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 Miriam, acting the part of an Eve figure, tempts him to murder. She thus becomes the instrument that brings about his fall into humanity. The irony of Hawthorne’s scheme is obvious, as the “fall” is in fact a rise from the subhuman condition. Hawthorne is a proponent of the idea of the “fortunate fall” that proves necessary for humans to achieve salvation. The price Donatello is called on to pay in guilt, suffering, and shame is no more than the price of his initiation into the human race, with its potential blessing of salvation.
The two women in The Marble Faun represent the two extremes of Hawthorne’s fictional women: Miriam, the mysterious, dark woman and Hilda, whose innocence and religious faith are everywhere manifest. Both become salvation figures, however, by becoming instruments for humanizing men. Miriam’s tempting of Donatello and her own ambiguous past, with its suggestions of sin and guilt, define her as an Eve figure who tempts the man to the sin that will humanize him. Hilda, described in almost unreal terms of innocence and virtue, is a different sort of salvation figure. She brings Kenyon out of his cold isolation by awakening his ability to love. Ironically, by giving Miriam multilayered complexity of character, Hawthorne makes her more interesting than Hilda, whom Hawthorne depicts as an incorruptible symbol of Christian goodness. It is clearly Hilda, however, who represents for Hawthorne the moral standard the novel is meant to affirm.
The character in the novel closest to Hawthorne himself is the sculptor, Kenyon. Hawthorne refers to him at one point as “a man of marble,” implying that such a description fits his moral nature as well as his profession....
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Like the light and dark women and the prelapsarian Adamic figure represented by Donatello, Kenyon is a recurrent type in Hawthorne’s work. For Hawthorne, the artist and the scientist by their very nature tend to isolate themselves from humanity and to become cold observers who, without emotion of their own, exploit the lives of others for their own ends. In his artist’s isolation, Kenyon suppresses what is human in himself for his art until he, in effect, loses his soul to it. Though his moral condition does not exactly parallel Donatello’s, Kenyon is equally outside the human community and he, too, needs salvation. Hilda saves Kenyon not through a dramatic temptation to sin but through awakening what is most human in his own heart.
While the flaws of The Marble Faun are obvious, the novel’s total effect is strengthened by the fact that the characters are among the most important of Hawthorne’s creations, and the dual themes of the “fortunate fall” and crime and punishment give the work an honored place within the long tradition of Western literature. Moreover, the novel’s setting in Rome anticipated the European novels of Henry James and the literary genre of the international novel that he popularized. For all these reasons, The Marble Faun is a significant work of American literature.