Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5541
Central to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romances is his idea of a “neutral territory,” described in the Custom House sketch that precedes The Scarlet Letter as a place“somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” A romance, according to Hawthorne, is different from the novel, which maintains a “minute fidelityto the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.” In the neutral territory of romance, however, the author may make use of the “marvellous” to heighten atmospheric effects, if he or she also presents “the truth of the human heart.” As long as the writer of romance creates characters whose virtues, vices, and sensibilities are distinctly human, he or she may place them in an environment that is out of the ordinary—or that is, in fact, allegorical. Thus, for example, while certain elements—the stigma of the scarlet letter, or Donatello’s faun ears—are fantastical in conception, they represent a moral stance that is true to nature. Dimmesdale’s guilt at concealing his adultery with Hester Prynne is, indeed, as destructive as the wound on his breast, and Donatello’s pagan nature is expressed in the shape of his ears.
A number of recurring thematic patterns and character types appear in Hawthorne’s novels and tales, as Randall Stewart suggests in the introduction to The American Notebooks (1932). These repetitions show Hawthorne’s emphasis on the effects of events on the human heart rather than on the events themselves. One common motif is concern for the past, or, as Hawthorne says in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, his “attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” Hawthorne’s interest in the Puritan past was perhaps sparked by his “discovery,” as a teenager, of his Hathorne connections; it was certainly influenced by his belief that progress was impeded by inheritance, that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, andbecomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” For Hawthorne, then, the past must be reckoned with, and then put aside; the eventual decay of aristocratic families is not only inevitable, but desirable.
Hawthorne’s understanding of tradition is illustrated in many of his works. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, he explores the effect of traditional Puritan social and theological expectations on three kinds of sinners: the adultress (Hester), the hypocrite (Dimmesdale), and the avenger (Chillingworth), only to demonstrate that the punishment they inflict on themselves far outweighs the public castigation. Hester, in fact, inverts the rigidified Puritan system, represented by the scarlet letter, whose meaning she changes from “adultress” to “able.” Probably the most specific treatment of the theme, however, is found in The House of the Seven Gables, in which the Pyncheon family house and fortune have imprisoned both Hepzibah and Clifford, one in apathy and one in insanity; only Phoebe, the country cousin who cares little for wealth, can lighten the burden, for not only her relatives but also Holgrave, a descendant of the Maules who invoked the original curse. In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne goes to Italy for his “sense of the past,” although Hilda and Kenyon are both Americans. The past in this novel is represented not only in the setting but also in Donatello’s pagan nature; at the end, both Miriam and the faun figure engage in a purgatorial expiation of the past.
Another recurring theme is that of isolation. Certainly Hawthorne himself felt distanced from normal social converse by his authorial calling. The firsthand descriptions of Hawthorne extant today present him more as an observer than as a participant, a stance over which he himself agonized. In writing to Longfellow about his apprenticeship years, he complained that he was “carried apart from the main current of life” and that “there is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in either its joys or sorrows. For the last ten years, I have not lived, but only dreamed about living.” For Hawthorne, Sophia was his salvation, his link to human companionship. Perhaps that is why he wrote so evocatively of Hester Prynne’s isolation; indeed, Hester’s difficult task of rearing the elfin child Pearl without help from Dimmesdale is the obverse of Hawthorne’s own happy domestic situation. Almost every character that Hawthorne created experiences some sense of isolation, sometimes from a consciousness of sin, sometimes from innocence itself, or sometimes from a deliberate attempt to remain aloof.
According to Hawthorne, this kind of isolation, most intense when it is self-imposed, frequently comes from a consciousness of sin or from what he calls the “violation of the sanctity of the human heart.” For Hawthorne, the “unpardonable sin” is just such a violation, in which one individual becomes subjected to another’s intellectual or scientific (rather than emotional) interest. Chillingworth is a good example; as Hester’s unacknowledged husband, he lives with Dimmesdale, deliberately intensifying the minister’s hidden guilt. In The Blithedale Romance, Coverdale’s voyeurism (and certainly his name) suggests this kind of violation, as does Westervelt’s manipulation of Priscilla and Hollingsworth’s of Zenobia. Certainly, Clifford’s isolation in insanity is the fault of Judge Pyncheon. There is also the implication that the mysterious model who haunts Miriam in The Marble Faun has committed the same sin, thereby isolating both of them. One of the few characters to refuse such violation is Holgrave, who, in The House of the Seven Gables, forbears to use his mesmeric powers on Phoebe.
