The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Marble Faun (1860) is Hawthorne’s last completed and longest romance—his term for the type of non-realist, symbolic, and psychological fiction he preferred to write. Composed during and after his and his family’s travels in Europe following his political patronage appointment as American consul in Liverpool, it is a Gothic tale of art, love, murder, and penitence set among aesthetically-minded tourists in mid-19th-century Rome and the Italian countryside.
The novel is Hawthorne’s longest—and his most disorderly and perhaps dullest—for reasons best explained by its economic context, as elaborated by Susan Manning in the introduction to this Oxford World Classics edition. In an era before international copyright protections, Hawthorne first published the book while he was living in England so that it could secure a British copyright before its U.S. publication. This protected it from piracy and ensured that Hawthorne would see profits on both sides of the Atlantic. But this meant that he had to tailor the novel to the British market, whose lending-library system favored three-volume works—so-called triple-deckers—even though Hawthorne’s own genius, tending as it did toward the emblematic or even heraldic, was best expressed in short stories or novellas (his best “novel” is probably The Scarlet Letter, which is, when you subtract its long but vestigial preface, novella-length).
Much as I dislike reducing literary works to such economic determinations, I begin my account of The Marble Faun with these facts for two reasons. First is to explain the novel’s at times extraordinary longueurs and its disorganization even at the level of genre—why is the Gothic mystery held up for a hundred pages of Italian travelogue? Some critics today like to mock people on Amazon and Goodreads for giving one-star-reviews to works of literary genius, but here the contemporary common reader is in accord with the novel’s early critics, including a skeptical Henry James, who wrote in his Hawthorne (1879):
The fault of Transformation [the English edition’s title] is that the element of the unreal is pushed too far, and that the book is neither positively of one category nor of another. His “moonshiny romance,” he calls it in a letter; and, in truth, the lunar element is a little too pervasive. The action wavers between the streets of Rome, whose literal features the author perpetually sketches, and a vague realm of fancy, in which quite a different verisimilitude prevails. […] And since I am speaking critically, I may go on to say that the art of narration, in Transformation, seems to me more at fault than in the author’s other novels. The story straggles and wanders, is dropped and taken up again, and towards the close lapses into an almost fatal vagueness.
All true. Yet James also writes, “Allowing for this, however, some of the finest pages in all Hawthorne are to be found in it.”
Moreover, The Marble Faun is a work of art about works of art, about how they do and do not conform to the ideal vision that inspires them, about the ways they do and do not satisfy the human needs we bring to them. I’m not trying to play the get-out-jail-free card of avant-garde critics and desperate art students—to say that the work is great because it is not good, or that its genius is that it is supposed to be bad. No, The Marble Faun offers 100 pages’ worth of story in an almost 400-page book, some of which was cobbled together out of Hawthorne’s travel journals: the thing largely doesn’t work.
But if it is less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts are endlessly profound; and if Hawthorne occasionally forgets the story for a few chapters and takes you instead on a tour of some neighborhood or gallery with his thoughts on art, history, and religion, well, Hawthorne’s complex and ambivalent intellect in its encounter with foreign parts is often more interesting than the story he is forgetting to tell.
Finally, let him complain as he will, but Henry James found in Hawthorne’s novel of the American character in conflict with the European, a confrontation staged on the ground of the Old World’s high culture and in a style of frustratingly indirect symbolism, his own most characteristic matter and manner.
The Marble Faun is about four characters who meet in Rome; we spend a year in their lives, a year wherein a murder brings them to a crisis. Three of the characters are artists: the American sculptor Kenyon and the American painter Hilda, both scions of Puritan New England, and the “exotic” painter Miriam, who is of indeterminate extraction (she is speculated to be everything from a Jewish heiress to a Southern planter’s daughter with “one burning drop of African blood in her veins”).
The fourth in this company is the title character, Donatello, who bears a resemblance to the Greek sculptor Praxitiles’s statue of a faun, often remarked upon by the other characters. As James observes, he belongs to a different level of reality than the other characters; they are recognizable social and historical types in a contemporary landscape, while he is an allegorical figure for the happy, pastoral, Arcadian, and above all innocently natural aspect or inheritance of humankind.
