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The Italian Tour: Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Place and topography always figure importantly in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the dichotomy between the civilized and Christian town on one hand and the wild and Satanic forest on the other comes immediately to mind.  A similar scheme provides structure to The Scarlet Letter. The house in The House of the Seven Gables rises to the level of a character within the novel, while in The Blithedale Romance, the distinction between the commune and the rest of the world is used to underscore themes. No work in Hawthorne’s corpus places greater emphasis on the importance of place, however, than does The Marble Faun, the last of the author’s completed novels, published in 1860.

If the house is a character in the earlier novel, Rome, and to a less dramatic degree, Italy, is a character in this book. Important events in the story take place at St. Peter’s Basilica, the catacombs, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and the Capitol in Rome. The Castle San Angelo is mentioned along with an allusion to the Palazzo Cenci, both important sites in the lurid life of Beatrice Cenci, whose story is associated with that of the character Miriam.

After roughly the first half of the novel, three of the primary foursome of characters disappear from Rome. Donotello, the Italian who may or may not be descended from a Faun returns to his ancestral home, where he dwells in a remarkable tower. The only main character to remain in Rome is the virginal Hilda, who also dwells in a tower, where she maintains an oil lamp that has burned continuously for over 400 years in honor of the Virgin Mary. Both of these tower-dwelling figures can be seen as rising “above it all.” Donotello has, until his fateful journey into Rome at the outset of the story, has lived in a sort of Eden. The stories that he relates to Kenyon underscore the innocent and almost mythic existence that he and his family have experienced. Hilda, on the other hand, withdraws from corrupt Rome in her tower, keeping herself pure and apart. Her work tending the lamp clearly evokes the Matthew 25:1-13 Parable of the Wise Virgins.

Clearly Hawthorne seeks to describe Rome as a place of corruption. He mentions the malarial atmosphere, especially in the summer, a theme that will be used by later American writers Edith Wharton and Henry James. He alludes to the political and judicial corruption of the place, noting several times the presence of French soldiers who have helped to put an end to Garibaldi’s Italian republic and commenting the on the worthlessness of the police in doing anything that does not advance the ends of the corrupt government. But then why does Kenyon go out to Monte Beni, Donotello’s home, and draw the man back to Rome, especially when Kenyon realizes that a return to Rome will likely land both Donotello and Miriam in serious legal difficulty?

As a writer focused on issues of sinfulness in human existence, Hawthorne finds himself both drawn to the idea of a sinless Eden but also aware that such a place cannot endure in a fallen world. Many readers have found the lack of answers to questions at the close of the book to be frustrating. In reality, however, Hawthorne has answered the questions that he found important and interesting. We needn’t know how long Donotello will remain in prison or how precisely Miriam escaped legal consequences or even what notorious person Miriam actually is. What we need to know is how each of these characters came to terms with their life in the midst of a corrupt world. That the final dramatized scene takes place in the Pantheon, a pagan temple transformed into a Christian shrine, is not, I think accidental.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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