Such a set of recurring themes is bolstered by a pervasive character typology. While literary works such as those by Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Shakespeare, and John Bunyan form the historical context for many of Hawthorne’s characters, many are further developments of his own early character types. Fanshawe, for example, introduced the pale, idealistic scholarly hero more fully developed in Dimmesdale. Others, personifications of abstract qualities, seem motivated by purely evil ends. Westervelt is one type; sophisticated and learned in mesmerism, he takes as his victim the innocent Priscilla. Chillingworth, whose literary ancestry can probably be traced to Miltonic devil figures, is old and bent but possesses a compelling intellect that belies his lack of physical strength. Finally, the worldly Judge Pyncheon manifests a practical, unimaginative streak that connects him to Peter Hovenden of Hawthorne’s short story “The Artist of the Beautiful.” As for Hawthorne’s heroines, Hilda and Phoebe embody the domesticity that Hawthorne admired in Sophia; Priscilla, like Alice Pyncheon before her, is frail and easily subjugated; and Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam exhibit an oriental beauty and intellectual pride.
Three years after Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College, he anonymously published the apprenticeship novel Fanshawe at his own expense. While he almost immediately repudiated the work, it remains not only a revealing biographical statement but also a testing ground for themes and characters that he later developed with great success.
“No man can be a poet and a bookkeeper at the same time,” Hawthorne complained in a letter he wrote while engaged in his Uncle Robert’s stagecoach business before college. Just such a dichotomy is illustrated in Fanshawe, in which the pale scholar fails to rejoin the course of ordinary life and, in effect, consigns himself to death, while the active individual, Edward Walcott, wins the heroine, Ellen Langton, and so becomes, to use Hawthorne’s later words, part of “The magnetic chain of humanity.” To be sure, Fanshawe is an overdrawn figure, owing, as Arlin Turner points out, something to Gorham Deane, a Bowdoin schoolmate, and much to Charles Robert Maturin’s gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), from which Ellen’s guardian, Dr. Melmoth, takes his name. In repudiating the book, however, Hawthorne is less repudiating the gothic form than he is an early, faulty conception of a writer’s life. Certainly, Hawthorne recognized the tension between the intellectual and the practical lives, as his letters and journals suggest, especially when he was at the Boston and Salem Custom Houses and at the consulate in Liverpool.
Moreover, as Frederick Crews notes, Fanshawe and Walcott are “complementary sides,” together fulfilling Hawthorne’s twin desire for “self-abnegation” and “heroism and amorous success.” Nevertheless, as the pattern of his own life makes clear, Hawthorne did not retire (as did Fanshawe) to an early grave after the solitary apprenticeship years; rather, he married Sophia Peabody (fictionally prefigured in Ellen Langton) and, in becoming involved in the ordinary affairs of life, merged the figures of Fanshawe and Walcott.
The plot of the novel—the abduction of Ellen by the villainous Butler—introduces Hawthorne’s later exploration of the misuse of power, while the configuration of characters foreshadows not only the scholar figure but also two other types: the dark villain, whose sexual motivation remains ambiguous, and the innocent, domestic young heroine, later developed as Phoebe and Hilda. That Fanshawe should rescue Ellen, appearing like Milton’s Raphael over the thickly wooded valley where Butler has secluded her, suggests that he is able to enter the world of action; but that he should refuse her offer of marriage, saying, “I have no way to prove that I deserve your generosity, but by refusing to take advantage of it,” is uncharacteristic in comparison with Hawthorne’s later heroes such as Holgrave and Kenyon. It may be that after his marriage to Sophia, Hawthorne could not conceive of a triangle existing when two “soul mates” had found each other, for in similar character configurations in The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun, both Holgrave and Kenyon have no rivals to fear for Phoebe and Hilda.