His happiness will not survive the corruptions of Rome, with its weight of history (as opposed to nature) and its burden of sinning, civilized humanity. Donatello has contracted a love and devotion to the mysterious Miriam—who often refers darkly to some sin in her past, who paints pictures of and finds herself compared to images of murderous if victimized women (Jael, Judith, Cleopatra, Beatrice Cenci), and who is stalked by a mad monk she met in the Roman catacombs.
When his fidelity to Miriam leads Donatello to murder this monk, an act witnessed by Hilda, our heroes enter a realm of paranoia and guilt. Hilda breaks her close, almost sororal relation to Miriam, while Donatello retreats to his ancestral tower in the countryside, and Kenyon goes to visit him there. In the countryside, we learn that local lore tells of Donatello’s descent from “[a] sylvan creature, native among the woods” who “had loved a mortal maiden”—that he in fact may be, rather than merely representing, a kind of pastoral atavism to a human life in harmony with nature.
Yet Kenyon finds that Donatello’s crime has transformed him from innocence to experience, has deepened and enriched his character. The resolution of the plot is ambiguous—so much so that Hawthorne was forced by early reader outrage to add an exasperatedly explanatory postscript—but the upshot is that Miriam and Donatello accept responsibility for their sin, and Kenyon and Hilda return, sadder but wiser, to an America where history impinges less on the individual and where Puritanism’s moral simplicity dissolves the decadent corruptions of old Europe, with its priests and aristocrats and freight of cultural history.
On the moral of the story, Hilda and Kenyon differ. The fair, sensitive Hilda—as opposed to the dark and authoritative Miriam—is the customary heroine of Anglo-American domestic fiction going back at least to Rose’s displacement of Flora (another fair/sensitive vs. dark/authoritative pair) in Scott’s Waverley (1814). At first, Hilda seems as if she will serve as some other, newer archetype: an incipient New Woman or Woolfean female genius having her vision.
She demonstrates an attraction to Catholicism throughout the novel, even living in a dove-circled tower where she maintains a traditional shrine to the Virgin Mary; moreover, her single life as an artist in Rome moves the narrator to reflect on social changes portended by what was not yet called feminism:
This young American girl was an example of the freedom of life which it is possible for a female artist to enjoy at Rome. She dwelt in her tower, as free to descend into the corrupted atmosphere of the city beneath, as one of her companion doves to fly downward into the street;—all alone, perfectly independent, under her own sole guardianship, unless watched over by the Virgin, whose shrine she tended; doing what she liked without a suspicion or a shadow upon the snowy whiteness of her fame. The customs of artist life bestow such liberty upon the sex, which is elsewhere restricted within so much narrower limits; and it is perhaps an indication that, whenever we admit women to a wider scope of pursuits and professions, we must also remove the shackles of our present conventional rules, which would then become an insufferable restraint on either maid or wife.
And she is an artistic genius of a type: a brilliant copyist. In an era before painting’s easy mechanical reproduction, she reproduces spiritual progeny, so deeply sympathizing with the works of the Old Masters that she is able to transmit their essences through her own hand. Yet this is a feminized genius:
Hilda’s faculty of genuine admiration is one of the rarest to be found in human nature; and let us try to recompense her in kind by admiring her generous self-surrender, and her brave, humble magnanimity in choosing to be the handmaid of those old magicians, instead of a minor enchantress within a circle of her own.
The handmaid of Raphael, whom she loved with a virgin’s love! Would it have been worth Hilda’s while to relinquish this office for the sake of giving the world a picture or two which it would call original; pretty fancies of snow and moonlight; the counterpart in picture of so many feminine achievements in literature!
Before we censure Hawthorne for sexism, though, we might reflect that the inventor of Miriam—whose genius is of a far more robust and violent type—to say nothing of Hester Prynne’s admiring creator (who with her dark-haired “Oriental” beauty and mastery of art is Miriam’s counterpart, not Hilda’s), and the male author who lamented what Rappaccini made of his daughter and what Aylmer did to his wife, is criticizing not Hilda or women at large but the Anglo-American gender protocols that mandate such insipid heroines.
