Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Marble Faun,” (1860)

“Perhaps it is the very lack of moral severity, of any high and heroic ingredient in the character of the Faun, that makes it so delightful an object to the human eye and to the frailty of the human heart. That being, here represented, is endowed with no principle of virtue, and would be incapable of comprehending such. But he would be true and honest, by dint of his simplicity. . . . Only a sculptor of the finest imagination, the most delicate taste, the sweetest feeling, and the rarest 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.” (860–861)


Forgive the long introductory quote for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, the last of his works to appear in the two volume collection of his work that I have been working from these past three weeks. For a novel as stuck so deeply in the ancient past through symbols and allegories, the novel is surprisingly upbeat—even in its darkest moments and implications. It strikes me that it was a luxury for Hawthorne, writing about a mythical Italy to look on the Italian past with mirth—at least in the opening of the novel, and when the horrible turn comes it is a recent event. He looked at New England’s past with comparative horror. The pleasures of being a tourist in Italy is that she can look at the bloodstained walls of the Coliseum without feeling any historical burden. Or perhaps it is the deeper nature of Roman history, which allows Hawthorne and his characters a certain distance from the events of the past, lacking in the more condensed timeline of American history. “Each succeeding century, in Rome, has done its best to ruin the very ruins, so far as their picturesque effect is concerned, by stealing away their marble and hewn stone and leaving only yellow bricks, which never can look venerable.” (990)

The Marble Faun was Hawthorne’s final completed novel, coming after his time abroad first as an American Consul to Italy, appointed by long-time friend President Franklin Pierce, and later as a traveler to England, the Holy Land, and France. He would return to the United States around the time this novel was published and just before the Civil War broke out.


The story of The Marble Faun is a romance involving four young people living in Rome. An American sculptor Kenyon. A painter Miriam, who with a dubious past is the most familiar Hawthorne character. Hilda is also a painter but she makes her living as a copyist and starts the novel very innocently. Donatello is the Italian noble they befriended, who is strikingly familiar to the statue of the faun, as noticed by the group. Miriam and Donatello, one of the two romantic couplings in the book, are the most complex. Miriam’s past is opaque and Donatello has a fake innocence that is completely abolished when he commits the crime of murder in defense of Miriam from some stalker. This defining act takes place early in the novel, in chapter eighteen. The novel was released in England under the name The Transformation. It is referring to the change in Donatello after this act and to a lesser degree the change in the other characters.

Miriam is initially resolved to the act and quickly justifies it. She even compares themselves to the murders of Caesar. But a deep change comes nonetheless. “Their deed—the crime which Donatello wrought, and Miriam accepted on the instant—had wreathed itself, as she said, like a serpent, in inextricable links about both their souls, and drew them into one, by its terrible contractile power. It was closer than a marriage-bond.” (997) They are also unified into the broader community of criminals, something that Miriam also embraces.

The lively, pastoral setting quickly transforms into the darker narrative we have come to expect from Hawthorne. Hlida becomes more and more burdened by the crime as someone bound by friendship to keep it quiet. As the once-innocent Hilda points out: “Ah, now I understand how the sins of generations past have created an atmosphere of sin for those that follow! While there is a guilty person in the universe, each innocent one must feel his innocence tortured by that guilt. Your deed, Miriam, has darkened the whole sky!” (1028) The narrator follows on the same page “every crime destroys more Edens than our own.”

The humanistic sculptor Kenyon seems to be the most balanced in the aftermath. The rapidly maturing Donatello is asked by Kenyon to model his bust for him, which horrifies Donatello. In response Kenyon provides his philosophy on death. “What I am most inclined to murmur at, is this death’s head. I could laugh, moreover, in its ugly face! It is absurdly monstrous, my dear friend, thus to fling the dead weight of our mortality upon our immortal hopes. While we live on earth, ‘tis true, we must needs carry out skeletons about with us; but, for Heaven’s sake, do not let us burthen our spirits with them, in our feeble efforts to soar upward! Believe me, it will change the whole aspect of death, if you can once disconnect it, in your idea, with that corruption from which it disengaged out higher part.” (1064)

Thus we have a transformation of the soul brought on by sin, but also two possible answers. One is Kenyon’s rejection of moral burden. In a sense, we see The Scarlet Letter’s Pearl alive in this sentiment, although she was not so philosophical about it. Another is the more common for Hawthorne of brooding over sin, possibly for generations. We can imagine Donatello’s lineage carrying on the legacy of sin.

I rushed this work, largely in haste to get through with Hawthorne and moving on to other writers. So, I apologize for my haste. But let me take a moment to summarize some of my feelings about Hawthorne’s significance in the American libertarian tradition.

Hawthorne in 1865

Hawthorne in 1865

1. The horror of decrepitude run through much of his work. The living dead exist in many different forms: undead marriages, sins providing burdens for generations, cultural legacies, or just the rigid uncreatively of those who have traveled around the sun a few too many times.

2. The other side of the first point is Hawthorne’s continued optimism about childhood. If it is often missed by readers it may be because they have put up blinders to the creative, Promethean potential of youth. Children take a playground and create empires. Adults (even teenagers) turn them into places to eat stale lunches and smoke cigarettes. “Little Annie’s Ramble” remains one of my favorite his early stories and is one that everyone should read before they get too old of mind.

3. Hawthorne’s life bridged the time when the memory of the Puritan past in New England was strong, as was a New England identity, with the period of burgeoning industrial capitalism, the market revolution, and democratic politics. I perhaps did not emphasize this transformation as much as I could have.

4. Hawthorne was often in awe of the vernacular, the mobile, and the discontent. To the degree we want to write an anarchist history of the US (not a history of anarchism in the US), we need to focus, like Hawthorne, on these people.

5. Another thing I said only a little about was Hawthorne’s use of the supernatural. So many of his works are allegorical that they do not really work as horror or even the uncanny. Almost always the supernatural functions allegorically or symbolically. In The House of the Seven Gables it was a weapon of the weak. At other times it exposed the evils of tradition (“Young Goodman Brown”). Its use is non-consistent and rarely explained fully.

This is the end of an affair, and The Marble Faun was an obligatory final tryst. Sorry, Hawthorne, you were great and you knew one path to my heart but Melville was there first and no easily displaced. I may call you.