Classic Lit: The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Marble FaunThe Count of Monte Beni

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family lived for several years in Italy, and his experiences there inspired him to write The Marble Faun, or the Romance of Monte Beni. Published in 1860, it became his best selling novel, but few readers today have ever heard of it, much less read it. The book opens in 19th century Rome, where a group of friends, three American artistic types and one Italian, are enjoying an idyllic summer in each other’s company. Donatello is a young Italian count, who very much resembles Praxiteles’ faun statue, and he falls hard for the enigmatic Miriam, who harbors an unhappy secret. The sculptor, Kenyon, loves Hilda, an ethereal copyist who, like a medieval princess, resides in an ancient tower, where she keeps the light burning at the Virgin’s shrine, surrounded by doves. One beautiful evening, a very personal murder occurs, and the foursome’s idyll is shattered. They separate, each one grappling with the sense of guilt that destroys their happiness and their innocence.

As the title suggests, The Marble Faun is a romance, but, typical of Hawthorne, a dark and brooding one. Being a product of his times and his religious upbringing, Hawthorne could resist inserting a tedious amount of philosophical contemplation, perhaps to highlight the moral symbolism that permeates the story. More pleasing is the time he devoted to describing the landscapes, monuments, art, and street life of Rome and the Tuscan countryside. There are even a few magical elements as well, such as the wine that is made on Donatello’s estate that cannot fail to impart happiness to the drinker. While this region has undoubtedly changed since Hawthorne’s tour, nearly everything that he referred to remains to be viewed to this day.

The Marble Faun demands patience from its readers, but take it slowly (I needed the entire summer!) and your perseverance is rewarded. But be forewarned: the friends are reunited at book’s end, and the final chapter is bittersweet.

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