The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 16

“The Marble Faun”: 1859–1860

What the Roman carnival was a hundred and fifty years ago, when the Italian princes poured out their wealth upon it, and when it served as a medium for the communication of lovers as well as for social and political intrigue, which sometimes resulted in conflicts like those of the Montagues and Capulets, can only be imagined. Goethe witnessed it from a balcony in the Corso, and his carnival in the second part of “Faust” was worked up from notes taken on that occasion; but it is so highly poetized that little can be determined from it, except as a portion of the drama. By Hawthorne’s time the aristocratic Italians had long since given up their favorite holiday to English and American travellers — crowded out, as it were, by the superiority of money; and since the advent of Victor Emmanuel, the carnival has become so democratic that you are more likely to encounter your landlady’s daughter there than any more distinguished person. Hawthorne’s description of it in “The Marble Faun” is not overdrawn, and is one of the happiest passages in the book.

The carnival of 1859 was an exceptionally brilliant one. The Prince of Wales attended it with a suite of young English nobles, who, always decorous and polite on public occasions, nevertheless infused great spirit into the proceedings. Sumner and Motley were there, and Motley rented a balcony in a palace, to which the Hawthornes received general and repeated invitations. On March 7, Miss Una was driven through the Corso in a barouche, and the Prince of Wales threw her a bouquet, probably recognizing her father, who was with her; and to prove his good intentions he threw her another, when her carriage returned from the Piazza, del Popolo. The present English sovereign has always been noted for a sort of journalistic interest in prominent men of letters, science, and public affairs, and it is likely that he was better informed in regard to the Hawthornes than they imagined. Hawthorne himself was too much subdued by his recent trial to enter into the spirit of the carnival, even with a heart much relieved from anxiety, but he sometimes appeared in the Motleys’ balcony, and sometimes went along the narrow sidewalk of the Corso, “for an hour or so among the people, just on the edges of the fun.” Sumner invited Mrs. Hawthorne to take a stroll and see pictures with him, from which she returned delighted with his criticisms and erudition.

A few days later Franklin Pierce suddenly appeared at No. 68 Piazza Poli, with that shadow on his face which was never wholly to leave it. The man who fears God and keeps his commandments will never feel quite alone in the world; but for the man who lives on popularity, what will there be left when that forsakes him? Hawthorne was almost shocked at the change in his friend’s appearance; not only at his gray hair and wrinkled brow, but at the change in his voice, and at a certain lack of substance in him, as if the personal magnetism had gone out of him. Hawthorne went to walk with him, and tried to encourage him by suggesting another term of the presidency, but this did not help much, for even Pierce’s own State had deserted him — a fact of which Hawthorne may not have been aware. The companionship of his old friend, however, and the manifold novelty of Rome itself, somewhat revived the ex-President, as may be imagined; and a month later he left for Venice, in better spirits than he came.

They celebrated the Ides of March by going to see Harriet Hosmer’s statue of Zenobia, which was afterward exhibited in America. Hawthorne immediately detected its resemblance to the antique — the figure was in fact a pure plagiarism from the smaller statue of Ceres in the Vatican — but Miss Hosmer succeeded in giving the face an expression of injured and sorrowing majesty, which Hawthorne was equally ready to appreciate.

On this second visit to Rome he became acquainted with a sculptor, whose name is not given, but who criticised Hiram Powers with a rather suspicious severity. He would not allow Powers “to be an artist at all, or to know anything of the laws of art,” although acknowledging him to be a great bust-maker, and to have put together the “Greek Slave” and the “Fisher–Boy” very ingeniously. “The latter, however (he says), is copied from the Spinario in the Tribune of the Uffizi; and the former made up of beauties that had no reference to one another; and he affirms that Powers is ready to sell, and has actually sold, the ‘Greek Slave,’ limb by limb, dismembering it by reversing the process of putting it together. Powers knows nothing scientifically of the human frame, and only succeeds in representing it, as a natural bone-doctor succeeds in setting a dislocated limb, by a happy accident or special providence.” 113

We may judge, from “the style, the matter, and the drift” of this discourse, that it emanated from the same sculptor who is mentioned, in “Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife,” as having traduced Margaret Fuller and her husband Count Ossoli. As Tennyson says, “A lie that is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies,” and this fellow would seem to have been an adept in unveracious exaggeration. It is remarkable that Hawthorne should have given serious attention to such a man; but an English critic said in regard to this same incident that if Hawthorne had been a more communicative person, if he had talked freely to a larger number of people, he would not have been so easily prejudiced by those few with whom he was chiefly intimate. To which it could be added, that he might also have taken broader views in regard to public affairs.

