Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Dread and Desire: "Europe" in Hawthorne's 'The Marble Faun.' (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Dread and Desire: "Europe" in Hawthorne's 'The Marble Faun.' (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Article excerpt

James Buzard has argued recently that nineteenth-century travelers in the Old World, frustrated by the society of their mother countries, tried to avoid contact with the "prosaic" domestic aspects of the societies they visited and, instead, directed a compensatory tourist gaze at the "picturesque" details of the foreign cultures (31-32). Some observers, among them Henry James, were fully aware that tourism entailed a marked one-sidedness of perception; yet, according to Buzard, they favored a conservative "picturesque politics," which cherished the accumulated treasures of the past even though they had been built with the sweat and blood of the wretched of the earth (41-42).

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, which Buzard mentions, is also testimony to the touristic preoccupation with the "nice" and beautiful and picturesque; nonetheless, the romance reflects an extremely troubled relationship between travelers and the host environment. Hilda and Kenyon, the American tourists, eventually turn their backs on Rome in spite of their profound appreciation of the artistic wonders the city offers. Thus, Hawthorne accomplishes a threefold critique: First, by giving the character development and the place descriptions in his romance certain Gothic qualities, he is able to define essential features of the foreign experience. Second, he analyzes the nature of touristic experiences. Though written during the first phase of transatlantic touristic relationships, when only well-to-do Americans from the patrician class visited the Old World, The Marble Faun anticipates some forms of mass tourism typical of later periods. Third, Hawthorne's mode of presenting his book as a romance and himself as a controlling authority reveals his awareness of the difficulty inherent in the attempt, as he says, "to idealize [the] traits" of a foreign environment (3). Thus, he made The Marble Faun into a particularly self-conscious international novel.

Rereading the book in the nineteenth-century context, i.e., reading it emphatically as an international novel concerned with the American perception of the European environment, might help improve the reputation of The Marble Faun, which has only recently begun its recovery from critical neglect and disapproval.[1]

I

In a crucial way, the Gothic romance is an apt literary form for a book dealing with a cross-cultural encounter. In his three major American romances Hawthorne effectively uses the Gothic to depict psychological and social conflicts; in The Marble Faun he goes further and adds a third dimension, the conflict between cultures. Approach and retreat--that peculiarly ambivalent response the Gothic invites--becomes the central cultural metaphor in The Marble Faun. The relationship of the American characters to their European friends and to the Italian environment is expressed in terms of a dialectic of repulsion and attraction, distance and nearness, or, as James puts it in his tale "'Europe'" (1899), "the oddest vibration of dread as well as of desire" (432). While the Gothic metaphor encapsulates the conflictual nature of the international experience, its essential subjectivity is borne out by some of the romance qualities of The Marble Faun. Hilda and Kenyon subscribe to a radical subjectivism, and their perception of Italy is the product of their own psychological projections. The resulting dream-like and illusive image of the foreign environment stamps The Marble Faun as a romance.

The Gothic emotion of dread-and-desire lies at its very heart. In the climactic chapter, "On the Edge of a Precipice," Donatello experiences the strange attraction and repulsion gazing into an abyss affords:

Yet he seemed to feel that perilous fascination which haunts the brow of precipices, tempting the unwary one to fling himself over, for the very horrour of the thing; for, after drawing hastily back, he again looked down, thrusting himself out farther than before. …

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