Monday, December 6, 2010

Artfully and airily removed from our mundane sphere - Hawthorne's last fantasy novel

The Marble Faun (1860) is a book about Rome.  It’s a novel in the sense that some fictional characters, pale as ghosts, slip through the actual Rome in something resembling a story.  The reader demanding realistic depictions of actual people, not abstractions roughly shaped into human form, may not find the book to be a novel at all.  The setting is more real than the people.

Writing about The Marble Faun, I am going to use words like “real” and “actual” as if I mean something by them.  The "real" Rome of the novel is in fact a creation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination, a place he observed, and then put into the prose of his notebooks, and then filtered through his imagination (and through the notebooks) a second time.  When Sophia Hawthorne edited Hawthorne’s notebooks for publication, she omitted a number of scenes, replacing them with some version of “See Chapter X of The Marble Faun.”  A number of scenes are lifted, with minor changes, from the notebooks, and, writing the novel in Rome, Hawthorne could simply go for a stroll if he wanted to double-check his memory.  Still – it’s all a made up version of something real, and the “making up” began as soon as Hawthorne tried to write down what he experienced, long before he used it in his fiction.

I guess I mean something relative.  The fictional Rome, the fictional-but-real buildings and statuary and market stands, are meant to survive some sort of test against reality.  The Rome of1858 is gone, but the descriptions of artworks can still meet (or fail) those tests.  The reader can look for himself and see if Hawthorne got it right.  As he says in the notebooks, repeatedly, frustratedly, he is trying to get it right.

The four or five characters who circle around the plot of the novel are not meant to meet that sort of standard.  They are pointedly unreal.  One may or may not be a faun, another briefly turns into a nymph.  We’re in the imaginative world of The Scarlet Letter, with its elf and vampire and witch.  The difference is the reality of the physical world, of Hawthorne’s Rome.  It’s an inversion of much fiction, where the author convinces us, or lets us convince ourselves, that the characters are genuine people, while all but a few patches of the surrounding world are left as unfinished canvas, for the reader to fill in.  Thus, odd chapters titled “The Emptiness of Picture Galleries” (Ch. 37), in which Hawthorne and the reader and one of the characters spend eight pages appreciating, or failing to appreciate, art.

The disorienting contrast between the spirit characters and the real Rome is intentional, “the effect at which he aimed.”  The Marble Faun is a fantasy novel, an ancestor of John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) and other fantasies of the not-quite-real.  I am in the “Postscript,” added, soon after publication, to soothe readers who whined about the novel’s lack of a conventionally antiseptic ending:

He [the Author] designed the story and the characters to bear, of course, a certain relation to human nature and human life, but still to be so artfully and airily removed from our mundane sphere, that some laws and proprieties of their own should be implicitly and insensibly acknowledged.

The idea of the modern Faun, for example, loses all the poetry and beauty which the Author fancied in it, and becomes nothing better than a grotesque absurdity, if we bring it into the actual light of day…  As respects all who ask such questions [whether the Faun-like character has furry ears], the book is, to that extent, a failure.

So the book was hardly a failure for me, although it kinda spoils my fun to so directly state, at the very end of the book, what I had been planning to write in my blog post.  I guess I wrote it anyway.


  1. I like your discussion of the "real" and "unreal." I read "The Marble Faun" two months ago, and it was a challenge for me. My friends and colleagues who had read it described it as bizarre to say the least. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that I think the book is a failure, but it certainly did not meet my expectations. Thinking about the aesthetic descriptions of art and of Rome in the way you lay out helps me to understand the book better. Thanks!

  2. Hmmmmmmm . . . One of the book sets my husband has giving me recently is a nice set of Hawthorne, and I have been meaning to dip into it in earnest. But this sounds maybe more challenging than I had in mind. I'll start with something else, I think.

  3. I'm perfectly happy to say that The Marble Faun is a failure. As a mystery, it's a failure; as a Jane Austenish romance, it's a failure. As a fantasy novel, as a Hawthorne novel, it's an extraordinary success - I'd rank it second behind the more concentrated Scarlet Letter.

    One of my mostly unspoken mottos as a reader is "Read the book in front of you." If I'm stubborn about my expectations, I'm stuck with the novel in my head, not the one the author wrote.

    Thanks for visiting, by the way. Good luck with your comps!

    You know, I hadn't thought about the difficulty of The Marble Faun. Is it particularly difficult? It's just different. Hawthorne is working on atmosphere, and striking effects of mood and meaning. The unreality of the characters is an essential part of that atmosphere. Rome is solid; the characters are kind of shimmery.

  4. I'm not a big fantasy person, but the fantasy of the "not quite real" sounds right up my alley. (I loved Little, Big.) I like thinking about this work as part of that school. Sounds like an interesting read.

  5. The word "fantasy" has been highjacked by knights-and-wizards romances. I'm trying to reclaim it a bit.

    I mean, The Scarlet Letter is a fantasy, too. What do solemn realists, combing that novel for insights into the historical Puritans, do with the actual witch? Dismiss her as metaphor? Pretend she's not there? What would I have done, if I had read the novel in high school - I was a solemn realist back then. Kinda narrow.

  6. I'm pleased on your take on "Seven Gables". When I read it I could not believe that Hawthorne thought it his best but, you are right, there are excellent moments that show his brilliance. I loved the gingerbread kid.

  7. I loved the gingerbread kid.

    Me too. I read those first few chapters, about the little shop, and thought "The whole novel cannot possibly be written like this." And it's not. Hawthorne's novels work, or don't, scene by scene.