This is the first short story I have ever read by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s actually the first time I’ve read his work period. If you’re like me, you didn’t actually read The Scarlet Letter, but more likely your teacher gave you the basic summary and focused entirely on the character analysis and cultural impact. You might have even seen a documentary or some televised film version.
It probably insults his ghost more to know that I’ve lived in his birth town, walked by his statue, ate beneath the roof of his namesake hotel, and never once bothered to pick up one of his books. And here I am expecting others to do the same for me. The nerve!
The Birthmark’s theme is simple: Man can’t presume to perfect what Nature has made imperfect.
This theme is revisited many times in other works, such as Flowers for Algernon and Gattaca. The theme is revisited far more times throughout the flow of ordinary human life, which is what makes this 19th century offering so timeless.
Although, one thing that strikes me about stories like this one and by other older authors like Chesterton and Dickens are the overwhelming amounts of exposition and speech tags. These things are often praised as necessary in the works of the classics, but if I were to hand The Birthmark in at a creative writing class, I would get so many marks off just for the speech tags alone. (I would probably also be expelled for plagiarism)
Hawthorne is one of those authors that the majority of the world has a love hate relationship with. If you were forced to read his work in school, the last thing you want to do is go back for more. It’s one of the challenges the man you see standing beside me faces when he does educational functions and special events, especially when most of the people who would like to get to know the author’s work are so traumatized by the educational experience.
If you’re trying to get into Hawthorne but you’re not ready for a full novel, I’d recommend starting with The Birthmark. The story is simple and straight forward, there are only three characters, and the theme is one we can easily identify with. As an educational piece it serves its purpose as a measuring stick by which we can compare our own work and if nothing else, it lets us into the mind of one of the literary giants in American history.