Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Problem of Conception and Creation in Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Problem of Conception and Creation in Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Article excerpt

This so frequent abortion of man's dearest projects must be taken as proof that the deeds of earth, however etherealized by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit.

Hawthorne, "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Married in July 1842, the Hawthornes were enjoying an extended, blissful honeymoon at the Old Manse well into February when the now pregnant Sophia, walking with Nathaniel, fell on ice and miscarried. (1) Suffering much grief, both wife and husband strained to view their loss as but a temporary setback in a larger, spiritual unfoldment. A hopeful Sophia tells her mother that in the end she did not lose her "spirits at all" when her "own little Hawthorne flower ... passed unfolded again into the Paradise of God." (2) And Hawthorne writes, "We do not feel as if our promised child were taken from us forever; but only as if his coming had been delayed for a season; and that, by-and-by, we shall welcome that very same little stranger, whom we had expected to gladden our home at an earlier period.... God will surely crown our union with children, because it fulfills the highest condition of marriage." (3) Since the Hawthornes clearly associate procreation with spirituality, they evidently, despite their confident declarations, experienced some anxiety and guilt over the miscarriage and its spiritual meaning. Could it have been a sign of God's disfavor with their sensual bliss?

Hawthorne had thought of the two of them as the new "Adam and Eve of a virgin earth," and thus, says one of his biographers, "after the marriage the Manse at Concord became the Eden of Adam and Eve." (4) Describing their first months there, Sophia had said the same: "It's a perfect Eden round us.... We are Adam and Eve." (5) Now they, too, suffer a grievous fall. Immediately after the miscarriage, Sophia expressed her uneasiness by having the "bedroom cleaned and repainted" so "that no trace remained of 'sad scenes enacted there'"; moreover, she "did not recuperate as expected" but instead intermittently convalesced for months. (6) Hawthorne revealed his own anxiety, I think, when in the passage above he insisted that, if their marriage be sufficiently holy, their aborted infant would return as their first born, "that very same little stranger." In other words, by ever more carefully consecrating their intimacy, they will reclaim their lost infant, thereby absolve themselves of debilitating guilt and restore Eden. Consequently, like some of his protagonists--life imitating art--Hawthorne himself had now to find a way to more successfully integrate not only sexuality and spirituality but art-making as well, for he not infrequently spoke of his writings as his children and once, in "The Devil in Manuscript," of his miscarried works as the "unborn children of my mind." (7) When in the following March Sophia gave birth to Una, he several days later began to compose one of his most enigmatic tales, "The Artist of the Beautiful," a story in which, I propose, the author gives dramatic form--sometimes plaintive, sometimes comical--to his reflections on the difficult mingling of sanctity, eros, and his life as artist.

Most know the events in the story. Owen Warland, an ingenious if frail young artisan, gifted in his understanding of delicate mechanisms (natural and artificial) and filled with a love of, and an ability to represent, the ethereally beautiful, determines to create an exquisite, lifelike butterfly. He finds inspiration in Annie, the young woman he loves, but when he learns she has married Danforth, the blacksmith, he ceases work. In seclusion, he finally returns to and slowly completes his task, only to learn that the couple now have a son. Nonetheless, Owen presents the magnificent mechanical butterfly to the woman as a bridal gift. Its beautiful appearance and actions entrance Annie and even charm Danforth and their boy, but suddenly the infant, in that childlike way, snatches at the marvel and reduces it to a "small heap of glittering fragments, whence the mystery of beauty had fled forever. …

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