Study Guide

The Marble Faun

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Marble Faun Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s final novel, examines two of the problems that interested its author late in his career: the complications of living abroad and the possible benefits of human suffering. Considered by some to be less successful than his earlier works, the novel nevertheless offers a unique picture of the effects of a foreign culture upon American lives and values.

The story follows the movements of a group of artists living in Rome in the 1850’s. Miriam, a beautiful painter with a mysterious background, is haunted by a strange man from her past. In a moment of passion she allows Donatello, her Italian suitor, to murder the stranger by throwing him from the cliff once known as the Traitor’s Leap. From this point Hawthorne’s interest in the ability of guilt to bring about changes in identity guides the novel. Donatello, happy but shallow before the murder, soon develops a more profound understanding of human nature through the sympathy created by his feelings of remorse. His relationship with Miriam also deepens, though his shame at their mutual secret soon drives him into isolation at his family home in Tuscany. There Donatello finds himself unable to appreciate the natural beauty he loved as a boy. Having gained wisdom and experience, he has lost his youth and innocence. Donatello is guided through this difficult period by Kenyon, an American sculptor who acts as observer and partial spokesman for Hawthorne. Not only...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

The Marble Faun Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nothing at all is known about Miriam. In the artistic world of Rome, she lives without revealing anything about herself and without arousing the curiosity or suspicion of those living around her. She enjoys friendships with Hilda, a young woman from New England, and Kenyon, a sculptor, that her mysterious origin does not shadow, so complete is their understanding and trust of one another.

One day, the three friends, accompanied by Donatello, a young Italian, see the statue known as the Faun by Praxiteles. Struck by Donatello’s resemblance to the statue, they ask jokingly to see whether the Italian also has pointed ears under his golden locks. Indeed, Donatello is very much like a faun in his character. He has great agility, cheerfulness, and a sunny nature unclouded by melancholy or care. He is deeply in love with Miriam.

On another occasion, the friends go to visit the catacombs. While there, Miriam disappears for a moment and then returns with a strange man whom she has met inside one of the tombs. After that, the man follows Miriam wherever she goes. No one knows anything about him. He and Miriam have conversations together, and he speaks of the hold he has on her and of their life together in a mysterious past. Miriam becomes more and more unhappy. She tells Donatello, who is ever ready to defend her, that he should go away before she brings doom and destruction down on him. Donatello stays, however.

One day, Miriam visits Hilda and leaves a packet with her that Hilda is to deliver on a certain date to the address written on the packet. Shortly afterward, the friends go out one night and climb the Tarpeian Rock, over which the old Romans used to throw criminals. As they are getting ready to return home, Miriam’s persecutor appears. Miriam goes with him, followed by Donatello, who attacks the man. Grasping the tormentor securely, Donatello looks at Miriam. Her eyes give him his answer, and he throws the man off a cliff to his death.

United by their crime, Miriam and Donatello also become united in love. They do not know, however, that Hilda has witnessed the murder and is suffering because of it. They have all agreed to visit the Church of the Capuchins the following afternoon to see a painting that supposedly bears a resemblance to Miriam’s tormentor, but Hilda does not keep the appointment. The...

(The entire section is 961 words.)