In setting, however, Fanshawe is a precursor to the later novels, as well as an unformulated precedent for Hawthorne’s famous definition of romance. Probably begun while Hawthorne was enrolled at Bowdoin, the novel has as its setting Harley College, a picturesque, secluded institution. Formal classroom tutoring is not the novel’s central interest, however, just as it was not in Hawthorne’s own life; nor is the novel completely aroman à clef in which actual people and places are thinly disguised. Rather, as is the case in the later novels in which Salem itself, Brook Farm, and Rome are the existing actualities on which Hawthorne draws, so in Fanshawe the setting is an excuse for the psychological action. To be sure, the later, sophisticated, symbolic effects are missing, and the interpenetration of the actual by the imaginary is not as successful as in, for instance, The Scarlet Letter. Nevertheless, although what later becomes marvelous is here simply melodramatic, the imagination plays a large, if unformulated, role in the novel’s success.
The Scarlet Letter
Begun as a tale and completed shortly after Hawthorne’s dismissal from the Salem surveyorship, The Scarlet Letter is prefaced by an essay titled “The Custom House” in which Hawthorne not only gives an imaginative account of his business experience but also presents a theory of composition. The essay is thus a distillation of the practical and the imaginative. It includes scant praise for the unimaginative William Lee, the antediluvian permanent inspector whose commonplace attitude typified for Hawthorne the customs operation. In writing, however, Hawthorne exorcised his spleen at his political dismissal, which, coupled with charges of malfeasance, was instigated by the Whigs who wanted him replaced; as Arlin Turner comments, “The decapitated surveyor, in becoming a character in a semifictional account, had all but ceased to be Hawthorne.” The writer, in short, had made fiction out of his business experiences. He also had speculated about the preconceptions necessary for the creator of romances; such a man, he decided, must be able to perceive the “neutral territory” where the “actual” and the “imaginary” meet. The result of that perception was The Scarlet Letter.
In the prefatory essay to the book, Hawthorne establishes the literalism of the scarlet letter, which, he says, he has in his possession as an old, faded, tattered remnant of the past. Just as Hawthorne is said by Terence Martin to contemplate the letter, thus generating the novel, so the reader is forced to direct his or her attention to the primary symbol, not simply of Hester’s adultery or of her ability, but of the way in which the restrictions of the Puritan forebears are transcended by the warmth of the human heart. Through this symbol, then, and through its living counterpart, Pearl, the daughter of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne examines the isolating effects of a sense of sin, using as his psychological setting the Puritan ethos.
With Hester’s first public appearance with the infant Pearl and the heavily embroidered scarlet letter on her breast, the child—Hester’s “torment” and her “joy”—and the letter become identified. Hester’s guilt is a public one; Dimmesdale’s is not. To admit to his share in the adultery is to relinquish his standing as the minister of the community, and so, initially too weak to commit himself, he pleads with Hester to confess her partner in the sin. She does not do so, nor does she admit that Chillingworth, the doctor who pursues Dimmesdale, is her husband. Three solitary people, then, are inexorably bound together by the results of the sin but are unable to communicate with one another.
The Puritan intention of bringing the sinner into submission has the opposite effect upon Hester, who, with a pride akin to humility, tenaciously makes a way for herself in the community. As an angel of mercy to the suffering, the sick, and the heavy of heart, she becomes a living model of charity that the townspeople, rigidly enmeshed in their Puritan theology, are unable to emulate. In addition, she exercises a talent for fine embroidery, so that even the bride has her clothing embellished with the sinner’s finery. Hester’s ostracization hardens her pride until, as she says to Dimmesdale in the forest, their act has a “consecration of its own.” The adultery, in short, achieves a validation quite outside the letter of the Puritan law, and Hester finds no reason not to suggest that Dimmesdale run away with her in a repetition of the temptation and the original sin.
