The Marble Faun Summary
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Marble Faun Summary

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).

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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s final novel, examines two of the problems that interested its author late in his career: the complications of living abroad and the possible benefits of human suffering. Considered by some to be less successful than his earlier works, the novel nevertheless offers a unique picture of the effects of a foreign culture upon American lives and values.

The story follows the movements of a group of artists living in Rome in the 1850’s. Miriam, a beautiful painter with a mysterious background, is haunted by a strange man from her past. In a moment of passion she allows Donatello, her Italian suitor, to murder the stranger by throwing him from the cliff once known as the Traitor’s Leap. From this point Hawthorne’s interest in the ability of guilt to bring about changes in identity guides the novel. Donatello, happy but shallow before the murder, soon develops a more profound understanding of human nature through the sympathy created by his feelings of remorse. His relationship with Miriam also deepens, though his shame at their mutual secret soon drives him into isolation at his family home in Tuscany. There Donatello finds himself unable to appreciate the natural beauty he loved as a boy. Having gained wisdom and experience, he has lost his youth and innocence. Donatello is guided through this difficult period by Kenyon, an American sculptor who acts as observer and partial spokesman for Hawthorne. Not only does Kenyon express many of his creator’s ideas about Italian art and architecture but also he speculates about the effects of Italian life and culture on uprooted New Englanders such as Hilda, a young copyist he secretly loves. The depth of history, the power of Catholicism, and the overwhelming beauty of European art all pose threats to their Puritan heritage. Furthermore, Hilda, as a witness to the murder committed by Donatello and Miriam, faces the additional difficulty of keeping the crime a...

(The entire section is 1,780 words.)