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?


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.



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.


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 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

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

Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

Lesson sponsored by  Bank of America

Advisor: Charles Capper, Professor of History, Boston University; National Humanities Center Fellow
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

In his essay “Self-Reliance,” how does Ralph Waldo Emerson define individualism, and how, in his view, can it affect society?


In “Self-Reliance” Emerson defines individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Embracing this view of individualism, he asserts, can revolutionize society, not through a sweeping mass movement, but through the transformation of one life at a time and through the creation of leaders capable of greatness.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878


Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”, 1841.

Text Type

Essay, Literary nonfiction.

Text Complexity

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

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

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4 (Determine the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases.)
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1 (Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as drawing inferences.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 4.1 – II.A. (…Romantic beliefs in human perfectibility fostered the rise of voluntary organizations to promote religious and secular reforms…)
  • Key Concept 4.1 – III.A. (A new national culture emerged…that combined European forms with local and regional cultural sensibilities.)
  • Skill Type III: Skill 7 (Analyze features of historical evidence such as audience, purpose, point of view…)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Evaluating, using, and citing primary sources
  • Writing in several forms about a variety of subjects

Teacher’s Note

“Self-Reliance” is central to understanding Emerson’s thought, but it can be difficult to teach because of its vocabulary and sentence structure. This lesson offers a thorough exploration of the essay. The text analysis focuses on Emerson’s definition of individualism, his analysis of society, and the way he believes his version of individualism can transform — indeed, save — American society.

The first interactive exercise addresses vocabulary challenges. The second, well-suited for individual or small group work, presents some of his more famous aphorisms as tweets from Dr. Ralph, a nineteenth-century self-help guru, and asks students to interpret and paraphrase them. The third invites students to consider whether they would embrace Dr. Ralph’s vision of life. It explores paragraph 7, the most well-developed in the essay and the only one that shows Emerson interacting with other people to any substantial degree. The exercise is designed to raise questions about the implications of Emersonian self-reliance for one’s relations with others, including family, friends, and the broader society. The excerpt illustrates critic’s Louis Menand’s contention, cited in the background note, that Emerson’s essays, although generally taken as affirmations, are “deeply unconsoling.”

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 Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. For what audience was it intended?
  3. For what purpose was it written?
  4. When was it written?
  5. What was going on at the time of its writing that might have influenced its composition?

Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882, but he is still very much with us. When you hear people assert their individualism, perhaps in rejecting help from the government or anyone else, you hear the voice of Emerson. When you hear a self-help guru on TV tell people that if they change their way of thinking, they will change reality, you hear the voice of Emerson. He is America’s apostle of individualism, our champion of mind over matter, and he set forth the core of his thinking in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841).

While they influence us today, Emerson’s ideas grew out of a specific time and place, which spawned a philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. “Self-Reliance” asserts a central belief in that philosophy: truth lies in our spontaneous, involuntary intuitions. We do not have the space here to explain Transcendentalism fully, but we can sketch some out its fundamental convictions, a bit of its historical context, and the way “Self-Reliance” relates to it.

By the 1830s many in New England, especially the young, felt that the religion they had inherited from their Puritan ancestors had become cold and impersonal. In their view it lacked emotion and failed to foster that sense of connectedness to the divine which they sought in religion. To them it seemed that the church had taken its eyes off heaven and fixed them on the material world, which under the probings, measurements, and observations of science seemed less and less to offer assurance of divine presence in the world.

Taking direction from ancient Greek philosophy and European thinking, a small group of New England intellectuals embraced the idea that men and women did not need churches to connect with divinity and that nature, far from being without spiritual meaning, was, in fact, a realm of symbols that pointed to divine truths. According to these preachers and writers, we could connect with divinity and understand those symbols — that is to say, transcend or rise above the material world — simply by accepting our own intuitions about God, nature, and experience. These insights, they argued, needed no external verification; the mere fact that they flashed across the mind proved they were true.

