Hawthorne begins the novel by introducing the main characters in a genial manner. They are in the sculpture-gallery in the Capitol at Rome, surrounded by ancient sculpture. After describing the setting, Hawthorne records their conversation, in which their names are incidentally mentioned. Three of them are a sculptor named Kenyon and two painters named Miriam and Hilda. They are discussing the similarity between the Faun of Praxiteles and the fourth member of their party, an Italian named Donatello. The likeness is remarkable. However, the statue has pointed ears. They want to know if Donatello’s are similar, but Donatello won’t let them examine his ears, which are hidden by his curly hair. [The original statue made by Praxiteles has perished. The extant statue is a copy by an unknown sculptor.]
Since Hawthorne is a native of New England, it is not surprising that Hilda and Kenyon are Americans originating from New England.
Though Donatello is an adult of noble blood, he resembles a happy-go-lucky childish urchin. He is infatuated with the beautiful Miriam, who suffers his attentions with a kindly but contemptuous tolerance. To his disgust, he has to share her attention with a wild figure that Miriam has encountered while temporarily lost in the catacombs. Since their chance encounter, he has stuck to her like a leech.
The presence of the wild figure apparently disturbs Miriam. Her friends notice that she has become subject to frequent periods of depression. She even becomes ornery at times, especially when people to allude to the wild man, who often ruins her paintings by serving as her model. [I shall henceforth refer to him as “the model.”]
No one knows anything about Miriam’s past life. Some think that she is the daughter of a rich Jewish banker. Others suspect that she is a German princess. No one really knows the truth.
In the following incident, Hawthorne broadly hints that there is something sinister in Miriam’s background. Hilda has painted a copy of Guido Reni’s painting portraying Beatrice Cenci. When Miriam sees it, her facial expression and her bearing assume a marked similarity to that of Beatrice. [Beatrice was convicted and executed as an accomplice in the murder of her father.]
The plot moves slowly. Hawthorne fills many pages with descriptive language describing antiquities and scenery in the city of Rome, the antics of Donatello, and the abodes of the artists and their work.
One day, Donatello makes a childlike avowal of love for Miriam. Miriam considers it charming, but she does not reciprocate. In fact, she utters the ominous warning: “If you were wiser, Donatello, you would think me a dangerous person. If you follow my footsteps, they will lead you to no good. You ought to be afraid of me.” She confesses that she has a doom that she cannot reveal to anyone.
This scene has taken place in a sylvan, almost pastoral setting. Since Miriam cannot discourage the affectionate faun, she decides to humor him for the time being. She temporarily puts aside her gloomy thoughts. Like a nymph, she begins to frolic with him. They encounter a vagrant band of musicians and begin to dance. Others join.
The appearance of the model puts an end to her brief hour of happiness. She tells Donatello to leave, saying: “Your hour is past; his hour has come.”
As Donatello looks at the model with invincible repugnance, Miriam assures him: “I hate him too!” With difficulty, Miriam persuades Donatello not to assault the sinister figure.
In the ensuing conversation between Miriam and her persecutor, Hawthorne professes not to know everything that they say. However, it is clear that he knew her before they met in the catacombs and that Miriam is in his power. The model tells her that he dislikes their association as much as she does, but fate has enmeshed them in bonds that neither of them can break. With veiled language, he calls Miriam a murderess. Miriam insists that she is innocent.
On a later occasion, there is a gathering of the sculptors and painters who are working in Rome. Kenyon, Hilda, Miriam, and Donatello are in attendance. They decide to view Roman scenery by moonlight. They visit such places as the Fountain of Trevi, Trajan’s Forum, the Temple of Minerva, and the Coliseum. Finally, they climb the Capitoline Hill and come to a steep precipice called the Tarpeian Rock, from which the ancient Romans threw traitors to their death.
The company then begins to descend – all except Miriam and Donatello. Noticing the absence of her two friends, Hilda starts back toward the Tarpeian rock. The following tragedy occurs before her eyes.
During the evening, the model has been appearing on the scene from time to time. His presence frightens Miriam and angers Donatello. Unlucky for him, he appears on the scene when Miriam and Donatello are standing next to the precipice. Donatello attacks him and holds him over the precipice, while Miriam is so frightened that she does not know what she is doing. As he holds the model over the precipice, he looks into Miriam’s eyes and sees a sign of approval. So he drops the model, who plunges to his death.
When she learns why Donatello has killed the model, she is horrified. Donatello, in turn, is distressed to think that Miriam does not approve of his deed. He offers to jump to his death if he has acted against her will. Miriam has no choice but to become an accomplice after the fact. She embraces him and admits that her heart approves of his deed. Their friendship has become cemented with blood.
As Miriam and Donatello pass the tower where Hilda lives, she sees Hilda praying. She says: “Pray for us, Hilda; we need it!” Hilda suddenly closes her window. She takes this as a sign that heaven has rejected her plea.