Hilda ends the novel a kind of morally absolute bigot, with a preference in her distress for the pious simplicity of an art below the aesthetic level of the Old Masters. (Hawthorne emphasizes her consolation by Sodoma’s fresco of Christ bound to a pillar, a painting whose union of truth and religious beauty is to be preferred to works of ornamental sensuality, even if they are by Raphael.) She refuses to countenance any ambiguity in the story of Donatello. She becomes, very nearly in so many words, the proverbial angel in the house:
Another hand must henceforth trim the lamp before the Virgin’s shrine; for Hilda was coming down from her old tower, to be herself enshrined and worshipped as a household saint, in the light of her husband’s fireside…
Is this simply a happy ending for such a strange book? Hawthorne was perhaps not a feminist, but neither was he a fool. Like all great artists, he was of his time and out of it. Surely some part of him was as horrified as Hilda and Kenyon by the corruptions of the Old World, and as insensible as they are to the corruptions of the New. Surely some part of him thought that domestic values of hearth and home, companionate marriage’s assurance of middle-class stability amid Enlightenment upheaval, a good solution to the problem of how to hold together a society in the absence of church-and-state domination.
But did Hawthorne write stories and novels with anything like the reverential piety of Sodoma’s fresco? Hardly: he was an artist of baroque design and mystifying symbolism—like his heroine Hester, he was an artist-with-a-capital-A fallen among the moral iconoclasts. So, like all great artists, he differed not only from his world, but from himself. Hilda possesses this power briefly, but surrenders it—out of cowardice, we may be invited to think—after her first encounter with sin. She bows to Puritanical certitude instead of artistic amplitude; and her type lives on today in the seemingly indefatigable ranks of those who expect from art a therapeutic session, a moral sermon, a positive representation, or a literal account of the way things ought to be.
Kenyon takes a different lesson from Donatello’s maturation-through-sin, the lesson of the felix culpa, the fortunate fall, the sin whose consequence is our active struggle for—rather than passive inhabitation of—the good. On this reading of events, evil is necessary, even beneficial, a goad and stimulant to the good, without which we slide into moral sloth and, presumably, aesthetic torpor:
“Sin has educated Donatello, and elevated him. Is sin, then,—which we deem such a dreadful blackness in the universe,—is it, like sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained? Did Adam fall, that we might ultimately rise to a far loftier paradise than his?”
Hilda is horrified by this:
“Do not you perceive what a mockery your creed makes, not only of all religious sentiments, but of moral law? And how it annuls and obliterates whatever precepts of Heaven are written deepest within us? You have shocked me beyond words!”
I suspect we are to dissent from her reductionism, and to find in this tale what James so clearly found in it: a paradoxical freedom from American innocence in the labyrinth of European experience, nothing less than a vindication of our ethical and aesthetic adulthood.
Is it a fortunate fall that The Marble Faun is such a mixed achievement? Its generic instability does not bother me—I am almost always ready to praise classic or contemporary experiments, not so much in mingling genres, but in combining incongruous modes of representation. If this practice has become routinized with the contemporary institutionalization of magical realism, it still reflects, I think, our actual experience of a world consisting of many emotions, many places, many agencies, many orders of experience, and many ways of life.
But Hawthorne’s travelogue goes on too long. Some of it is by-the-numbers tourist observation, just notebook-derived descriptions of place without integration into the novel’s thematic whole or stylistic texture. The novel resembles those domiciles it sometimes describes—a hovel built out of stone and marble scavenged from ruins.
Hawthorne’s American distaste for aspects of Italian culture—which, despite my nominal “ethnicity,” I largely shared on my own and only visit to Italy in 2004—is sometimes acute, as here in his rueful acknowledgement that post-classical Rome has no reality for the tourist:
Rome, as it now exists, has grown up under the Popes, and seems like nothing but a heap of broken rubbish, thrown into the great chasm between our own days and the Empire, merely to fill it up; and, for the better part of two thousand years, its annals of obscure policies, and wars, and continually recurring misfortunes, seem also but broken rubbish, as compared with its classic history.
If we consider the present city as at all connected with the famous one of old, it is only because we find it built over its grave. A depth of thirty feet of soil has covered up the Rome of ancient days, so that it lies like the dead corpse of a giant, decaying for centuries, with no survivor mighty enough even to bury it, until the dust of all those years has gathered slowly over its recumbent form and made a casual sepulchre.