Hawthorne was fortunate to have been present at the discovery of the St. Petersburg “Venus,” the twin sister of the “Venus dé Medici,” which was dug up in a vineyard outside the Porta Portese. The proprietor of the vineyard, who made his fortune at a stroke by the discovery, happened to select the site for a new building over the buried ruins of an ancient villa, and the “Venus” was discovered in what appeared to Hawthorne as an old Roman bath-room. The statue was in more perfect preservation than the “Venus dé Medici,” both of whose arms have been restored, and Hawthorne noticed that the head was larger and the face more characteristic, with wide-open eyes and a more confident expression. He was one of the very few who saw it before it was transported to St. Petersburg, and a thorough artistic analysis of it is still one of the desiderata. The difference in expression, however, would seem to be in favor of the “Venus dé Medici,” as more in accordance with the ruling motive of the figure.

Miss Una Hawthorne had not sufficiently recovered to travel until the last of May, when they all set forth northward by way of Genoa and Marseilles, in which latter place we find them on the 28th, enjoying the comfort and elegance of a good French hotel. Thence they proceeded to Avignon, but did not find much to admire there except the Rhone; so they continued to Geneva, the most pleasant, homelike resting place in Europe, but quite deficient in other attractions.

It seems as if Hawthorne’s Roman friends were somewhat remiss in not giving him better advice in regard to European travelling. At Geneva he was within a stone’s throw of Chamounix, and hardly more than that of Strasburg Cathedral, and yet he visited neither. Why did he go out of his way to see so little and to miss so much? He went across the lake to visit Lausanne and the Castle of Chillon, and he was more than astonished at the view of the Pennine Alps from the deck of the steamer. He had never imagined anything like it; and he might have said the same if he had visited Cologne Cathedral. Instead of that, however, he hurried through France again, with the intention of sailing for America the middle of July; but after reaching London he concluded to remain another year in England, to write his “Romance of Monte Beni,” and obtain an English copyright for it.

He left Geneva on June 15, and as he turned his face northward, he felt that Henry Bright and Francis Bennoch were his only real friends in Great Britain. There could hardly have been a stronger contrast than these two. Bright was tall, slender, rather pale for an Englishman, grave and philosophical. Bennoch was short, plump, lively and jovial, with a ready fund of humor much in the style of Dickens, with whom he was personally acquainted. Yet Hawthorne recognized that Bright and Bennoch liked him for what he was, in and of himself, and not for his celebrity alone.

Bright was in London when Hawthorne reached there, and proposed that they should go together to call on Sumner, 114 who had been cured from the effects of Brooks’s assault by an equally heroic treatment; but Hawthorne objected that as neither of them was Lord Chancellor, Sumner would not be likely to pay them much attention; to which Bright replied, that Sumner had been very kind to him in America, and they accordingly went. Sumner was kind to thousands — the kindest as well as the most upright man of his time — and no one in America, except Longfellow, appreciated Hawthorne so well; but he was the champion of the anti-slavery movement and the inveterate opponent of President Pierce. I suppose a man’s mind cannot help being colored somewhat by such conditions and influences.

Hawthorne wished for a quiet, healthful place, where he could write his romance without the disturbances that are incident to celebrity, and his friends recommended Redcar, on the eastern coast of Yorkshire, a town that otherwise Americans would not have heard of. He went there about the middle of July, remaining until the 5th of October, but of his life there we know nothing except that he must have worked assiduously, for in that space of time he nearly finished a book containing almost twice as many pages as “The Scarlet Letter.” Meanwhile Mrs. Hawthorne entertained the children and kept them from interfering with their father (in his small cottage), by making a collection of sea-mosses, which Una and Julian gathered at low tides, and which their mother afterward dried and preserved on paper. On October 4th Una Hawthorne wrote to her aunt, Elizabeth Peabody:

“Our last day in Redcar, and a most lovely one it is. The sea seems to reproach us for leaving it. But I am glad we are going, for I feel so homesick that I want constant change to divert my thoughts. How troublesome feelings and affections are.”


