The Marble Faun


By Andreas Tille (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Lightmatter colosseum
By Aaron Logan ( and [CC-BY-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

StPetersBasilica Keyhole 2
By AngMoKio (selfmade photo) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Via appia
Kleuske at nl.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

I went to Rome this summer; Hawthorne was my tour guide.  I saw catacombs, cathedrals, gardens, tombs, fountains, picture galleries, countryside–he described it all, with great detail.  And we met some interesting people, too.

Magnus Selbstbildnis 1827

There was Kenyon, the American sculptor, studying the statuary and working on a portrayal of Cleopatra.  He’s a “well-informed” gentleman, with an unfortunate tendency to go off onto long, philosophical discourses whenever he has an opportunity to do so.  It is very like him not to choose a Roman legend as his subject…wherever he is, his truest thoughts seem elsewhere.

Cecile Mendelssohn Bartholdy

They revert often back to Hilda.  She is a New England girl; and she has a gift for copying the classic paintings.  That is how she makes her living in Rome.  Ironically, while capturing perfectly the masters’ art and dedicating her life to its study, her own artistic originality is neglected.  In her personal life, she is upright, optimistic, and rather naive.  I find her easy to understand.

Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel 037

Hilda’s friend is a mysterious painter, known only by the name of ‘Miriam’.  Nobody knows where she comes from.  She’s beautiful and independent, but her life is haunted by a strange acquaintance of hers, who follows her wherever she goes.

And finally, there’s Donatello–a cheerful young count, with apparently not a care in the world.  They say he resembles the Faun of Praxiteles, and that, under his curly hair, he has pointed ears.  He fell in love with Miriam and would do anything for her, but he also has a capricious streak in him that is very dangerous. 

NMS Mackie Nymph and Faun detail 1
By photo: Ad Meskens, sculpture Charles Hodge Mackie (Own work) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Marble Faun is very similar to Moby-Dick.  Two-thirds of it is history, sightseeing, and in-depth descriptions.  I felt some pictures would have been helpful in the description department–I’ve never actually been to Rome, and so I could only picture it vaguely.  In the end, you feel as if you know Rome, inside and out, and simultaneously don’t know it at all.

The other 1/3 of the book is one intense story.  You can think of it as a tragedy of star-crossed lovers, or you can think of it as a biblical allegory…it’s both.  Hawthorne’s Gothic tone shows up as well, in some very poignant scenes, such as Donatello in the forest, or Kenyon at the carnival.  Altogether, Hawthorne took an epic theme–the Fall of Man–and studied it through the lives of four characters.  The garden of Eden, the temptation, sin, guilt, and punishment are all there. The Marble Faun is often described as fantasy, but I’d hardly call it that–the truth in the book far outweighs the fantasy elements.

Overall, I give it a solid 5 out of 5 stars.  It takes patience.  Sometimes the descriptions were as wearisome as taking a city tour in Converse shoes (just speaking from experience, here).  But the story itself holds so much truth, and moments of genius, that I think it was well-worth reading.  🙂

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