In the meantime, Dimmesdale has not had the relief of Hester’s public confession. As veiled confessions, his sermons take on an ever growing intensity and apparent sincerity, gaining many converts to the church. Under Chillingworth’s scrutiny, however, Dimmesdale’s concealed guilt creates a physical manifestation, a scarlet letter inscribed in his flesh. While Hester’s letter has yet to work its way inward to repentance, Dimmesdale’s is slowly working its way outward. Chillingworth himself, initially a scholar, becomes dedicated to the cause of intensifying the minister’s sufferings. Although Chillingworth eventually takes partial responsibility for Hester’s sin, admitting that as a scholarly recluse he should not have taken a young wife, he inexorably causes his own spiritual death. He joins a line of scientist-experimenters who deprive their victims of intellectual curiosity, violating “the truth of the human heart” and severing themselves from “the magnetic chain of humanity.” He becomes, as Harry Levin notes, the lowest in the hierarchy of sinners, for while Hester and Dimmesdale have at least joined in passion, Chillingworth is isolated in pride.
As Terence Martin suggests, the scaffold scenes are central to the work. For Dimmesdale, public abnegation is the key: Standing as a penitent on the scaffold at midnight is insufficient, for his act is illuminated only by the light of a great comet. His decision to elope with Hester is also insufficient to remove his guilt; what he considers to be the beginning of a “new life” is a reenactment of the original deed. In the end, the scaffold proves the only real escape from the torments devised by Chillingworth, for in facing the community with Hester and Pearl, the minister faces himself and removes the concealment that is a great part of his guilt. His “new life” is, in fact, death, and he offers no hope to Hester that they will meet again, for to do so would be to succumb to temptation again. Only Pearl, who marries a lord, leaves the community permanently; as the innocent victim, she in effect returns to her mother’s home to expiate her mother’s sin.
Like Fanshawe, then, Dimmesdale causes his own demise, but he is provided with motivation. In Pearl, Hawthorne was influenced perhaps by the antics of Una, his first child, but even her name, which is reminiscent of the medieval Pearl-Poet’s “pearl of great price”—his soul—indicates that she is emblematic. Likewise, the minister’s name is indicative of the valley of the shadow of death, just as Chillingworth’s suggests his cold nature. The successful meshing of the literal and allegorical levels in this tale of the effects of concealed sin and the universality of its theme continue to lend interest to the work.
The House of the Seven Gables
As Hawthorne notes in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, he intends to show the mischief that the past causes when it lives into the present, particularly when coupled with the question of an inheritance. Hawthorne’s mood is similar to that of Henry David Thoreau when, in Walden (1854), he makes his famous plea to “simplify,” evoking the image of Everyman traveling on the road of life, carrying his onerous possessions on his back. The family curse that haunts Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, the hidden property deed, and even Hepzibah’s dreams of an unexpected inheritance are so centered on the past that the characters are unable to function in the present. In fact, says Hawthorne, far more worrisome than the missing inheritance is the “moral disease” that is passed from one generation to the next.
This “moral disease” results from the greed of the family progenitor, Colonel Pyncheon, who coveted the small tract of land owned by one Matthew Maule. Maule’s curse—“God will give him blood to drink”—comes true on the day the new Pyncheon mansion, built on the site of Maule’s hut, is to be consecrated. The Colonel dies, presumably from apoplexy but possibly from foul play, and from that day, Hawthorne says, a throwback to the Colonel appears in each generation—a calculating, practical man, who, as the inheritor, commits again “the great guilt of his ancestor” in not making restoration to the Maule descendants. Clifford, falsely imprisoned for the murder of his uncle, Jaffrey Pyncheon, the one Pyncheon willing to make restitution, is persecuted after his release by Judge Pyncheon, another of Jaffrey’s nephews and Jaffrey’s real murderer, for his presumed knowledge of the hiding place of the Indian deed giving title to their uncle’s property.
In contrast to these forces from the past, Hawthorne poses Phoebe, a Pyncheon country cousin with no pretensions to wealth but with a large fund of domesticity and a warm heart. Almost certainly modeled on Sophia, Phoebe, like Hilda in The Marble Faun, possesses an unexpected power, a “homely witchcraft.” Symbolically, as Crews suggests, she neutralizes the morbidity in the Pyncheon household and eventually stands as an “ideal parent” to Hepzibah and Clifford. Indeed, Phoebe brings her enfeebled relatives into the circle of humanity.
