Hawthorne's The Marble Faun
Since its publication in 1860, critics have questioned the artistic value of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. A revival of critical interest during the 1950's and 1960's has done little to change a generally unfavorable opinion of the work. With a few notable exceptions, most recent critics believe The Marble Faun to be inferior to Hawthorne's other completed romances. Such opinions, however, usually seem to be based upon the personal taste of the individual critic rather than upon any sort of objective artistic standards.
The purpose of this study is to examine and evaluate the various critical approaches to The Marble Faun. These interpretations provide the basis for a re-appraisal of the work. A study of the structure, the main themes, and the characters of The Marble Faun reveals that it is not an inferior work of art. In many respects, The Marble Faun reflects the maturity of Hawthorne's artistic and philosophical beliefs. The Marble Faun is a work capable of standing on its own merits.
Some critics have misunderstood Hawthorne's aesthetic principles. Hawthorne thought that art should be used to suggest moral values. The power of art, he believed, was in its suggestiveness. The creation of an ideal beauty which has no exact counterpart in the material world suggests the reality of an unknowable divine providence. However, the value of a work of art depends upon the mood of the viewer. The viewer must assist the artist with his sympathy and imagination in an act of continual creation. The work of art will reflect back only those qualities which are brought to it by the viewer.
Hawthorne's view of life is similar to the philosophy expressed by modern Christian existentialists. Throughout his writings, Hawthorne's concern for humanity is evident. In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne explores a problem which has become almost an obsession of modern man. This problem is the question of man's moral position in what seems to be a meaningless, if not hostile, universe. The most important theme of The Marble Faun is a consideration of the consequences of man's alienation from other men, from God, and from nature.
The structure and the themes of The Marble Faun are developed through the actions of the major characters. Hilda, Miriam, Donatello, and Kenyon are each transformed by a fall from relative innocence into a world of suffering humanity. Donatello's transformation from faun to man is more striking than the transformations of the other three characters, and it is his fall which leads to the question of the felix culpa. Although Hilda and Kenyon are ultimately less mature characters than Donatello and Miriam, they also benefit from their experiences in Rome.
Hawthorne's belief in the brotherhood of all men is demonstrated by the experiences of the major characters in The Marble Faun. Whether or not it is their wish, each of these characters must accept the responsibility for his own actions and each must become involved with humanity. It is Hawthorne's deep concern for the human condition, profoundly expressed in his art, which makes The Marble Faun a work of enduring importance to our civilization.