Contested Aesthetics

By: Craig Rustici  

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” (1843), two aesthetic perspectives compete. The scientist/husband Aylmer, and eventually his wife Georgiana too, act upon what Tobin Siebers terms the “aesthetics of human disqualification that uses disability to represent some human beings as inferior to others.” They view the tiny birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek as an “intolerable,” even “hideous” “defect.” In turn, Aylmer’s assistant Aminadab and the unnamed "swains" who would “risk . . . life” to kiss the supposed defect; act upon “disability aesthetics.” They view “beauty that seems by traditional standards to be broken” as “not less beautiful, but more so” (Siebers). What Lennard J. Davis terms the “hallucination” of bodily wholeness disappears, as Georgiana dies the instant Aylmer’s science removes the birthmark. To explore the competition between aesthetic perspectives, this paper examines not only discussions of Georgiana’s birthmark, but also allusions to male sculptors, the mythical Pygmalion, and Hawthorne’s friend Hiram Powers, who fashioned female nudes as well as the spectacles of “unsubstantial beauty” that, Prospero-like, Aylmer presents to Georgiana.

Disability, Aesthetics, Deformity, Hawthorne, Sculpture
The Arts in Social, Political, and Community Life
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Craig Rustici

Professor, English, United States
NY, United States