Four individuals, in whose fortunes we should be glad to interest the reader, happened to be standing in one of the saloons of the sculpture-gallery in the Capitol at Rome. It was that room (the first, after ascending the staircase) in the centre of which reclines the noble and most pathetic figure of the Dying Gladiator, just sinking into his death-swoon. Around the walls stand the Antinous, the Amazon, the Lycian Apollo, the Juno; all famous productions of antique sculpture, and still shining in the undiminished majesty and beauty of their ideal life, although the marble that embodies them is yellow with time, and perhaps corroded by the damp earth in which they lay buried for centuries. Here, likewise, is seen a symbol (as apt at this moment as it was two thousand years ago) of the Human Soul, with its choice of Innocence or Evil close at hand, in the pretty figure of a child, clasping a dove to her bosom, but assaulted by a snake.
Summary: Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon, and Donatello are four young friends enjoying the artistic life of Rome. Miriam and Hilda are painters; Miriam does original pieces while Hilda paints copies of the great works of Rome. Kenyon is a sculptor in charge of a workshop. And Donatello is an Italian, the Count of Monte Beni; the book opens with the other three noting the remarkable resemblance of Donatello to the Faun of Praxiteles, and teasing him about whether he has a faun's ears under his curls:
Of the four, Kenyon is attracted to Hilda and Donatello to Miriam. In both cases, however, there is some distance -- Hilda is wholly devoted to her virginal life of art, studying the Great Masters, and Miriam, with her carefully hidden past, is reserved and fends off attentions with biting wit and sarcasm. But Miriam has some unknown connection with a stranger who shadows her and whose image haunts her painting, and the lives of the four friends will change fatefully when Donatello, jealous and protective, throws the man off a cliff to his death. The guilt of Donatello, and of Miriam who may have incited the deed with a glance, will hang heavily over them from this point.
Besides the Marble Faun itself, a work that repeatedly shows up in the story is this one, which Hilda has recently copied:
In Hawthorne's time it would have been known as The Portrait of Beatrice Cenci, by Guido Reni, and it was one of the most famous paintings in the world, a continual fascination to artists of the Romantic movement. Beatrice Cenci was raped by her father, and with her mother and brothers plotted to assassinate him. They tried to poison him, but when this failed, they bludgeoned him to death and threw him off the balcony in the hope that it would look like an accident. The plot was uncovered, however, and Beatrice Cenci was executed at the age of 22. According to the legend, the portrait was painted the day before her execution. The tale became (and still to some extent is) famous, and the calm, ambiguous, possibly innocent expression of a figure who was both victim of awful crime and perpetrator of violent murder played a significant role in the painting's fame, and Hawthorne in his Italian notebooks reflected on the hard-to-define fascination of the work, wondering if it would exert the same fascination on someone who did not know the story behind it. (A worthwhile question, given that now it is widely thought that the painting is neither by Guido Reni nor of Beatrice Cenci.) The entire story of The Marble Faun is a layering of ambiguities in the same way. Miriam is an ambiguous figure much as Beatrice was -- in some sense murderess yet in some sense innocent. And yet it is Hilda who was fascinated by the painting and was able to copy it with faithfulness.
