [11] Masculine observers, if the birthmark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw. [12] After his marriage, — for he thought little or nothing of the matter before, — Aylmer discovered that this was the case with himself.

Paragraph 8

25. Throughout the story thus far the narrator has noted different meanings for the birthmark. It is at once a symbol of Georgiana’s beauty, a minor defect in her complexion, and a symbol of her sexuality. What does he associate it with in sentence 1?
Georgiana’s emotional life but beyond that the very the throbbing of her heart. Here the birthmark comes to symbolize her life.

26. In what way can this last meaning be said to be a foreshadowing?
If the birthmark symbolizes Georgiana’s very life, then when she loses it, she ceases to live.

27. What meaning does Aylmer finally assign to the birthmark?
For him it becomes the symbol of Georgiana’s flawed humanity.

28. What does the narrator’s use of the verb “select” suggest?
It suggests that Aylmer had a choice in deciding upon the meaning of the birthmark. The narrator has given us a variety of meanings he could have selected, but he chose to see it as a “symbol of… sin, sorrow, decay, and death.”

29. According to the narrator, what is the origin of this meaning?
Aylmer’s “somber imagination.” This echoes the narrator’s remark in paragraph 7 that “differences in temperament” account for differences in interpretation.

30. Thus far we have reached three important interpretative conclusions.

  1. We established that Aylmer is a spiritual striver; he seeks greater refinement and spirituality in his life.
  2. We established that he sees Georgiana as his link to this more spiritual existence.
  3. We have established that he sees the birthmark as a defect that stands between her and the higher spirituality of perfection.

How do these interpretative conclusions help explain Aylmer’s obsession to remove the birthmark?
If Aylmer hopes to connect with a higher level of spirituality through his marriage to Georgiana, then the birthmark, by holding Georgiana back from the highest level, also inhibits his spiritual growth. That it stands as an obstacle to his own spiritual aspirations helps to explain his eagerness to remove it.

[1] Had she been less beautiful, — if Envy’s self could have found aught else to sneer at, — he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives. [2] It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in 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. [3] The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. [4] In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.

Aylmer as Scientist: Paragraph 22

31. When did Aylmer make his greatest discoveries?
When he was a young man, “during his toilsome youth.”

32. What effect did those discoveries have on his career?
They won him fame, “the admiration of all the learned societies in Europe.”

33. How does the work we see Aylmer doing as an old man in the story reflect the work he did when young?
Volcanoes — which produce heat, soot, and gas — are similar to the furnace over which he toils in his laboratory, and his interest in geysers displays an alchemist’s interest in transforming the elements of the earth’s “dark bosom” into things bright, pure, and virtuous (see background note). This latter interest, which he held even as young man, suggests the extent to which Aylmer has long desired to refine, purify, and, in effect, spiritualize, the base elements of nature. In the story he has redirected this purifying impulse away from rocks, minerals, and water to flesh, blood, and bone.

34. Why might it be said that fathoming the “process by which Nature… create[s] man, her masterpiece” represents the ultimate in scientific discovery?
The process of creation “assimilates all” of nature’s influences “from earth… air… and the spirit world.” To understand how nature does that would be to master all those realms.

35. What field of study confronts Aylmer with his greatest professional setback?
The study of the human body. Through it he discovers the limits of his ability to understand nature.

[1] The next day Aylmer apprised his wife of a plan that he had formed whereby he might have opportunity for the intense thought and constant watchfulness which the proposed operation would require; while Georgiana, likewise, would enjoy the perfect repose essential to its success. [2] They were to seclude themselves in the extensive apartments occupied by Aylmer as a laboratory, and where, during his toilsome youth, he had made discoveries in the elemental powers of Nature that had roused the admiration of all the learned societies in Europe. [3] Seated calmly in this laboratory, the pale philosopher had investigated the secrets of the highest cloud region and of the profoundest mines; he had satisfied himself of the causes that kindled and kept alive the fires of the volcano; and had explained the mystery of fountains [ geysers], and how it is that they gush forth, some so bright and pure, and others with such rich medicinal virtues, from the dark bosom of the earth. [4] Here, too, at an earlier period, he had studied the wonders of the human frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air, and from the spiritual world, to create and foster man, her masterpiece. [5] The latter pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside in unwilling recognition of the truth — against which all seekers sooner or later stumble — that our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. [6] She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make. [7] Now, however, Aylmer resumed these half-forgotten investigations; not, of course, with such hopes or wishes as first suggested them; but because they involved much physiological truth and lay in the path of his proposed scheme for the treatment of Georgiana.