One can see that it was a pleasant place even after the days had begun to shorten, which they do very rapidly in northern England. From Redcar, Hawthorne went to Leamington, where he finished his romance about the first of December, and remained until some time in March, living quietly and making occasional pedestrian tours to neighboring towns. He was particularly fond of the walk to Warwick Castle, and of standing on the bridge which crosses the Avon, and gazing at the walls of the Castle, as they rise above the trees —“as fine a piece of English scenery as exists anywhere; the gray towers and long line of windows of the lordly castle, with a picturesquely varied outline; ancient strength, a little softened by decay.” It is a view that has often been sketched, painted and engraved.

The romance was written, but had to be revised, the least pleasant portion of an author’s duties — unless he chooses to make the index himself. This required five or six weeks longer, after which Hawthorne went to London and arranged for its publication with Smith & Elder, who agreed to bring it out in three volumes — although two would have been quite sufficient; but according to English ideas, the length of a work of fiction adds to its importance. Unfortunately, Smith & Elder also desired to cater to the more prosaic class of readers by changing the name of the romance from “The Marble Faun” to “Transformation,” and they appear to have done this without consulting Hawthorne’s wishes in the matter. It was simply squeezing the title dry of all poetic suggestions; and it would have been quite as appropriate to change the name of “The Scarlet Letter” to “The Clergyman’s Penance,” or to call “The Blithedale Romance” “The Suicide of a Jilt.” If Smith & Elder considered “The Marble Faun” too recondite a title for the English public, what better name could they have hit upon than “The Romance of Monte Beni”? Would not the Count of Monte Beni be a cousin Italian, as it were, to the Count of Monte Cristo? We are thankful to observe that when Hawthorne published the book in America, he had his own way in regard to this point.

It was now that a new star was rising in the literary firmament, not of the “shooting” or transitory species, and the genius of Marian Evans (George Eliot) was casting its genial penetrating radiance over Great Britain and the United States. She was as difficult a person to meet with as Hawthorne himself, and they never saw one another; but a friend of Mr. Bennoch, who lived at Coventry, invited the Hawthornes there in the first week of February to meet Bennoch and others, and Marian Evans would seem to have been the chief subject of conversation at the table that evening. What Hawthorne gathered concerning her on that occasion he has preserved in this compact and discriminating statement:

“Miss Evans (who wrote ‘Adam Bede’) was the daughter of a steward, and gained her exact knowledge of English rural life by the connection with which this origin brought her with the farmers. She was entirely self-educated, and has made herself an admirable scholar in classical as well as in modern languages. Those who knew her had always recognized her wonderful endowments, and only watched to see in what way they would develop themselves. She is a person of the simplest manners and character, amiable and unpretending, and Mrs. B—— spoke of her with great affection and respect.”

There is actually more of the real George Eliot in this summary than in the three volumes of her biography by Mr. Cross.

Thorwaldsen’s well-known simile in regard to the three stages of sculpture, the life, the death and the resurrection, also has its application to literature. The manuscript is the birth of an author’s work, and its revision always seems like taking the life out of it; but when the proof comes, it is like a new birth, and he sees his design for the first time in its true proportions. Then he goes over it as the sculptor does his newly-cast bronze, smoothing the rough places and giving it those final touches which serve to make its expression clearer. Hawthorne was never more to be envied than while correcting the proof of “The Marble Faun” at Leamington. The book was given to the public at Easter-time; and there seems to have been only one person in England that appreciated it, even as a work of art — John Lothrop Motley. The most distinguished reviewers wholly failed to catch the significance of it; and even Henry Bright, while warmly admiring the story, expressed a dissatisfaction at the conclusion of it — although he could have found a notable precedent for that in Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister.” The Saturday Review, a publication similar in tone to the New York Nation, said of “Transformation:”


“A mystery is set before us to unriddle; at the end the author turns round and asks us what is the good of solving it. That the impression of emptiness and unmeaningness thus produced is in itself a blemish to the work no one can deny. Mr. Hawthorne really trades upon the honesty of other writers. We feel a sort of interest in the story, slightly and sketchily as it is told, because our experience of other novels leads us to assume that, when an author pretends to have a plot, he has one.”

