The Marble Faun is not one of the masterworks of American literature. Nearly any high school student in America could tell you one or two details about the plot of The Scarlet Letter, and likely add some comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritanism. If they are advanced students, they may be aware of his authorship of The Blithesdale Romance. Yet, the knowledge of the American teen here is faithfully predictive of the knowledge of the American adult, and it can be safely conjectured that few inside this country – and even fewer outside of it – have read this bizarre combination of fantasy, languid aestheticism, and heavy-handed sermonizing allegory.
My own Meridian Classic edition quotes Henry James’ description of the novel: “…the murder committed by Donatello under Miriam’s eyes and the ecstatic wandering, afterward, through the ‘blood-stained streets of Rome.’” Reading this note, one may be primed to think that The Marble Faun is a dark and seedy tale of slaughter – a macabre murder story set in an exotic locale. Yet, most of the book is actually a series of dreamy and unfocused meditations on Rome, the loss of innocence, and in particular the relation of art to nature. There are lengthy descriptions of both painted and plastic arts, as in the protracted notice of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline:
“The party ascended the winding way that leads from the Forum to the Piazza of the Campidoglio on the summit of the Capitoline Hill. They stood awhile to contemplate the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The moonlight glistened upon traces of the gilding which had once covered both rider and steed; these were almost gone, but the aspect of dignity was still perfect, clothing the figure as it were with an imperial robe of light. It is the most majestic representation of the kingly character that ever the world has seen. A sight of the old heathen emperor is enough to create an evanescent sentiment of loyalty even in a democratic bosom, so august does he look, so fit to rule, so worthy of man’s profoundest homage and obedience, so inevitably attractive of his love. He stretches forth his hand with an air of grand beneficence and unlimited authority, as if uttering a decree from which no appeal was permissible, but in which the obedient subject would find his highest interests consulted; a command that was in itself a benediction.”
The book is teeming with these slow moments of aesthetic reflection, which do little to advance the plot – what little there is of that. Much like Moby Dick (whose author, Herman Melville, was Hawthorne’s neighbor – indeed, Moby Dick was dedicated to Hawthorne), The Marble Faun is loosely structured around what might generously be called a sort of “plot”, which serves as little more than a bare skeleton upon which to mount a vast superstructure of winding and ponderous reflection. The main events of Moby Dick’s plot can be summarized in a few short sentences, and so too can those of The Marble Faun:
There are four central characters: Kenyon, a sensitive sculptor; Hilda, a skilled copyist who is simultaneously a paragon of beauty and Christian virtue; Miriam, a painter with a mysterious past and a threatening stalker; and Donatello, the count of Monte Beni, portrayed rather unbelievably as a figure of effusive, life-loving, Arcadian simplicity. At the beginning of the tale, the characters notice Donatello’s remarkable similarity to a marble faun, a scupture by the Greek artist Praxiteles.
The resemblance between the marble Faun and their living companion had made a deep, half-serious, half-mirthful impression on these three friends, and had taken them into a certain airy region, lifting up, as it is so pleasant to feel them lifted, their heavy earthly feet from the actual soil of life. The world had been set afloat, as it were, for a moment, and relieved them, for just so long, of all customary responsibility for what they thought and said.
This is the springboard for the characters to speculate upon Donatello’s ancient heritage (could the family of Monte Beni have among their ancestors those sylvan creatures?) and heavy-handedly draw for us a clear interpretation of Donatello as Rousseau’s noble savage, wholly uncorrupted by the civilization of that decadent sewer, Rome.
Early in the narrative, Donatello becomes passionately attached to Miriam, who is pursued mercilessly by a hooded stalker. In the middle of the book, Donatello murders the stalker by pushing him from a precipice in an effort to protect Miriam. The rest of the tale is then taken up with Donatello’s loss of innocence, Hilda’s attempt to deal with her guilty conscience after witnessing Donatello and Miriam’s crime, and Kenyon’s pursuit of Hilda, whom he loves as an instantiation of perfect beauty and grace within this world. The second half of the book is much more unevenly-drawn than the first, and there is little sense that any important events occur after the murder, with the sole exception of Hilda’s (a Puritan’s) confession in the Vatican. Otherwise, there is curiously little narrative impetus or even resolution, with the exception of a small note indicating that Kenyon and Hilda were eventually, predictably, married.
