Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As in many of his works, Nathaniel Hawthorne here explores the artist’s life, which Hawthorne defines in true Romantic fashion. Owen takes nature as his model, devoting his summers to the careful observation of butterflies. His examination is not scientific; he does not dissect or analyze. Rather, he draws inspiration from the butterflies and seeks to comprehend their essential qualities.

This quest for understanding has no monetary or utilitarian value. Again showing himself a product of the Romantic era, Hawthorne stresses Owen’s desire for self-satisfaction. Owen rejects the practical: He has no interest in using his talents to regulate machinery, and the sight of a steam engine, that most useful of devices, makes him physically ill. His concern is with the spirit, chiefly his own. Hence, he feels no regret when the physical manifestation of his art is destroyed; all that matters is fulfilling his dream.

However, if Owen enjoys the success of the Romantic artist, he also suffers from the artist’s failure. To become an artist of the beautiful he must sever his ties with his fellow men. He cannot be bothered with customers, with would-be friends like Robert Danforth, even with love. He creates the artificial butterfly, but he loses Annie. Because Owen does not isolate himself for any evil purpose, Hawthorne does not condemn him as he does Ethan Brand (in the story of that title) and Chillingworth (The Scarlet Letter, 1850), who have also cut themselves off from humanity. Still, Owen pays a price for his victory, and Hawthorne leaves open the question of whether it is too high.