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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

The Marble Faun: Or, The Romance of Monte Beni is a novel by British author Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1860. The novel is set in Italy and focuses on four main characters: Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon (all American artists), and Donatello (an Italian man).

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The four main characters all have very different personalities and are each compared to various historical and fictional figures. Miriam, for instance, is supposed to be beautiful but mysterious. She is compared to women such as Eve and Cleopatra. Opposite Miriam is Hilda, an innocent woman compared to the Virgin Mary. The two women are often contrasted throughout the book.

Similarly, the two main male characters are often compared to famous figures. Donatello, who is the Count of Monte Beni (hence the second half of the book's title), is often compared to Adam. This comparison complements Miriam's comparison to Eve, as Donatello is in love with her. Kenyon, on the other hand, is incredibly rational and is compared to humanist thinkers.

The story follows these four unique characters throughout Rome, using the city's history and art as a backdrop for much of the plot. At the beginning of the book, Miriam is being stalked by a man from her past, and because of his love for her, Donatello murders him by pushing him off a cliff (something Miriam allows). This moment marks the start of a running theme throughout the rest of the book: guilt. Miriam and Donatello struggle with feelings of shame and guilt for their actions as their relationship with one another grows deeper. Similarly, a witness to the crime, Hilda, fights with deep shame and guilt for harboring the secret of what she saw. Kenyon, a friend of Donatello and a source of support during this time, secretly loves Hilda.

As the characters' feelings and relationships develop, they each come to understand human nature in a deeper and more profound way. By the end of the book, Donatello turns himself in for the murder, Miriam disappears, and Hilda and Kenyon marry and return to the United States.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

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 others go to the church, and there they find a mass for Miriam’s persecutor in progress. Later, when Miriam goes to see Hilda, Hilda tells her that their friendship is over. Donatello, too, has changed. He is no longer the unworried faun; he has become a person with a guilty conscience. He begins to avoid Miriam, even to hate her. He leaves Rome and goes back to his ancestral home. Kenyon visits him there, but Hilda stays in Rome by herself, lonely and distraught.

At Donatello’s country home, Kenyon learns the local legend about his friend’s family—that Donatello is, in fact, reputed to be descended from a race of fauns who inhabited the countryside in remote times. He learns, too, of Donatello’s feelings of guilt but, unaware of the murder, does not know the reason for Donatello’s changed spirit. When Miriam tries to see Donatello at his home, he will not see her. Kenyon tells her that Donatello still loves her, and she agrees to meet both of them later on. When they meet in the city square, Miriam stands quietly, waiting for Donatello to speak. When at last he speaks her name, she goes to him and they are united once more, but their union continues to be haunted by their sin.

Hilda has in the meantime delivered the packet that Miriam earlier left in her keeping. The address was that of a person high in the affairs of the government. After Kenyon returns to Rome, he looks for Hilda everywhere. He has come to realize that he is in love with her, and he is worried about her disappearance. During the carnival season, he meets Donatello and Miriam, and finally, on the day the carnival is at its height and the streets are filled with a merrymaking throng, he sees Hilda again. She tells him that her knowledge of the crime had weighed so heavily on her that at last she had gone to confession and poured out the tale to a listening priest. When she delivered the packet, as Miriam had requested, she was detained in a convent until the authorities were satisfied that she had taken no part in the murder on the Tarpeian Rock. She has just been released from her captivity. While they stand talking, there is a commotion in the crowd nearby; the police have seized Donatello and are taking him to jail.

Donatello is tried and sentenced to prison for the murder, but Miriam is not brought to trial, because her only crime was the look in her eyes telling Donatello to murder her persecutor. Miriam’s history, however, is finally revealed. Although she herself was innocent, her family had been involved in a crime that had made the family name infamous. She had traveled to Rome in an attempt to escape the past, but evil had continued to haunt her; the past had reappeared in the form of the persecutor, who had threatened to make her identity known to the world.

After Kenyon and Hilda are married, they see Miriam once more, kneeling in the Pantheon before the tomb of Raphael. As they pass, she stretches out her hands to them in a gesture that both blesses and repulses them. They leave her to her expiation and her grief.

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