The Art Journal said of it: 117

“We are not to accept this book as a story; in that respect it is grievously deficient. The characters are utterly untrue to nature and to fact; they speak, all and always, the sentiments of the author; their words also are his; there is no one of them for which the world has furnished a model.”

And the London Athenaeum said: 118

“To Mr. Hawthorne truth always seems to arrive through the medium of the imagination. . . . His hero, the Count of Monte Beni, would never have lived had not the Faun of Praxiteles stirred the author’s admiration. . . . The other characters, Mr. Hawthorne must bear to be told, are not new to a tale of his. Miriam, the mysterious, with her hideous tormentor, was indicated in the Zenobia of ‘The Blithedale Romance.’ Hilda, the pure and innocent, is own cousin to Phoebe in ‘The House of the Seven Gables’.”

If the reviewer is to be reviewed, it is not too much to designate these criticisms as miserable failures. They are not even well written. Henry Bright seemed to be thankful that they were no worse, for he wrote to Hawthorne: “I am glad that sulky Athenaeum was so civil; for they are equally powerful and unprincipled.” The writer in the Athenaeum evidently belonged to that class of domineering critics who have no literary standing, but who, like bankers’ clerks, arrogate to themselves all the importance of the establishment with which they are connected. Fortunately, there are few such in America. No keen-witted reader would ever confound the active, rosy, domestic Phoebe Pyncheon with the dreamy, sensitive, and strongly subjective Hilda of “The Marble Faun;” and Hawthorne might have sent a communication to the Athenaeum to refresh the reviewer’s memory, for it was not Zenobia in “The Blithedale Romance” who was dogged by a mysterious persecutor, but her half-sister — Priscilla. Shakespeare’s Beatrice and his Rosalind are more alike (for Brandes supposes them to have been taken from the same model) than Zenobia and Miriam; and the difference between the persecutors of Priscilla and Miriam, as well as their respective methods, is world-wide; but there are none so blind as those who are enveloped in the turbid medium of their self-conceit.

The pure-hearted, chivalrous Motley read these reviews, and wrote to Hawthorne a vindication of his work, which must have seemed to him like a broad belt of New England sunshine in the midst of the London fog. In reference to its disparagement by so-called authorities, Motley said: 119

“I have said a dozen times that nobody can write English but you. With regard to the story which has been slightingly criticised, I can only say that to me it is quite satisfactory. I like those shadowy, weird, fantastic, Hawthornesque shapes flitting through the golden gloom which is the atmosphere of the book. I like the misty way in which the story is indicated rather than revealed. The outlines are quite definite enough, from the beginning to the end, to those who have imagination enough to follow you in your airy flights; and to those who complain ——

“I beg your pardon for such profanation, but it really moves my spleen that people should wish to bring down the volatile figures of your romance to the level of an everyday novel. It is exactly the romantic atmosphere of the book in which I revel.”

The calm face of Motley, with his classic features, rises before us as we read this, illumined as it were by “the mild radiance of a hidden sun.” He also had known what it was to be disparaged by English periodicals; and if it had not been for Froude’s spirited assertion in his behalf, his history of the Dutch Republic might not have met with the celebrity it deserved. He was aware of the difference between a Hawthorne and a Reade or a Trollope, and knew how unfair it would be to judge Hawthorne even by the same standard as Thackeray. He does not touch in this letter on the philosophical character of the work, although that must have been evident to him, for he had said enough without it; but one could wish that he had printed the above statement over his own name, in some English journal.

American reviewers were equally puzzled by “The Marble Faun,” and, although it was generally praised here, the literary critics treated it in rather a cautious manner, as if it contained material of a dangerous nature. The North American, which should have devoted five or six pages to it, gave it less than one; praising it in a conventional and rather unsympathetic tone. Longfellow read it, and wrote in his diary, “A wonderful book; but with the old, dull pain in it that runs through all Hawthorne’s writings.” There was always something of this dull pain in the expression of Hawthorne’s face.