The symbolic complexity of this work is extraordinary. The tale is told as a reenactment of the Fall of Man, with the four friends in the garden of innocent youth are cast out by complicity in a terrible crime. Each of the four friends expresses most fully one of the elements of human personality. Donatello is continually associated with passion, the natural participation in the world. Miriam, on the other hand, expresses imagination, continually haunted by other possibilities. Miriam and Donatello, of course, have the most serious involvement in the actual crime, but there is an odd innocence to them both even in the commission -- Donatello is too natural and primal and passionate a creature fully to understand what he has done, and Miriam's role was inciting the murder with a transient pleading glance to Donatello, a very detached way of causing a human death. And although Donatello and Miriam are both directly involved, Hilda, too, is caught up by it, for she witnesses the act. Nor is this a mere witnessing. Hilda expresses sympathetic aspiration; it is her intense sympathy with what she sees that makes it possible for her to accomplish her ingenious copies. And she sees the murder as if it were a painting, through the frame of a doorway; it is not something merely seen, it is something that enters her, disrupting her entirely. The imagination, by a glance, incites the passions to do wrong, and moral sentiment, witnessing, is tangled up in the deed: it could almost be an allegory for how sin is really committed. Kenyon might seem to escape the doom, since he only becomes aware of the cause of the darkness cast over the friendship relatively late, and is the least disrupted by it, but I think even this is not quite so. Kenyon as a sculptor deals with the embodiment of ideas in unchanging marble; he spends almost the entire work turning works of art into allegories. Dealing with eternal verities, it is not surprising that Kenyon in his intellectuality shows the least obvious signs of disruption, but there are signs that even he is not free of it. When he suggests to Hilda that perhaps the sin was allowed by Providence for good, she reacts with horror at the thought. I'm not convinced that we should take this as solely telling us about Hilda herself, with her high moral sympathies. Rather, this is exactly how intellect is shadowed by wrongdoing: it writes it down as felix culpa in some abstract scheme of things. This makes sense in its own terms, but Hilda is right that there is in it a lack of any sense of the awfulness of evil. Donatello and Hilda, passion and moral sympathy, directly participate in the world (and notably have symbolic links in several ways, with, for instance Donatello living in a Tower with owls and Hilda in a Tower with doves; Miriam and Kenyon, imagination and intellect, are distanced from it, with Miriam haunted by a past that shows up perpetually in her imaginings and by dark possibilities of what could be, and Kenyon constantly placing things in a framework of ideas. In innocence, they work together; but in wrongdoing they are split apart, trying to navigate the shadows in their own, very limited terms. And their responses to it are different, as well; Donatello and Miriam are haunted by guilt of involvement, each in their own way, while Kenyon and Hilda struggle to deal with the very fact of the wrongdoing itself.
Or one could see the four as each expressing some aspect of art, and this is not necessarily exclusive of the first interpretation. In Donatello, we see the primal impulse of art, participation in the world around us; in Miriam with her reserve and distance from the world around her, the imagination of other possibilities; in Hilda, moral sympathy; in Kenyon with his allegories, intellectual ideation. All art expresses all four, albeit in different mixes. But artistic endeavor also exists in a fallen world; the complicity of art in sin, and the sorrow with which one must struggle as a result, throws everything off balance. But, of course, our response to art works much the same way, and this allegorization, while certainly drawing out things in the work that are there, is also an over-Kenyonized reading on its own. One may also participate in the Romance of the tale, which is about four friends rather than abstract concepts, or be intrigued in imagination with the ambiguities of it, or sympathize with its moral ideals and guilts, and in some Eden of reading we would do all four, and all four well; but we, alas, poor fallen readers, have tilting structures that almost guarantee that some of the richness of the work will elude our reading.
When the work was first published, readers protested the ambiguities of the ending, and so, reluctantly, Hawthorne put in an epilogue giving further information about what happened. I think his first instinct was in fact correct: the additional information, about what happened to Hilda when she disappeared, or what happened to Donatello, weakens the tale considerably. It makes an object of description what should be an object of allusion, and reduces the complexity of the work. Hawthorne's early readers had difficulty with the ambivalent character of the work itself -- it is finely balanced so that it can be read either as a realistic tale in romantic, fantastic Italy, or a fantastic tale set in real-world Italy, and rather than maintain a consistent style, it gives us now a painted scene, now a sculptured composition, now an allusion to other works, now a travelogue, now a psychological tale, now an allegory, thus increasing both the realism and the romanticism of the tale. The balance throughout the work is beautifully done; only the epilogue unbalances it, despite Hawthorne's attempt to preserve some ambiguity still.
But even with the epilogue, we never learn the answer to the key question: Is Donatello faun or man?
A picture, however admirable the painter's art, and wonderful his power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and imagination. Not that these qualities shall really add anything to what the master has effected; but they must be put so entirely under his control, and work along with him to such an extent, that, in a different mood, when you are cold and critical, instead of sympathetic, you will be apt to fancy that the loftier merits of the picture were of your own dreaming, not of his creating.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.