To hold these beliefs required enormous self-confidence, of course, and this is where Emerson and “Self-Reliance” come into the picture. He contends that there is within each of us an “aboriginal Self,” a first or ground-floor self beyond which there is no other. In “Self-Reliance” he defines it in mystical terms as the “deep force” through which we “share the life by which things exist.” It is “the fountain of action and thought,” the source of our spontaneous intuitions. This self defines not a particular, individual identity but a universal, human identity. When our insights derive from it, they are valid not only for us but for all humankind. Thus we can be assured that what is true in our private hearts is, as Emerson asserts, “true for all men.”*

But how can we tell if our intuitions come from the “aboriginal Self” and are, therefore, true? We cannot. Emerson says we must have the self-trust to believe that they do and follow them as if they do. If, indeed, they are true, eventually everyone will accept them, and they will be “rendered back to us” as “the universal sense.”

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Until the rest of the world accepts our beliefs, however, we will be out of step; we will be nonconformists. Emerson tells us not to worry. The essence of self-reliance is resistance to conformity. Indeed, nonconformity is a sign of strength: “Whoso would be a man,” he writes, “must be a nonconformist.” In a sense “Self-Reliance” can be seen as a pep talk designed to strengthen our resolve to stand up to society’s efforts to make us conform. “Nothing,” Emerson thunders, “is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” This is individualism in the extreme.

While “Self-Reliance” deals extensively with theological matters, we cannot overlook its political significance. It appeared in 1841, just four years after President Andrew Jackson left office. In the election of 1828 Jackson forged an alliance among the woodsmen and farmers of the western frontier and the laborers of eastern cities. (See the America in Class® lesson “The Expansion of Democracy during the Jacksonian Era.”) Emerson opposed the Jacksonians over specific policies, chiefly their defense of slavery and their support for the expulsion of Indians from their territories. But he objected to them on broader grounds as well. Many people like Emerson, who despite his noncomformist thought still held many of the political views of the old New England elite from which he sprang, feared that the rise of the Jacksonian electorate would turn American democracy into mob rule. In fact, at one point in “Self-Reliance” he proclaims “now we are a mob.” When you see the word “mob” here, do not picture a large, threatening crowd. Instead, think of what we today would call mass society, a society whose culture and politics are shaped not by the tastes and opinions of a small, narrow elite but rather by those of a broad, diverse population.

Emerson opposed mass-party politics because it was based on nothing more than numbers and majority rule, and he was hostile to mass culture because it was based on manufactured entertainments. Both, he believed, distracted people from the real questions of spiritual health and social justice. Like some critics today, he believed that mass society breeds intellectual mediocrity and conformity. He argued that it produces soft, weak men and women, more prone to whine and whimper than to embrace great challenges. Emerson took as his mission the task of lifting people out of the mass and turning them into robust, sturdy individuals who could face life with confidence. While he held out the possibility of such transcendence to all Americans, he knew that not all would respond. He assured those who did that they would achieve greatness and become “guides, redeemers, and benefactors” whose personal transformations and leadership would rescue democracy. Thus if “Self-Reliance” is a pep talk in support for nonconformists, it is also a manual on how to live for those who seek to be individuals in a mass society.

Describing “Self-Reliance” as a pep talk and a manual re-enforces the way most people have read the essay, as a work of affirmation and uplift, and there is much that is affirmative and uplifting in it. Yet a careful reading also reveals a darker side to Emerson’s self-reliance. His uncompromising embrace of nonconformity and intellectual integrity can breed a chilly arrogance, a lack of compassion, and a lonely isolation. That is why one critic has called Emerson’s work “deeply unconsoling.”1 In this lesson we explore this side of Emerson along with his bracing optimism.

A word about our presentation. Because readers can take “Self-Reliance” as an advice manual for living and because Emerson was above all a teacher, we found it engaging to cast him not as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth-century philosopher, but as Dr. Ralph, a twenty-first-century self-help guru. In the end we ask if you would embrace his approach to life and sign up for his tweets.

*Teacher’s Note: For a more detailed discussion of the “aboriginal Self,” see pp. 65-67 in Lawrence Buell’s Emerson.

1. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001) p. 18.