Analysis of “The Marble Faun”

It is like a picture, or a succession of pictures, painted in what the Italians call the sfumato, or “smoky” manner. The book is pervaded with the spirit of a dreamy pathos, such as constitutes the mental atmosphere of modern Rome; not unlike the haze of an Indian summer day, which we only half enjoy from a foreboding of the approach of winter. All outlines are softened and partially blurred in it, as time and decay have softened the outlines of the old Roman ruins. We recognize the same style with which we are familiar in “The Scarlet Letter,” but influenced by a change in Hawthorne’s external impressions.

It is a rare opportunity when the work of a great writer can be traced back to its first nebulous conception, as we trace the design of a pictorial artist to the first drawing that he made for his subject. Although we cannot witness the development of the plot of this romance in Hawthorne’s mind, it is much to see in what manner the different elements of which it is composed, first presented themselves to him, and how he adapted them to his purpose.

The first of these in order of time was the beautiful Jewess, whom he met at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London; who attracted him by her tout ensemble, but at the same time repelled him by an indefinable impression, a mysterious something, that he could not analyze. There would seem, however, to have been another Jewess connected with the character of Miriam; for I once heard Mrs. Hawthorne narrating a story in which she stated that she and her husband were driving through London in a cab, and passing close to the sidewalk in a crowded street they saw a beautiful woman, with black hair and a ruddy complexion, walking with the most ill-favored and disagreeable looking Jew that could be imagined; and on the woman’s face there was an expression of such deep-seated unhappiness that Hawthorne and his wife turned to each other, and he said, “I think that woman’s face will always haunt me.” I did not hear the beginning of Mrs. Hawthorne’s tale, but I always supposed that it related to “The Marble Faun,” and it would seem as if the character of Miriam was a composite of these two daughters of Israel, uniting the enigmatical quality of one with the unfortunate companionship of the other, and the beauty of both.

As previously noticed, the portrait of Beatrice Cenci excited a deeply penetrating interest in Hawthorne, and his reflections on it day after day would naturally lead him to a similar design in regard to the romance which he was contemplating. The attribution of a catastrophe like Beatrice’s to either of the two Jewesses, would of course be adventitious, and should be considered in the light of an artistic privilege.

The “Faun” of Praxiteles in the museum of the Capitol next attracted his attention. This is but a poor copy of the original; but he penetrated the motive of the sculptor with those deep-seeing eyes of his, and there is no analysis of an ancient statue by Brunn or Furtwängler that equals Hawthorne’s description of this one. It seems as if he must have looked backward across the centuries into the very mind of Praxiteles, and he was, in fact, the first critic to appreciate its high value. The perfect ease and simple beauty of the figure belong to a higher grade of art than the Apollo Belvedere, and Hawthorne discovered what Winckelmann had overlooked. He immediately conceived the idea of bringing the faun to life, and seeing how he would behave and comport himself in the modern world — in brief, to use the design of Praxiteles as the mainspring of a romance. In the evening of April 22, 1858, he wrote in his journal:


“I looked at the Faun of Praxiteles, and was sensible of a peculiar charm in it; a sylvan beauty and homeliness, friendly and wild at once. It seems to me that a story, with all sorts of fun and pathos in it, might be contrived on the idea of their species having become intermingled with the human race; a family with the faun blood in them, having prolonged itself from the classic era till our own days. The tail might have disappeared, by dint of constant intermarriages with ordinary mortals; but the pretty hairy ears should occasionally reappear in members of the family; and the moral instincts and intellectual characteristics of the faun might be most picturesquely brought out, without detriment to the human interest of the story.”

This statue served to concentrate the various speculative objects which had been hovering before Hawthorne’s imagination during the past winter, and when he reached Florence six weeks later, the chief details of the plot were already developed in his mind.