If Phoebe represents the living present, Holgrave, the daguerreotypist and descendant of the Maules, represents the future. Like Clifford, however, who is saved by his imprisonment from an aesthetic version of the unpardonable sin, Holgrave runs the risk of becoming merely a cold-blooded observer. Like Hawthorne, Holgrave is a writer, boarding at the House of the Seven Gables to observe the drama created as the past spills into the present and turning Pyncheon history into fiction. He is, nevertheless, a reformer. In an echo of Hawthorne’s preface, he would have buildings made of impermanent materials, ready to be built anew with each generation; likewise, he would merge old family lines into the stream of humanity. While Holgrave’s progressive views become mitigated once he marries Phoebe, he is rescued from becoming a Chillingworth by his integrity, his conscience, and his reverence for the human soul. Although he unintentionally hypnotizes Phoebe by reading her his story of Matthew Maule’s mesmerism of Alice Pyncheon, he eschews his power, thereby not only saving himself and her from a Dimmesdale/Chillingworth relationship but also breaking the chain of vengeance that was in his power to perpetuate. The chain of past circumstances is also broken by the death of Judge Pyncheon, who, unlike Holgrave, intended to exercise his psychological power to force Clifford to reveal where the Indian deed is hidden. Stricken by apoplexy (or Maule’s curse), however, the Judge is left in solitary possession of the house as Clifford and Hepzibah flee in fear.
Holgrave’s integrity and death itself thus prevent a reenactment of the original drama of power and subjection that initiated the curse. As Holgrave learns, the Judge himself murdered his bachelor uncle and destroyed a will that gave the inheritance to Clifford. Although exonerated, Clifford’s intellect cannot be recalled to its former state, and so he remains a testimonial to the adverse effects of “violation of the human heart.”
During Hepzibah and Clifford’s flight from the scene of the Judge’s death, Phoebe, representing the present, and Holgrave, the future, pledge their troth, joining the Pyncheon and Maule families. Hawthorne’s happy ending, although deliberately prepared, surprised many of his critics, who objected that Holgrave’s decision to “plant” a family and to build a stone house were motivated only by the dictates of the plot. F. D. Matthiessen, for example, suggests that Hawthorne’s democratic streak blinded him to the implication that Holgrave was simply setting up a new dynasty. On the other hand, for Martin, the decision is foreshadowed; Holgrave’s is a compromise position in which he maintains the importance of the structure of society while suggesting that the content be changed, just as a stone house might be redecorated according to its owners’ tastes. In marrying Holgrave, Phoebe incorporates Pyncheon blood with the “mass of the people,” for the original Maule was a poor man and his son a carpenter.
The Blithedale Romance
The only one of Hawthorne’s romances to be told by a first-person narrator, The Blithedale Romance is grounded in Hawthorne’s abortive attempt to join the utopian Brook Farm. Like Hawthorne, Miles Coverdale notes the disjunction between a life of labor and a life of poetry; like Hawthorne, he never wholeheartedly participates in the community. In fact, to Crews, the work displays “an inner coherence of self-debate.” Coverdale is the isolated man viewed from inside; as a self-conscious observer, he is the most Jamesian of all of Hawthorne’s characters. As Martin notes, Hawthorne sacrifices certain aesthetic advantages in allowing Coverdale to tell his own story. Although his name is as evocative as, for example, Chillingworth’s, Coverdale loses symbolic intensity because many of his explanations—his noting, for example, that his illness upon arriving at Blithedale is a purgatory preparing him for a new life—sound like figments of an untrustworthy narrator’s imagination.
As in his other romances, Hawthorne begins with a preface. While he points out the realistic grounding of the romance, he maintains that the characters are entirely imaginary. He complains that since no convention yet exists for the American romance, the writer must suffer his characters to be compared to real models; hence, says Hawthorne, he has created the Blithedale scenario as a theatrical device to separate the reader from the ordinary course of events (just as the gothic writer did with his medieval trappings). In effect, Coverdale, isolated as he is, serves as the medium who moves between two worlds.
