Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
To make his point about art and the artist, Hawthorne uses allegory. Each of the characters in the story represents an attitude or principle. Owen embodies the artistic quest. Robert Danforth, strong and earthy, is brute force. Peter Hovenden, who devotes his considerable skill to regulating the temporal world rather than changing it, stands for materialistic skepticism; Annie is the force of love. Each of these last three challenges and threatens Owen, and each is responsible for the destruction of the mechanism in the course of the story. Owen’s self-doubt also threatens his success, as indicated by his destroying the artifact after he learns of Annie’s engagement when, presumably, he questions the value of his enterprise if it costs him so dearly.
Owen’s device takes the form of a butterfly emerging from a black box, an allegory of the soul escaping, transcending, the body. Owen has worked to release his spirit from its prison, and he finally succeeds. Because the butterfly is only the physical manifestation of the concept, its fate, once the dream has been made real, cannot affect Owen, who remains free—and alone.
Nature, too, assumes an allegorical aspect. In the winter, symbol of the soul’s dark and unproductive period, Owen abandons his project. When spring returns, Owen’s creative spirit is renewed, indicated by the reappearance of butterflies in the fields. Owen’s struggles, his periods of doubt and achievement, are those of any artist who would create beauty. “The Artist of the Beautiful” demonstrates Hawthorne’s faith in the artistic principle and also his clear-sighted understanding of the struggles that the artist must endure.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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