Hilda and Kenyon are, of course, subordinate characters, like the first walking lady and the first walking gentleman on the stage. They are the sympathetic friends who watch the progress of the drama, continually hoping to be of service, but still finding themselves powerless to prevent the catastrophe. It was perhaps their unselfish interest in their mutual friends that at length taught them to know each other’s worth, so that they finally became more than friends to one another. True love, to be firmly based, requires such a mutual interest or common ground on which the parties can meet — something in addition to the usual attraction of the sexes. Mrs. Hawthorne has been supposed by some to have been the original of Hilda; and by others her daughter Una.

Conway holds an exceptional opinion, that Hilda was the feminine counterpart of Hawthorne himself; but Hilda is only too transparent a character, while Hawthorne always was, and still remains, impenetrable; and there was enough of her father in Miss Una, to render the same objection applicable in her case. Hilda seems to me very much like Mrs. Hawthorne, as one may imagine her in her younger days; like her in her mental purity, her conscientiousness, her devotion to her art — which we trust afterwards was transformed into a devotion to her husband — her tendency to self-seclusion, her sensitiveness and her lack of decisive resolution. She is essentially what they call on the stage an ingenue character; that is, one that remains inexperienced in the midst of experience; and it is in this character that she contributes to the catastrophe of the drama.

If Hawthorne appears anywhere in his own fiction, it is not in “The Blithedale Romance,” but in the rôle of Kenyon. Although Kenyon’s profession is that of a sculptor, he is not to be confounded with the gay and versatile Story. Neither is he statuesque, as the English reviewer criticised him. He is rather a shadowy character, as Hawthorne himself was shadowy, and as an author always must be shadowy to his readers; but Kenyon is to Hawthorne what Prospero is to Shakespeare, and if he does not make use of magic arts, it is because they no longer serve their purpose in human affairs. He is a wise, all-seeing, sympathetic mind, and his active influence in the play is less conspicuous because it is always so quiet, and so correct.

It will be noticed that the first chapter and the last chapter of this romance have the same title: “Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon, Donatello.” This is according to their respective ages and sexes; but it is also the terms of a proportion — as Miriam is to Hilda, so is Kenyon to Donatello. As the experienced woman is to the inexperienced woman, so is the experienced man to the inexperienced man. This seems simple enough, but it has momentous consequences in the story. Donatello, who is a type of natural but untried virtue, falls in love with Miriam, not only for her beauty, but because she has acquired that worldly experience which he lacks. Hilda, suddenly aroused to a sense of her danger in the isolated life she is leading, accepts Kenyon as a protector. The means in this proportion come together and unite, because they are the mean terms, and pursue a medium course. The extremes fly apart and are separated, simply because they are extremes. But there is a spiritual bond between them, invisible, but stronger than steel, which will bring them together again — at the Day of Judgment, if not sooner.

All tragedy is an investigation or exemplification of that form of human error which we call sin; a catastrophe of nature or a simple error of judgment may be tragical, but will not constitute a tragedy without the moral or poetic element.

In “The Scarlet Letter,” we have the sin of concealment and its consequences. The first step toward reformation is confession, and without that, repentance is little more than a good intention.

In “The House of the Seven Gables,” Hawthorne has treated the sin of hypocrisy — a smiling politician who courts popularity and pretends to be everybody’s friend, and agrees with everybody — only with a slight reservation. There may be occasions on which hypocrisy is a virtue; but the habit of hypocrisy for personal ends is like a dry rot in the heart of man.

In “The Blithedale Romance,” we find the sin of moral affectation. Neither Hollingsworth nor Zenobia is really what they pretend themselves to be. Their morality is a hollow shell, and gives way to the first effective temptation. Zenobia betrays Priscilla; and is betrayed in turn by Hollingsworth — as well as the interests of the association which had been committed to his charge.