Coverdale’s destructive egocentrism is evident throughout the work. His unwillingness to grant a favor to Old Moodie loses him an early acquaintanceship with Priscilla; he cements his position as an outsider by belittling Priscilla and by spying on Zenobia; finally, seeing the intimacy that develops between Priscilla and Hollingsworth after Zenobia’s suicide, he retires to enjoy his self-pity. As a minor poet, an urban man who enjoys his cigars and fireplace, he is out of place in the utopian venture; in fact, after his purgatorial illness, he wakes up to death-in-life rather than to reinvigoration. As he moves from Blithedale to the city and back again, his most active participation in the events is his searching for Zenobia’s body.
Zenobia herself harks back to Hester, another in the line of Hawthorne’s exotic, intellectual women. Like Miriam in The Marble Faun, Zenobia has a mysterious past to conceal. She is dogged by Westervelt, her urbane companion whose mesmeric powers become evident in his attempted despoliation of Priscilla. Coverdale imagines her as an orator or an actor; indeed, she is a female reformer whose free and unexpected rhetoric seems to bypass convention. Priscilla, on the other hand, is a frail version of Phoebe and Hilda; she is pliant, domestic, and biddable—hence her susceptibility to Westervelt’s powers and her brief tenure as the Veiled Lady. Like Zenobia (whose sister she is revealed to be), she believes in Hollingworth’s reformism, but less as a helpmate than as a supporter. In coming to Blithedale, Priscilla really does find the life that is denied to Coverdale, but in falling in love with Hollingsworth, she finds spiritual death.
Hollingsworth is related to Hawthorne’s scientist figures. With Holgrave he wants to change society, but his special interest is in criminal reformation. It is Zenobia who, at the end of the novel, realizes that Hollingsworth has identified himself so closely with his plan that he has become the plan. Hollingsworth encourages Zenobia’s interest in him because of her wealth; he spurns Coverdale’s friendship because Coverdale objects to devoting himself entirely to the monomaniacal plan. It is, however, Hollingsworth who rescues Priscilla from Westervelt, exercising the power of affection to break mesmerism, but with him Priscilla simply enters a different kind of subjection.
Indeed, all the main characters suffer real or metaphorical death at the end of the book. Westervelt, like Chillingworth, is frustrated at his victim’s escape; Zenobia’s suicide has removed her from his power. Priscilla becomes a handmaiden to the ruined ideal of what Hollingsworth might have been, and Hollingsworth becomes a penitent, reforming himself—the criminal responsible for Zenobia’s death. Even Coverdale relinquishes a life of feeling; his final secret, that he loves Priscilla, seems only to be fantasizing on the part of the poet who was a master of missed opportunities and who was more comfortable observing his own reactions to a lost love than in pursuing her actively himself.
The Marble Faun
In The Marble Faun, the product of a sojourn in Rome, Hawthorne seems to have reversed a progressively narrowing treatment of the effect of the past. In The Scarlet Letter, he deals with Puritan theology; in The House of the Seven Gables, a family curse; and in The Blithedale Romance, the effects of Coverdale’s self-created past. In his last completed work, however, he takes the past of all Rome; in short, he copes with a length of time and complexity of events unusual in his writing experience. Hawthorne’s reaction to Rome, complicated by his daughter Una’s illness, was mixed. While he objected to the poverty, the dirt, and the paradoxical sensuality and spirituality of Rome, he never, as he put it, felt the city “pulling at his heartstrings” as if it were home.
Italy would seem to present to Hawthorne not only the depth of the past he deemed necessary for the flourishing of romance but also a neutral territory, this time completely divorced from his readers’ experience. It can be said, however, that while The Marble Faun is Hawthorne’s attempt to come to terms with the immense variety of the Italian scene, he was not completely successful. In his preface, he once again declares that the story is to be “fanciful” and is to convey a “thoughtful moral” rather than present a novelistic, realistic picture of Italian customs. He inveighs against the “commonplace prosperity” and lack of “antiquity” in the American scene, a lack that satisfies the kind of reforming zeal pictured in Holgrave but militates against the writer of romance.