Text Analysis

Paragraph 1

Close Reading Questions

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

What is important about the verses written by the painter in sentence 1?
They “were original and not conventional.”

From evidence in this paragraph, what do you think Emerson means by “original”?
He defines “original” in sentence 6 when he says that we value the work of Moses, Plato, and Milton because they said not what others have thought, but what they thought.

In sentences 2 and 3 how does Emerson suggest we should read an “original” work?
He suggests that we should read it with our souls. We should respond more to the sentiment of the work rather than to its explicit content.

In telling us how to read an original work, what do you think Emerson is telling us about reading his work?
In sentences 2 and 3 Emerson is telling us how to read “Self-Reliance” and his work in general. We should attend more to its sentiment, its emotional impact, rather than to the thought it may contain. The reason for this advice will become apparent as we discover that Emerson’s essays are more collections of inspirational, emotionally charged sentences than logical arguments.

How does Emerson define genius?
He defines it as possessing the confident belief that what is true for you is true for all people.

Considering this definition of genius, what does Emerson mean when he says that “the inmost in due time becomes the outmost”?
Since the private or “inmost” truth we discover in our hearts is true for all men and women, it will eventually be “rendered back to us,” proclaimed, as an “outmost” or public truth.

Why, according to Emerson, do we value Moses, Plato, and Milton?
We value them because they ignored the wisdom of the past (books and traditions) and spoke not what others thought but what they thought, the “inmost” truth they discovered in their own hearts. They are great because they transformed their “inmost” truth to “outmost” truth.

Thus far Emerson has said that we should seek truth by looking into our own hearts and that we, like such great thinkers as Moses, Plato, and Milton, should ignore what we find in books and in the learning of the past. What implications does his advice hold for education?
It diminishes the importance of education and suggests that formal education may actually get in the way of our search for knowledge and truth.

Why then should we bother to study “great works of art” or even “Self-Reliance” for that matter?
Because great works of art “teach us to abide by our spontaneous impressions.” And that is, of course, precisely what “Self-Reliance” is doing. Both they and this essay reassure us that our “latent convictions” are, indeed, “universal sense.” They strengthen our ability to maintain our individualism in the face of “the whole cry of voices” who oppose us “on the other side.”

Based on your reading of paragraph 1, how does Emerson define individualism? Support your answer with reference to specific sentences.
Emerson defines individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Just about any sentence from 4 through 11 could be cited as support.

[1] I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. [2] The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. [3] The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. [4] To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. [5] Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. [6] Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. [7] A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. [8] Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. [9] Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. [10] They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most [especially] when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. [11] Else [otherwise], to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

Paragraph 34 (excerpt)

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Dr. Ralph's TweetsActivity: Dr. Ralph’s Tweets
Decipher Emerson’s aphorisms.

Note: Every good self-help guru offers advice on how to handle failure, and in the excerpt from paragraph 35 Dr. Ralph does that by describing his ideal of a self-reliant young man. Here we see Dr. Ralph at perhaps his most affirmative, telling his followers what self-reliance can do for them. Before he does that, however, he offers, in paragraph 34, his diagnosis of American society in 1841. The example of his “sturdy lad” in paragraph 35 suggests what self-reliance can do for society, a theme he picks up in paragraph 36.

What, according to Emerson, is wrong with the “social state” of America in 1841?
Americans have become weak, shy, and fearful, an indication of its true problem: it is no longer capable of producing “great and perfect persons.”

Given the political context in which he wrote “Self-Reliance,” why might Emerson think that American society was no longer capable of producing “great and perfect persons”?
In Emerson’s view, by giving power to the “mob,” Jacksonian democracy weakened American culture and gave rise to social and personal mediocrity.

What is Emerson’s solution for America’s problem, and how does that solution illuminate what he is trying to do in “Self-Reliance”?
His solution is to create “men and women who shall renovate life and our social state,” and this is the goal of his essay.

[1] The sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. [2] We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. [3] Our age yields no great and perfect persons. [4] We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants [needs], have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force [aim at goals they cannot achieve], and do lean and beg day and night continually…. [5] We are parlour soldiers. [6] We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.

