Home             Criticism                 Plot  Quiz                 Bibliography                Links
divider.gif (1693 bytes)


 

Brief Historical Background:   In 1860 Rome was occupied by Napoleon III's troops and was ruled under the tyrannical government of Pius IX.  Pius IX reacted in a dictatorial manner to the short republic of 1849-50, which was led by Mazzini and Garabaldi.  This happened around the time Margaret Fuller ran a hospital for revolutionaries. 

Bobbs-Merrill (1971) comment on the social and political landscape in Italy around the the time Hawthorne wrote The Marble Faun.   "Of direct relevance to The Marble Faun was the system of papal justice. Trials were held secretly and usually conducted in Latin by the clergy; the accused was held incommunicado and sometimes languished for years between his arrest and his trial; no cross-examination by defense counsel was allowed; there was no court of appeal; and the accused was punished secretly. Publication of the trial proceedings days or weeks after the execution of sentence took the form of long strips of paper pasted on walls and billboards in out-of-the-way corners of the city. Thus the mysterious disappearance of Hilda and Donatello at the end of the book is not a bit of gratuitous mystification on Hawthorne's part, but standard legal procedure."
--from the introduction by Richars H. Rupp to the Bobbs-Merrill edition, 1971

The Hawthornes spent a few years in Italy, mainly in Rome.   For the most part, it was a pleasing and illuminating time for Hawthorne and his family. The associations with American residents were stimulating.  The serious illness of their daughter, Una, proved difficult during the last few months of their stay in Rome, yet there Hawthorne collected the material for what became his last and most popular romance. During a summer in Florence, the family occupied a romantic villa "with a moss-grown tower" which had the reputation of being haunted. "I mean to take it away bodily and clap it into a romance which I have in my head," Hawthorne wrote in his notebooks.  In the spring of 1859, the Hawthornes returned to England, where the new romance was completed. It was published in England in the early part of 1860, under the title Transformation, and simultaneously in America as The Marble Faun. The Hawthornes then came home.

Roman policeman
Roman policeman
Appeared in eariler editions
of The Marble Faun.

Confounding Imiages, 1997
University of Penn Press

Hilda's Tower
"Hilda's Tower" in Via Portoghese.
Appeared in eariler editions
of The Marble Faun.

Confounding Imiages, 1997
University of Penn Press

 

Plot Summary:  Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun is one of his finer works.  The book combines an intricate, murder-mystery plot with a romantic setting.  Rather than having a single protagonist and antagonist, Hawthorne creates four characters, each receiving equal attention.  These four characters are also artists.  The Marble Faun tells about three Americans encountering evil in Rome, Italy.  The tone of this novel has an air of "Victorian moralism."

The Marble Faun is also much concerned with Italian art, at least with sculpture; this fact and also the circumstance that historic spots are picturesquely described, have made something of a glorified guide-book of the romance.  This story is also a psychological one; thus, it deals with the development of a soul under the influence of a committed sin.   Hawthorne also uses numerous representations of the characters as inanimate objects to convey their psychological progress.  The wonderful wine at the Monte Beni vineyards is described as the best wine in Italy.   When it is taken out of the castle, however, it rapidly loses it’s flavor. The same may be said of Donatello, the castle’s master.  A fountain of a nymph, and the story that accompanies it, represents Miriam’s forcing of her problem upon the pure Hilda.  Even the vineyards suggest the life of the four friends. As Kenyon is looking out over the fields, he suddenly sees rain, sun, and clouds.

The Marble Faun is a complex and excellent work of literature. Despite its length and slight difficulty reading, it holds the reader in suspense. It has a simple plot on the surface: three young American artists and one younger Italian Count, Donatello, meet in Rome.  Miriam, the painter, seems to represent hidden evil, although she wishes she were as pure as her friend Hilda. Miriam's past is mysterious.  In Rome's artistic world, she lived without revealing anything about herself and without arousing the curiosity or suspicion of those living around her.  With Hilda, the New England girl, and Kenyon, a sculptor, Miriam enjoyed a friendship which even her mysterious origin did not shadow.  Donatello, the Count of Monte Beni whose youthful resemblance to the sculptured faun of Praxiteles suggests that he himself is half human.  His free and apparently irresponsible nature confirm the suspicion.  Donatello is soon darkened in Rome, partly due to his love interest in Miriam.  He eventually acquires a burden he must carry the rest of his life.  Kenyon, the sculptor, seems to be the only character not burdened by some character flaw.  He is plain and kind, but not pure. Kenyon desires Hilda’s hand, although he fears he will never achieve her love.  Last of all is the pure, sweet, angel Hilda.  She is devoutly religious, and of New England Puritan ancestry.  Her naive innocence causes her difficulty.  Not until she is witness to Miriam and Donatello’s act, does she seek guidance in the Catholic confessional. 
While in Italy, Donatello becomes smitten with Miriam and falls in love with her. Miriam, however, has a horrible past, a dark shadow. One evening a stalker approaches her and Donatello attacks him, knocking him into a chasm.   Through commiting a serious crime, the soul of Donatello appears to be awakened, and we infer that his humanity begins in the self-revelation which follows his sin. Donatello, once the young, bubbly faun, is transformed into a lethargic and depressed adult.  Hilda witnesses this crime, and her pure soul becomes darkened too.  The rest of the novel concentrates on the return to the reality of consequences as the Donatello and Miriam struggle with what they've done and how Kenyon and Hilda deal with the aftermath. Colosseom
Pantheon Donatello disappears and Kenyon has to find him and help him achieve redemption. The Marble Faun manifests itself when Hilda helps the church/state monolith apprehend Miriam and Donatello.  Kenyon and Hilda are young friends, although Kenyon desires more. In an earlier section, he “steals” a cast of Hilda’s hand by looking at it.   Kenyon finally wins the love of Hilda.  Donatello and Miriam leave together to suffer in their misery.  But it is Hilda and Kenyon who inevitably become the book's hero and heroine, despite Miriam's deeper complexity and enticing allure.  What then happens to Miriam is as mysterious and beguiling as the character herself.   Even the tragic fall of Donatello fails to match dramtically the events of Hilda and Kenyon.  Finally, after the narrative is over, the afterword provides an update from Kenyon and Hilda to the reader.

Home             Criticism                 Plot  Quiz                 Bibliography                Links