The kernel of “The Marble Faun” is original sin. It is a story of the fall of man, told again in the light of modern science. It is a wonderful coincidence that almost in the same months that Hawthorne was writing this romance, Charles Darwin was also finishing his work on the “Origin of Species;” for one is the moral counterpart of the other. Hawthorne did not read scientific and philosophical books, but he may have heard something of Darwin’s undertaking in England, as well as Napoleon’s prophetic statement at St. Helena, that all the animals form an ascending series, leading up to man. 120 The skeleton of a prehistoric man discovered in the Neanderthal cave, which was supposed to have proved the Darwinian theory, does not suggest a figure similar to the “Faun” of Praxiteles, but the followers of Darwin have frequently adverted to the Hellenic traditions of fauns and satyrs in support of their theory. Hawthorne, however, has made a long stride beyond Darwin, for he has endeavored to reconcile this view of creation with the Mosaic cosmogony; and it must be admitted that he has been fairly successful. The lesson that Hawthorne teaches is, that evil does not reside in error, but in neglecting to be instructed by our errors. It is this which makes the difference between a St. Paul and a Nero. The fall of man was only apparent; it was really a rise in life. The Garden of Eden prefigures the childhood of the human race. Do we not all go through this idyllic moral condition in childhood, learning through our errors that the only true happiness consists in self-control? Do not all judicious parents protect their children from a knowledge of the world’s wickedness, so long as it is possible to prevent it — and yet not too long, for then they would become unfitted for their struggle with the world, and in order to avoid the pitfalls of mature life they must know where the pitfalls are. It is no longer essential for the individual to pass through the Cain and Abel experience — that has been accomplished by the race as a whole; but it is quite possible to imagine an incipient condition of society in which the distinction of justifiable homicide in self-defence (which is really the justification of war between nations) has not yet obtained.

Hawthorne’s Donatello is supposed to belong, in theory at least, to that primitive era; but it is not necessary to go back further than the feudal period to look for a man who never has known a will above his own. Donatello seizes Miriam’s tormentor and casts him down the Tarpeian Rock — from the same instinct, or clairvoyant perception, that a hound springs at the throat of his master’s enemy. When the deed is done he recognizes that the punishment is out of all proportion to the offence — which is in itself the primary recognition of a penal code — and more especially that the judgment of man is against him. He realizes for the first time the fearful possibilities of his nature, and begins to reflect. He is a changed person; and if not changed for the better yet with a possibility of great improvement in the future. His act was at least an unselfish one, and it might serve as the argument for a debate, whether Donatello did not do society a service in ridding the earth of such a human monstrosity. Hawthorne has adjusted the moral balance of his case so nicely, that a single scruple would turn the scales.

The tradition among the Greeks and Romans, of a Golden Age, corresponds in a manner to the Garden of Eden of Semitic belief. There may be some truth in it. Captain Speke, while exploring the sources of the Nile, discovered in central Africa a negro tribe uncontaminated by European traders, and as innocent of guile as the antelopes upon their own plains; and this suggests to us that all families and races of men may have passed through the Donatello stage of existence.

Hawthorne’s master-stroke in the romance is his description or analysis of the effect produced by this homicide on the different members of the group to which he has introduced us. The experienced and worldly-wise Kenyon is not informed of the deed until his engagement to Hilda, but he has sufficient reason to suspect something of the kind from the simultaneous disappearance of Donatello and the model, as well as from the sudden change in Miriam’s behavior. Yet he does not treat Donatello with any lack of confidence. He visits him at his castle of Monte Beni, which is simply the Villa Manteuto somewhat idealized and removed into the recesses of the Apennines; he consoles him in his melancholy humor; tries to divert him from gloomy thoughts; and meanwhile watches with a keen eye and friendly solicitude for the denouement of this mysterious drama. If he had seen what Hilda saw, he would probably have left Rome as quickly as possible, never to return; and Donatello’s fate might have been different.

The effect on the sensitive and inexperienced Hilda was like a horrible nightmare. She cannot believe her senses, and yet she has to believe them. It seems to her as if the fiery pit has yawned between her and the rest of the human race. Her position is much like that of Hamlet, and the effect on her is somewhat similar. She thrusts Miriam from her with bitterness; yet forms no definite resolutions, and does she knows not what; until, overburdened by the consciousness of her fatal secret, she discloses the affair to an unknown priest in the church of St. Peter. Neither does she seem to be aware at any time of the serious consequences of this action.