Paragraph 35 (excerpt)

Close Reading Questions

What does Emerson mean by “miscarry”? What context clues help us discover that meaning?
Here “miscarry” means “to fail.” We can see that by noting the parallel structure of the first two sentences. Emerson parallels “miscarry” and “fails” by placing them in the same position in the first two sentences: “If our young men miscarry…” “If the young merchant fails,…”

What is the relationship between the young men who miscarry and the young merchants who fail in paragraph 35 and the “timorous, desponding whimperers” of paragraph 34?
They are the same. The young failures illustrate the point Emerson makes in the previous paragraph about the weakness of America and its citizens.

According to Emerson, how does an “un-self-reliant” person respond to failure?
He despairs and becomes weak. He loses “loses heart” and feels “ruined.” He falls into self-pity and complains for years.

Emerson structures this paragraph as a comparison between a “city doll” and a “sturdy lad.” With reference to paragraph 34 what does the “sturdy lad” represent?
He represents the kind of person Emerson wants to create, the kind of person who will “renovate” America’s “life and social state.”

What are the connotations of “city doll”?
The term suggests weakness with a hint of effeminacy.

Compare a “city doll” with a “sturdy lad.”
City Doll: defeated by failure, urban, narrows his options by studying for a profession, learns from books, postpones life, lacks confidence and self-trust.
Sturdy Lad: resilient, rural, at least expert in rural skills, “teams it, farms it”, realizes he has many options and takes advantage of them, learns from experience, engages life, possesses confidence, trusts himself.

What point does Emerson make with this comparison?
Here Emerson is actually trying to persuade his readers to embrace his version of self-reliance. His comparison casts the “sturdy lad” in a positive light. We want to be like him, not like a “city doll.” Emerson suggests that, through the sort of men and women exemplified by the “sturdy lad,” self-reliance will rescue American life and society from weakness, despair, and defeat and restore its capacity for greatness.

What do you notice about the progression of the jobs Emerson assigns to his “sturdy lad”?
They ascend in wealth, prestige, and influence from plow hand to member of Congress.

We have seen that Emerson hopes to raise above the mob people who will themselves be “great and perfect persons” and restore America’s ability to produce such people. What does the progression of jobs he assigns to the “sturdy lad” suggest about the roles these people will play in American society?
As teachers, preachers, editors, congressmen, and land owners, they will be the leaders and opinion makers of American society.

[1] If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. [2] If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. [3] A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township,* and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. [4] He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

*Emerson does not mean that the “sturdy lad” would buy a town. He probably means that he would buy a large piece of uninhabited land (townships in New England were six miles square). The point here is that he would become a substantial landowner.

Paragraph 36

Close Reading Questions

Activity: Living the Self-Reliant LifeActivity: Living the Self-Reliant Life
Explore Emerson’s advice on how to live the self-reliant life.

Why does Emerson think that “a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men”?
On one level Emerson is suggesting that when individuals become self-reliant, their new found power will bring fresh strength and robustness to everything from their work to their family life. When individuals change, institutions change. On another level, he is suggesting that as leaders in American society, the newly empowered self-reliant will bring about social change.

[1] It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.

Follow-Up Assignment

In a well organized essay explain what society would be like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. Your analysis should focus on Emerson’s attitudes toward law, the family, and education. Be sure to use specific examples from the text to support your argument.

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • admonition: gentle, friendly criticism
  • latent: hidden
  • naught: ignored
  • lustre: brightness
  • firmament: sky
  • bards: poets
  • sages: wise men and women
  • alienated: made unfamiliar by being separated from us
  • else: otherwise
  • sinew: connective tissues
  • timorous: shy
  • desponding: discouraging
  • renovate: change
  • miscarry: fail
  • modes: styles
  • speculative: theoretical


  • Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson engraved and published by Stephen A. Schoff, Newtonville, Massachusetts, 1878, from an original drawing by Samuel W. Rowse [ca. 1858] in the possession of Charles Eliot Norton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-04133.
  • Daguerreotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 x 5 black-and-white negative, creator unknown. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.