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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

The Marble Faun is a novel written by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book was published in 1860 and was Hawthorne's last major work before his untimely death four years later.

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On the surface, the plot of The Marble Faun can be viewed simplistically: American painter, Miriam, moves to Italy to mingle with other expat artists, but experiences a life-changing event. However, the novel explores the dramatic changes of the human psyche in the face of a traumatic event. A particularly interesting character study is Donatello, Miriam's Italian lover and the man who murders a "stranger" from Miriam's past.

In any other novel, the author might have just designated Donatello as a minor character. However, Hawthorne made him the most compelling out of all the characters in The Marble Faun. In the beginning of the narrative, Donatello is a stereotypical vain, happy-go-lucky hunk that Miriam fancies. After the murder, Hawthorne explores Donatello's background—from his childhood's innocent years to his transformation as a thoughtful adult.

In this regard, the novel is similar to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Hawthorne illustrates that all humans are complex through the character of Donatello. Hawthorne also inserts his own thoughts into the novel through the character of Kenyon, another American artist living within the expat community in Rome. He acts a guide to Donatello, but also expresses observations on the expat artist community.

Through Kenyon, Hawthorne opined that Americans who stay too long in a foreign country eventually become lost in an illusion of utopia. For instance, Hilda, a copyist from New England, becomes disillusioned with the artist community in Rome when she keeps Miriam and Donatello's murder a secret.

Like Donatello, Hilda goes through a transformation. The murder can be seen as the beginning of the tainting of paradise, like the moment Eve bit the apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Once their artist paradise in Rome was stained with blood, it was hard for the Americans to continue their illusion of a bohemian community.

In essence, Hawthorne seemed to have written the novel as a kind of warning to Americans who desire to move to another country or culture different from the ones they know.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668


*Rome. Italy’s capital city, in which the novel’s opening and closing chapters are set. These chapters feature extensive descriptions of the tourist attractions prominent during Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1858-1859 sojourn in Florence and Rome. As the center of both Western Christendom and an older pagan civilization, the locale helps to fuse together two of the major cultural elements of the novel. Roman history is deeply layered and provides the symbolic background against which to place the two Americans, who come from a New World culture that is thinner and less confident than that of Rome, but also one that is less encumbered by time and therefore freer of intellectual and emotional constraints.

*Capitol sculpture gallery

*Capitol sculpture gallery. Roman museum in which the novel opens with the two Americans and their two Italian friends exploring the collected art treasures. Among their discoveries is a marble faun that is believed to have been sculpted by the ancient Greek Praxiteles. The friends decide that the faun bears a striking resemblance to Donatello. With its ancient associations, the faun becomes the central symbol for the novel, one through which Hawthorne develops his clash of cultures and conflict among his characters.

*Roman catacombs

*Roman catacombs. Subterranean Roman burial and worship center of the early Christians that Miriam visits with her friends. There she encounters a mysterious figure who follows her throughout the early pages of the story. Symbolically, this figure suggests that she is dogged by her past, one intimately associated with both the pagan and Christian histories of Rome that distinguishes her from the American Hilda.

*Roman Colosseum

*Roman Colosseum. Arena that was the scene of ancient Rome’s greatest public entertainments—gladiatorial contests, Christian sacrifice, and other spectacles. Its history brings together the two leading cultural elements of the novel. There, pagan Rome tried to eradicate Christianity, which was threatening to replace classical culture.

*Tarpeian Rock

*Tarpeian Rock (tar-PEE-yahn). Located on the Capitoline Hill beside the Forum, the Tarpeian rock was the site from which traitors were hurled to their deaths during ancient times. There, separated from the others, Donatello, with the apparent consent of Miriam, pushes the mysterious stranger to his death. This act of murder sets the stage for the rest of the novel and symbolically replaces the enigmatic stranger with a concrete act of violence that eventually severs the ties among the four principal characters and frees the Americans from their thrall to the past.

Monte Beni

Monte Beni. Fictional ancestral home of Donatello in Tuscany, which Kenyon visits in order to sculpt a bust of its owner. There he learns of the history of Donatello’s family, now living on the faded memory of past glories.


*Perugia. Central Italian city standing on a hill overlooking the Tiber River north of Rome. On his return to Rome, Kenyon stops to see the celebrated frescos by the town’s native son, Perugino. There he meets Miriam and Donatello and in a memorable scene witnesses them kneeling before the statue of Pope Julius III in the central piazza to receive his blessing. This act of contrition sets the stage for Miriam’s fate at the end of the narrative.

*St. Peter’s Basilica

*St. Peter’s Basilica. Chief church of Roman Catholicism and principal building complex in Vatican City, which was part of Rome in Hawthorne’s time. While wandering among the splendors of St. Peter’s, Hilda, distraught by her knowledge of the murder, goes to confession even though she is not a Catholic, and for the first time admits her secret. Her sense of guilt over the murder and her waning attachment to Donatello is developed further in this scene.

*Appian Way

*Appian Way. One of the main thoroughfares of ancient Rome, the Appian Way is lined with the memorials to the dead. On a walk along the road, Kenyon happens on an excavation of a buried statue. With the introduction of this second ancient statue, Hawthorne stylistically brings his narrative full circle.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

Carton, Evan. The Marble Faun: Hawthorne’s Transformations. Boston: Twayne, 1992. Discusses biographical details that relate to The Marble Faun, indicates the importance of the admittedly flawed novel, and surveys the major literature that deals with the novel.

Herbert, T. Walter, Jr. “The Erotics of Purity: The Marble Faun and the Victorian Construction of Sexuality.” Representations 33 (Fall, 1991): 114-132. Reasons that purity is sometimes not admirable, as when Hilda arouses but frustrates Kenyon, is shocked by Miriam’s sensuality, and ignores the representative human being who is stained by knowledge.

Idol, John L. “‘A Linked Circle of Three’ Plus One: Nonverbal Communication in The Marble Faun.” Studies in the Novel 23 (April, 1991): 139-151. Analyzes the interactions among Hawthorne’s characters through body movements, facial expressions, and maintaining of physical distance. The author’s examples include Hilda’s avoidance of Miriam’s embrace, Miriam’s ocular order to Donatello to commit murder, and Kenyon’s sculpting Donatello’s sin-altered face.

Liebman, Sheldon W. “The Design of The Marble Faun.” New England Quarterly 40 (March, 1967): 61-78. Dismisses the conclusion of previous critics that the structural principle of The Marble Faun is the human “fall” and transformations. Describes the structural principle as residing in the carved sarcophagus, which is symbolic of everybody’s “dance, pilgrimage, and corpse.”

Stern, Milton R. Contexts for Hawthorne: “The Marble Faun” and the Politics of Openness and Closure in American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Analyzes Hawthorne’s pull toward closure (as seen in his classical conservativism, preference for past and present, and aesthetic control and unity) and his push toward openness (as reflected by his romanticism, revolutionary tendencies, repudiation of the past, and preference for future expansionism).

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Critical Essays