Miriam, more experienced even than Kenyon, is not affected by the death of her tormentor so much directly as she is by its influence on Donatello. Hitherto she had been indifferently pleased by his admiration for her; now the tables are turned and she conceives the very strongest attachment for him. She follows him to his castle in disguise, dogs his footsteps on the excursion which he and Kenyon make together, shadows his presence again in Rome, and is with him at the moment of his arrest. This is all that we know of her from the time of her last unhappy interview with Hilda. Her crime consisted merely in a look — the expression of her eyes — and the whole world is free to her; but her heart is imprisoned in the same cell with Donatello. There is not a more powerful ethical effect in Dante or Sophocles.

A certain French writer 121 blames Hilda severely for her betrayal of Miriam (who was at least her best friend in Rome), and furthermore designates her as an immoral character. This, we may suppose, is intended for a hit at New England Puritanism; and from the French stand-point, it is not unfair. Hilda represents Puritanism in its weakness and in its strength. It is true, what Hamlet says, that “conscience makes cowards of us all,” but only true under conditions like those of Hamlet — desperate emergencies, which require exceptional expedients. On the contrary, in carrying out a great reform like the abolition of slavery, the education of the blind, or the foundation of national unity, a man’s conscience becomes a tower of strength to him. As already intimated, what Hilda ought to have done was, to leave Rome at once, and forever; but she is no more capable of forming such a resolution, than Hamlet was of organizing a conspiracy against his usurping uncle. When, however, the priest steps out from the confessional-box and attempts to make a convert of Hilda — for which indeed she has given him a fair opening — she asserts herself and her New England training, with true feminine dignity, and in fact has decidedly the best of the argument. It is a trying situation, in which she develops unexpected resources. Hawthorne’s genius never shone forth more brilliantly than in this scene at St. Peter’s. It is Shakespearian.

Much dissatisfaction was expressed when “The Marble Faun” was first published, at the general vagueness of its conclusion. Hawthorne’s admirers wished especially for some clearer explanation of Miriam’s earlier life, and of her relation to the strange apparition of the catacombs. He answered these interrogatories in a supplementary chapter which practically left the subject where it was before — an additional piece of mystification. In a letter to Henry Bright he admitted that he had no very definite scheme in his mind in regard to Miriam’s previous history, and this is probably the reason why his readers feel this vague sense of dissatisfaction with the plot. I have myself often tried to think out a prelude to the story, but without any definite result. Miriam’s persecuting model was evidently a husband who had been forced upon her by her parents, and would not that be sufficient to account for her moods of gloom and despondency? Yet Hawthorne repeatedly intimates that there was something more than this. Let us not think of it. If the tale was not framed in mystery, Donatello would not seem so real to us. Do not the characters in “Don Quixote” and “Wilhelm Meister” spring up as it were out of the ground? They come we know not whence, and they go we know not whither. It is with these that “The Marble Faun” should be classed and compared, and not with “Middle-march,” “Henry Esmond,” or “The Heart of Midlothian.”


Goethe said, while looking at the group of the “Laocoön,” “I think that young fellow on the right will escape the serpents.” This was not according to the story Virgil tells, but it is true to natural history. Similarly, it is pleasant to think that the Pope’s mercy may ultimately have been extended to Donatello. We can imagine an aged couple living a serious, retired life in the castle of Monte Beni, childless, and to a certain extent joyless, but taking comfort in their mutual affection, and in acts of kindness to their fellow-mortals.

In order to see Hilda’s tower in Rome, go straight down from the Spanish Steps to the Corso, turn to the right, and you will soon come to the Via Portoghese (on the opposite side), where you will easily recognize the tower on the right hand. The tower is five stories in height, set in the front of the palace, and would seem to be older than the building about it; the relic, perhaps, of some distinguished mediaeval structure. The odd little shrine to the Virgin, a toy-like affair, still surmounts it; but its lamp is no longer burning. It was fine imagination to place Hilda in this lofty abode.

113 Italian Note-book, 483.

114 J. Hawthorne, ii. 223.

115 Mrs. Lathrop, 35 a.

116 J. Hawthorne, ii. 250.

117 J. Hawthorne, ii. 249.

118 Ibid., ii. 244.

119 Mrs. Lathrop, 408.

120 Dr. O’Meara’s “A Voice from St. Helena.”

121 Name forgotten, but the fact is indelible.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38