When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to have a Science Fiction Literature class taught by a great teacher using a great textbook: Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. This book is a chronological look at science fiction through the years with stories published from the 1840s to the 1980s.
The book started out with an old Nathaniel Hawthorn short story called The Birthmark, which may be one of the first mad scientist stories. The narrator of the story doesn’t explicitly call Aylmer, the scientist of the story, a “mad scientist,” but the profile fits quite well upon examination.
The first paragraph calls Aylmer a “man of science” and tells us that he left that life behind and “persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife.” But after marrying her, he becomes obsessed with the birthmark on her cheek in the shape of a tiny hand. She is offended when he suggest the possibility of having he birthmark removed from her face, hurting her deeply. She thought it a charm because it was often thought beautiful by other suitors.
Alymer discovers that he does not think it a charm, but rather a flaw in her beautiful face, which becomes a “symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” The man of science is suddenly faced with a dilemma, as he believes he can fix the flaw, but at the cost of putting science above his love for his new wife.
We find, though, that Alymer was delving into fringe science in his earlier days when he takes his wife back to his old laboratory to perform the experiment on her birthmark. As he prepares, he shows his wife his old experiments, which blossom into wonder, but soon fade to ruin before her eyes.
With one shudder as he glanced upon the birthmark, though, her own desire to be rid of it was cemented in her mind. She could not bear to see him shudder at her again. She now hated the birthmark more than him. At this point, she finds Aylmer’s journals and discovers that all of his experiments have been failures in his own eyes because of the grandiose vision of perfection. For some reason, with this insight into his motives, she fall more in love with him. His experiments have indeed pushed forward the scientific discoveries, but have been failures none the less.
Even though I am basically spoiling the whole story, I suggest anyone interested in “mad science” as a literary device should read this story, which can be found online for free. This is the madness and the great part of this story. The Birthmark is a great look at the mad scientist persona through a love story instead of a monster story. I use the term “love” but Alymer doesn’t love his wife.
He uses the birthmark as an excuse to return to his old ways—his old “mad science” ways. He’s messing with things that only “God” should have power over. Heck, the dude even has his own Igor—a hairy assistant of low stature, though that trope may have come from this work. He assumes that if he can rid her of the birthmark then she will be perfect and lovable again.
The funny thing about flaws, though, is that once the largest goes away, the next largest becomes brightly apparent. That is my own interjection, though, because the story doesn’t get to the point where it would explore that scenario.
Both Alymer and his wife know the most likely outcome of his experiments is her own death. He is willing to go through with it because he is mad—mad meaning that he can’t see his own flaws, his own faults, his own ability to change, and his own megalomania in trying to fix his beautiful wife. She is willing because she can’t live in a world where her husband could shudder when looking at her face.
Alymer is successful at removing the birthmark at the cost of her life. The story ends there and we don’t see his reaction to his wife’s death or the impact that has on his own science career. I wish Hawthorn had continued the story. Does Alymer continue with his secret science or does he again reject that part of himself? At some point, villagers are showing up with pitchforks though.