Hawthorne broadens his canvas in another way as well; instead of presenting one or two main characters, he gives the reader four: Donatello, presumably the living twin of the sculptor Praxiteles’ marble faun; Miriam Schaeffer, the mysterious half-Italian painter pursued by the ill-fated Brother Antonio; Kenyon, the American sculptor; and Hilda, the New England copyist. Donatello’s double is not found elsewhere in the romances; in fact, he seems to be a male version of both Phoebe and Hilda. Unlike the two women, however, he comes in actual contact with evil and thereby loses his innocence, whereas Hilda’s and Phoebe’s experiences are vicarious. Perhaps the nearest comparison is Dimmesdale, but the minister is portrayed after he chooses to hide his guilt, not before he has sinned. In Donatello’s case, Hawthorne examines the idea of the fortunate fall, demonstrating that Donatello grows in moral understanding after he murders the model, a movement that seems to validate Miriam’s secular interpretation of the fall as necessary to the development of a soul more than it validates Hilda’s instinctive repudiation of the idea.
For some critics, such as Hyatt Waggoner and Richard Fogle, the felix culpa, or fortunate fall, is indeed the theme of The Marble Faun; Crews, however, emphasizes Hawthorne’s unwillingness to confront the problem, noting that Kenyon is made to accept Hilda’s repudiation without question. In the final analysis, Hawthorne does indeed seem reluctant to examine the ramifications of the theme.
Like Zenobia and Hester, Miriam is presented as a large-spirited, speculative woman whose talents are dimmed by a secret past, symbolized by the blood-red jewel she wears. Supposedly, Miriam (unlike Hester), has run away from a marriage with a much older man, but, Hawthorne suggests, her family lineage reveals criminal tendencies. She is followed by Brother Antonio, a wandering devil figure whom she meets in the catacomb of St. Calixtus and whom she employs as a model. The crime that links Miriam to Donatello is not, in this case, adultery, but rather murder. Donatello, who accompanies Miriam everywhere, throws the model from the Tarpeian Rock, the traditional death-place for traitors, saying later that he did what Miriam’s eyes asked him to do. Linked in the crime and initially feeling part of the accumulated crimes of centuries, they become alienated from each other and must come separately to an understanding of their own responsibility to other human beings. During this time, Donatello retires to Monte Beni, the family seat, to meditate, and Miriam follows him, disguised.
Just as Miriam and Donatello are linked by their complicity, Kenyon and Hilda are linked by a certain hesitation to share in the other pair’s secrets, thereby achieving an isolation that Hawthorne might earlier have seen as a breaking of the magnetic chain of humanity. Unnoticed as she observes the murder, Hilda nevertheless becomes a vicarious participant. She rejects Miriam’s friendship, maintaining that she has been given an unspotted garment of virtue and must keep it pristine, but she does agree to deliver a packet of Miriam’s letters to the Palazzo Cenci. For his part, Kenyon compensates for his earlier coldness to Miriam by effecting a reconciliation between her and Donatello. Visiting Monte Beni, he is struck by Donatello’s air of sadness and maturity and believes that the pagan “faun,” whose power to talk to animals was legendary, has come to an understanding of good and evil and has thereby escaped the possibility of a sensual old age to which the throwback Monte Beni eventually succumbs. Kenyon encourages his friend to work out his penitence in the sphere of human action and reunites him with Miriam under the statue of Pope Julius III in Perugia.
In the meantime, Hilda, suffering the pains of guilt for the murder as if she were the perpetrator, paradoxically gains comfort from confession in St. Peter’s. Once she goes to the Palazzo Cenci to deliver Miriam’s letters, however, she is incarcerated as a hostage for Miriam. Her disappearance is the novel’s analogue to Donatello’s self-imposed isolation; her experience in the convent, where she is detained, convinces her of her need for Kenyon. In searching for Hilda, Kenyon undergoes his own purgation, meeting the changed Donatello and Miriam in the Compagna and learning about Miriam’s past. On Miriam’s advice, he repairs to the Courso in the height of the carnival; it is there that he is reunited with Hilda. Her freedom means the end of Miriam and Donatello’s days together, for Donatello is imprisoned for the murder of Brother Antonio. As did Sophia for Hawthorne, Hilda becomes Kenyon’s guide to “home”; she is Hawthorne’s last full-length evocation of the New England girl on whose moral guidance he wished to rely.