The Marble Faun Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Throughout his writing career, Nathaniel Hawthorne was preoccupied with the theme of humanity’s fall into sin and mortality. Symbolic representations of Adam and the Garden of Eden underlie much of his best work. Hawthorne turns to this theme again in The Marble Faun, his last major romance; however, he deploys the idea less skillfully in this work than in some of his earlier stories. His usually subtle symbolic method here becomes a somewhat heavy-handed allegory, and the rather slight, simple story is weighted down with descriptions of Rome and Roman art. These descriptive passages—which Hawthorne frequently lifted with little alteration straight from his notebooks—have almost no organic relationship to the novel’s theme. While The Marble Faun may be considered one of Hawthorne’s weaker romances, however, both the faults and the virtues of the work, as in most of his writing, reveal his view of the world. The work features several of the character types on which Hawthorne drew most often and whose interactions he typically used to dramatize the themes that most preoccupied him.

The theme of the story, as the title indicates, centers most particularly on Donatello, the contemporary counterpart of the Faun of Praxiteles. For Hawthorne, Donatello’s faunlike qualities are associated with the innocence and animalistic nature of humans before the Fall brought the knowledge of sin and death. Donatello’s country estate is a counterpart to Eden and suggests a pagan and pre-Christian paradise, bypassed by time, in which primordial innocence has been retained. Though touching in its childlike qualities, Donatello’s innocence is not one of which Hawthorne can approve. Because it lacks the knowledge of sin that is part of humankind’s humanity, Hawthorne considers it subhuman and incapable of understanding the real nature of the world. Salvation is a direct result of sin, and therefore Donatello, existing outside the world of sin and death, is not a candidate for God’s greatest gift to humanity until...

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