Paragraph 51

36. How does the narrator’s description of Aylmer’s work in sentence 3 reinforce the theme of his spiritual striving?
The narrator notes “his eager aspiration toward the infinite,” an aspiration which he is pursuing in his treatment of Georgiana.

37. How does Georgiana come to judge Aylmer’s career?
She sees it as a failure.

38. What language indicates that Aylmer shared this judgment?
“His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself.”

39. What is the difference between the way other scientists see Aylmer and the way he sees himself?
The scientific community sees him as a renowned expert — an “eminent,” to quote the story’s first sentence. Yet he sees himself as a failure. There is a gap between his public image and private sense of himself.

40. What does the term “composite man” mean?
It describes the narrator’s view of human nature; humans are made of body (clay) and soul (spirit).

41. How does sentence 8 describe Aylmer’s situation?
He works “in matter” and is “burdened with clay.” He seeks to realize his “higher nature” but is “thwarted” by his “earthly part.”

[1] But to Georgiana the most engrossing volume was a large folio from her husband’s own hand, in which he had recorded every experiment of his scientific career, its original aim, the methods adopted for its development, and its final success or failure, with the circumstances to which either event was attributable. [2] The book, in truth, was both the history and emblem [symbol] of his ardent [passionate], ambitious, imaginative, yet practical and laborious life. [3] He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite. [4] In his grasp the veriest [truest] clod of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. [5] Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. [6] His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. [7] The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. [8] It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part. [9] Perhaps every man of genius in whatever sphere might recognize the image of his own experience in Aylmer’s journal.

Paragraph 55

42. In sentences 1 and 2 Aylmer tells us what this experiment means to him. What does it represent?
It represents his ultimate triumph, the one that will make him genuinely worthy of worship, thereby closing the gap between his public image of success and his private sense of failure.

43. With your analysis of Aylmer’s achievements as a scientist in mind, speculate on why the narrator in paragraph 1, sentence 5 asserts that he does not know if Aylmer believed science can control nature.
The narrator cannot assume that Aylmer believes in science’s ability to control nature because he knows that there is little in Aylmer’s experience to suggest it can. Aylmer has spent a career trying to understand and control nature, yet he judges that career a failure. He came to understand the limits of science when, studying the human body, he realized how thoroughly nature defends its secrets from even the most learned inquiry.

Activity: Writing about Aylmer as a ScientistActivity: Writing about Aylmer as a Scientist
Outline a brief paper. Practice structuring an argument, identifying textual evidence, and articulating connections between elements of an argument.
[1] “Ah, wait for this one success,” rejoined he, “then worship me if you will. [2] I shall deem myself hardly unworthy of it. [3] But come, I have sought you for the luxury of your voice. [4] Sing to me, dearest.”

Follow Up Assignment

Based on the outline developed in the interactive exercise, write a paper on Aylmer’s motives in “The Birthmark.” You may want to have students print out slide 5 of the exercise to serve as a guide.


Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • eminent: distinguished, high rank
  • countenance: face
  • ardent: enthusiastic
  • votaries: dedicated follower
  • swain: a lover or suitor
  • fastidious: attentive to detail, meticulous
  • ineffaceably: can’t be erased
  • somber: gloomy and dark
  • apprised: informed, told
  • repose: rest
  • melancholy: depressed and gloomy state of mind

Images:
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, steel engraving by Thomas Phillibrown, 1851, after the 1850 oil portrait by Cephas G. Thompson. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 483529.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, TEACHER RESOURCES : E-NEWSLETTER : COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. Originally appeared in the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter (Winter 1997) and was written by Elizabeth Maurer. http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/mar09/courtship.cfm. Accessed August 18, 2014

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 3 reviews
by Kristen Biancuzzo on America in Class
The Birthmark

I have not yet utilized the lesson but I have reviewed the contents and I am most impressed with two specific points. First, the close reading of the text is thorough and thoughtful. Students are drawn to specific lines/words to see how Hawthorne shapes his story. Second, the background information provided and the focal point of the study being on a particular character is a great lens to view the story.

by Tracy Brinkley on America in Class
"The Birthmark" - Great Lesson

I truly enjoyed the lesson on "The Birthmark". The annotated story was great and wonderful idea to use with students (helpful use of vocabulary in margins for students). The teacher and student guide are great. The resources are quite useful and the themes and understanding of the piece is excellent. I am definitely going to use this lesson with my English III Honors during second semester - I am a huge Hawthorne fan.

by Dale Flier on America in Class
great annotation

I have never taught "The Birthmark" before, and I will be replacing Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" with "The Birthmark." The resource provided me with some excellent insights on the text and some sound ideas for teaching.