The next day, Miriam receives another shock. The four friends have agreed to meet at the Church of the Capuchins. Kenyon, Miriam, and Donatello keep their appointment, but Hilda fails to appear.
In the church, they see the body of a monk named Brother Antonio. It is the model. Miriam gives the sacristan a generous donation to be expended for masses designed to give rest to Brother Antonio’s soul.
Donatello’s attitude has changed. He cannot forget the face of Brother Antonio. Miriam tries to comfort him. She assures him that she loves him. However, Donatello shudders at her touch. She realizes that the presence of his accomplice intensifies his remorse. So Miriam decides that they must part company. She urges him to return to his home in the Apennines and sadly bids him farewell.
Miriam then visits Hilda, who repulses her. Hilda has witnessed not only the murder, but also the evil expression in Miriam’s eyes when the murder was committed. Hilda is a pious girl, and she feels that she will be drawn into sin if she continues her friendship with Miriam.
The scene shifts to the home of the Count di Monte Beni, who is none other than Donatello. It is June, and dangerous sicknesses tend to occur in Rome during the summer, so Kenyon leaves the city and pays a visit to the count.
Kenyon is interested in the ancestors of Donatello. Its legendary history goes back to pre-Roman times. The founder of the family is supposedly the offspring of a sylvan creature and a mortal maiden. Kenyon thinks that this may explain Donatello’s likeness to the Faun of Praxiteles.
However, Kenyon notices that Donatello is no longer a happy-go-lucky faun. Tomaso, Donatello’s butler, has also noticed the change, as have others in the area. It is generally agreed that a cloud has descended on the home of Donatello.
One day, at the request of Kenyon, Donatello tries to summon the wild animals to his side, as he regularly did when he was young and innocent. Now, however, they run away from him. They smell death.
Though Donatello has learned to control his emotions, his guilt weighs heavily on his heart. He finds temporary relief only once – when Kenyon, in an apparently casual remark, points out that a penitent may find peace by doing good to his fellow men. When Kenyon says this, Donatello briefly looks like the Faun of Praxiteles once more.
Miriam has come to Monte Beni. Kenyon and Donatello hear her singing a powerful song. Later Miriam wishes to speak with Kenyon. She tells him that she can do nothing but brood. It troubles her that the very sight of her fills Donatello with horror.
Kenyon assures her that Donatello still loves her. He understands to an extent what is troubling Donatello, and he suggest that the faun avoids her because of a feeling of guilt and a desire to do penance. He urges her to talk to him
Kenyon’s words bring joy to Miriam’s heart. However, she is afraid to talk with Donatello. If he again shudders at her presence, she feels that she will die.
Kenyon offers the following suggestion. He will take a sight-seeing tour with Donatello. Miriam will contrive to meet him on the way. Miriam suggests that if she cannot arrange an impromptu encounter, she will go to the statue of Pope Julius III in the square of Perugia a fortnight after the tour begins. She asks Kenyon to bring Donatello there.
The tour gives Hawthorne ample opportunity to describe rural Italy. It also gives Donatello the opportunity to kneel as a penitent before the many altars that they encounter. He feels some relief when he gives alms to beggars.
The meeting at the statue of Pope Julius has satisfactory results. Miriam learns that Donatello still loves her. She looks to Kenyon for advice. He tells them that destiny has forged a link between them. Because evil has brought them together, they cannot hope to receive pleasure from their union; but they can support and comfort one another. He concludes with the observation that if one of them has to make the supreme sacrifice for the other, he should do so willingly.
They notice that Pope Julius seems to bestow a benignant glance at the repentant pair.
The denouement is shrouded in mystery. Much later, Miriam and Donatello return to Rome. Donatello feels that he must confess his guilt to the authorities, and Miriam cannot talk him out of it. In the last scenes in which Donatello appears, his cheerfulness temporarily returns, and he and Miriam are enjoying their final moments of happiness. After this, Miriam makes one final appearance. She is alone.
A subplot has a happy ending. Kenyon has loved Hilda for a long time, but she seems unapproachable. He has always treated her as nothing more than a friend, since he knows that any attempt at courtship would certainly be rebuffed. Her only love has been the works of old masters like Raphael, which she assiduously copies.
However, since the time of the tragedy, her love for the old painters has cooled. Even after her spirits recover, she does not approach her work with the same uncompromising devotion as before. So Kenyon is able to persuade her to marry him. They return home and enjoy life by a pleasant New England fireside.
The novel has its pluses and minuses. The biggest pluses are the interesting descriptions of Italian phenomena. The biggest minuses are some of the philosophical remarks, such as Kenyon’s tentative comment on the possibility that sin might prove to be educational. This thought occurs several times in the novel, and it closely resembles Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden.
The Marble Faun may be read online. It is presented by Classical Authors.