But at other times, it is haughty middle-class disgust, often verging on crude racism, unseemly in itself.
The novel’s lengthy dialogues on art, anticipating later works by Wilde, Mann, and Proust, are by contrast wonderful, and I could have tolerated many more of them. Hawthorne’s realist portrayal of an Anglo artist colony in Rome, when the classical forms of visual art remained viable, and when an unprecedented number of women were adopting them, is historically fascinating. The characters’ discussions of the relative merits of painting and sculpture or the principles of the visual arts also held my interest; I was disappointed when they faded in the novel’s desultory second half. Consider, for instance, this quarrel between the sculptor Kenyon and the painter Miriam:
“I used to admire this statue [i.e., The Dying Gladiator] exceedingly,” he remarked, “but, latterly, I find myself getting weary and annoyed that the man should be such a length of time leaning on his arm in the very act of death. If he is so terribly hurt, why does he not sink down and die without further ado? Flitting moments, imminent emergencies, imperceptible intervals between two breaths, ought not to be incrusted with the eternal repose of marble; in any sculptural subject, there should be a moral standstill, since there must of necessity be a physical one. Otherwise, it is like flinging a block of marble up into the air, and, by some trick of enchantment, causing it to stick there. You feel that it ought to come down, and are dissatisfied that it does not obey the natural law.”
“I see,” said Miriam mischievously, “you think that sculpture should be a sort of fossilizing process. But, in truth, your frozen art has nothing like the scope and freedom of Hilda’s and mine. In painting there is no similar objection to the representation of brief snatches of time,—perhaps because a story can be so much more fully told in picture, and buttressed about with circumstances that give it an epoch.”
As Susan Manning points out in her aforementioned introduction, Hawthorne was, like most antebellum Americans, new to the extensive study of the visual arts—it was in Italy that he attended his first exhibitions, and he had a hard time reconciling himself to Italian Renaissance painting, preferring stolid Dutch realism. The Marble Faun is the journal of a self-education—perhaps that is its real narrative—but we can perhaps discern an implication in Miriam’s elevation of painting over sculpture on the grounds that the former offers more story and more suggestiveness and less marmoreal idealism: if ambiguous narrative is the criterion of artistic achievement, then literature outranks the visual arts entirely.
Manning observes that in The Marble Faun Hawthorne begins to pursue, instead of a symbolic and emblematic style, a more self-sufficiently artistic one—a proto-aestheticism in the Flaubert-Pater-James-Conrad-Joyce-Woolf line that treasures the materiality of language as it incarnates the materiality of the object world for each of their own sweet sakes:
One of the great interests of the book…is that it allows us to see Hawthorne’s writing moving away from the surface/depth dichotomy which Melville had identified in his ‘Mosses’ review, and groping toward a ‘painterly prose’; a movement, that is, from describing or implying a generative relationship between art and reality to embodying it in form and language which anticipated (and indeed strongly influenced) the experiments in prose of Henry James.
Hawthorne loses his way at the novel’s midpoint when Kenyon goes to the countryside to visit Donatello at the estate of Monte Beni. This interminable pastoral ramble, though, does have a few beautiful moments in this beautifully written work. Kenyon’s reflection on the wine of Monte Beni, called Sunshine, is almost too perfect an allegory for The Marble Faun:
This invaluable liquor was of a pale golden hue, like other of the rarest Italian wines, and, if carelessly and irreligiously quaffed, might have been mistaken for a very fine sort of champagne. It was not, however, an effervescing wine, although its delicate piquancy produced a somewhat similar effect upon the palate. Sipping, the guest longed to sip again; but the wine demanded so deliberate a pause, in order to detect the hidden peculiarities and subtile exquisiteness of its flavor, that to drink it was really more a moral than a physical enjoyment. There was a deliciousness in it that eluded analysis, and—like whatever else is superlatively good—was perhaps better appreciated in the memory than by present consciousness.
Inadvertent or not, Hawthorne could not have written his own advertisement more aptly, even if authors tend not to advertise the pauses for thought required by their work’s subtlety and moral strenuousness. As the peculiar and elusive flavor of The Marble Faun recedes into my memory, I appreciate it more already.
[…] my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, […]
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