Allegorical characters in Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" function according to the logic of the market. Selves in this story are like territories that must continually be possessed and repossessed, and the birthmark becomes the site upon which characters fight one another for ownership, self-ownership, and identity. Aylmer views the circulations in Georgiana's bodily economy as signifying an independent self he wishes to control. The marked defines both the relations that characters have to each other and Hawthorne's own relation to his characters, especially Aylmer. Aylmer's desire to erase the birthmark figures his allegiance to the principles of the market economy, principles articulated in the famous invisible hand passage from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. In contrast, the visibility of the birthmark functions as a sign of Hawthorne's literary labor and authorial identity. Hawthorne thus finds himself in the curious position of having created a character whose raison d'etre seems to be the erasure of Hawthorne's own identity. His competitive relation with Aylmer, however, is perfectly logical given that the competition of the market governs all relations in the story. Furthermore, the erasure of the birthmark needs to be read in the context of antebellum American aesthetic ideology. The literary taste that demanded the erasure of the signs of labor grew out of cultural anxieties about new forms of mechanized and specialized labor, and its perceived attack on individual agency. An aesthetic of invisible labor functioned to keep literature separate from the problematics of industrial labor and the developing market economy, and yet, in demanding that authorial agency remain absent, this aesthetic reproduced one of the most troublesome consequences of mechanized labor. Allegory in "The Birth-mark" is thus read as a site upon which authors and readers inscribe the changing relations between labor and identity.
- Copyright 1993 The Regents of the University of California