Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Choice of Innocence: Hilda in 'The Marble Faun.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Choice of Innocence: Hilda in 'The Marble Faun.'

Article excerpt

It's not easy for modern readers to like Hilda. She is self-absorbed, narrow-minded, shallow, and priggish. Armed with an unforgiving set of standards, she censors, silences, and banishes her closest friends. She has no empathy, no loyalty, no passion, and no pity. Most professional critics don't care much for her either: William Dean Howells writes that she is cold and selfish, emblematic of "the implacable morality of ignorant purity"; Marius Bewley dismisses her as a "disgusting girl," "this most repulsive of all his [Hawthorne's] characters"; and Nina Baym observes that Hilda's hypocrisy allows her to absolve herself of evil "by imputing it to others."(1) While the years have produced a fair number of varied readings of the novel, they have not diminished the critics' collective distaste for its putative heroine.

Her disagreeable qualities complicate and even frustrate the task of interpretation. How does one approach a work whose moral system seems viable (or at least familiar), but whose moral center is offensive? Most earlier critics, while they took the occasional swipe at one or another of Hilda's faults, either took the narrator's bias to be Hawthorne's own or buried their dislike in a cultural predisposition to award "innocence" a privileged position regardless of context or application. Readings of the novel went on to accept the moral system such positioning dictated. But just two years ago, Milton R. Stern's savage attack on Hilda--and on Hawthorne for creating her--makes it impossible to avoid the problem any longer.(2)

Though she denies history, Christian charity, struggles of conscience, human fallibility, the Fall, and the imputation of Adam's sin, many of the critics who condemn Hilda convince themselves that her author is also her advocate. To do this, they must have him turn his back on all of his prior work. In his last years he must have become either a hypocrite, compromising himself and his values for the sake of the marketplace and his wife's good opinion; the sexually repressed, fastidious priss only hinted at in earlier works; or seriously addled, no longer able to control his story line.(3) The major problem that Stern quite rightly observes is that Hilda not only disturbs us, she violates the moral integrity of the novel. He uses words like "intrusive," "anomalous," and "alien" to describe Hilda's disruptive presence, acknowledging that she and all she represents are "in direct conflict ... with the thematic energy of the book's action and characterization" (p. 110). But instead of examining what the novel as a whole does with that odd note, Stern (and others, less forcefully) abandons the story's dominant themes of sin, suffering, and forgiveness and surrenders the novel to Hilda and her unrelenting mediocrity. Stern even takes the trouble to establish that here as in other Hawthorne works, one's "ultimate sympathy must be reserved for those who change," drawing on a paraphrase from the Preface to say that, "Human depth and richness, like lichens, romance, and poetry, need ruin to make them grow." Given that everyone in the book changes to some extent except Hilda, wouldn't that suggest, at the very least, that her brand of static purity is antithetical to the human condition as Hawthorne saw it? And wouldn't that observation alone remove her from the moral center of the novel? But rather than taking the values of the novel, of the author's own preface, as clearly recapitulated by Stern himself, and applying them to the one who opposes them, rather than bringing the strategy of the piece as a whole to bear on each of its parts, Stern constricts and distorts every aspect of the work to suit the demands of "an anomaly." He goes to great lengths to read the novel one way and then uses Hilda to make it say something entirely different and then calls that "fracture" Hawthorne's capitulation to the marketplace.

But the contortions required to make these and similar Hilda-centered arguments viable seem to ignore a very simple question: If we hate Hilda so much, why do we assume that Hawthorne likes her? …

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