The first half of the book is suffused by a rich and sensuous paganism, which is a sheer delight to read; yet, in the second half of the book, Hawthorne begins to veer off not only into Puritan moralizing, but also a sense of hatred for Rome, the civilization it represents, and Catholicism. Consider, for example,
It seemed to Kenyon, looking through the darkly colored medium of his fears, that all modes of crime were crowded into the close intricacy of Roman streets, and that there was no redeeming element, such as exists in other dissolute and wicked cities.
You may see throngs of men and boys who thrust themselves beneath the horses’ hoofs to gather up bouquets that were aimed amiss from balcony and carriage; these they sell again, and yet once more, and ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.
Indeed, the word wicked (or wickedness), occurs four times more frequently in the second half of the book than it did in the first. In a sense, Hawthorne’s narratorial attitude changes in the second half of the book to mirror the change which happens to Donatello after the murder – that is, it mirrors Donatello’s loss of innocence, his inability to enjoy what once were simply rich scenes of delight. Donatello himself retreats to his tower in Monte Beni, as if to further emphasize the et in Arcadia ego theme so closely associated with him.
I mentioned that the book contained four primary characters, but this is in a sense misleading, given that Rome itself is, in a sense, the main character of the book. While the narrative is indeed structured around the education which the four principal actors receive as the direct result of aesthetic experience and the conscious guilt of murder, Hawthorne calls our attention constantly to the ruin of Rome, and the way in which the city itself has not only lost its innocence, but accumulated a resevoir of vice and miasmic guilt through the ages:
The spell being broken, it was now only that old tract of pleasure ground, close by the people’s gate of Rome,—a tract where the crimes and calamities of ages, the many battles, blood recklessly poured out, and deaths of myriads, have corrupted all the soil, creating an influence that makes the air deadly to human lungs.
This is only one of many larger discursive sallies into urban reflection which Hawthorne allows himself. Henry James wrote favorably of The Marble Faun, and common critical consensus holds that he perfected the ‘international theme’ which is seen in seminal form here. Of course, James himself not only developed the theme to its full extent, he also managed to imbue his plots and characters with a nuanced depth of which Hawthorne seemed largely incapable; yet, it is difficult to fault a writer for employing less minutely discriminating subtlety than James. For all of that, many passages in The Marble Faun read much like some of James’ own travel writing compiled in his Italian Hours. Indeed, this goes some way to suggesting the ideal audience for the book: though most modern readers will likely find the Puritanical allegorizing somewhat blunt and uninspiring, anyone who is looking to read work of fiction which runs in the vein of a fantasized aesthetic or appreciative essay on the history of Rome or the place of art in human society will likely find much in the book to recommend it. I must recur to the comparison with Moby Dick: just as one should not read Melville’s masterpiece for the thin plot about Ahab’s pursuit of the whale, so too one ought not to read The Marble Faun with an eye to anything but its reflective, essayistic qualities.
Only a sculptor of the finest imagination, the most delicate taste, the sweetest feeling, and the rarest artistic skill—in a word, a sculptor and a poet too—could have first dreamed of a Faun in this guise, and then have succeeded in imprisoning the sportive and frisky thing in marble. Neither man nor animal, and yet no monster, but a being in whom both races meet on friendly ground. The idea grows coarse as we handle it, and hardens in our grasp. But, if the spectator broods long over the statue, he will be conscious of its spell; all the pleasantness of sylvan life, all the genial and happy characteristics of creatures that dwell in woods and fields, will seem to be mingled and kneaded into one substance, along with the kindred qualities in the human soul. Trees, grass, flowers, woodland streamlets, cattle, deer, and unsophisticated man. The essence of all these was compressed long ago, and still exists, within that discolored marble surface of the Faun of Praxiteles.
And, after all, the idea may have been no dream, but rather a poet’s reminiscence of a period when man’s affinity with nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear.