The Artist of the Beautiful | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Artist of the Beautiful | Plot Summary & Analysis

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"The Artist of the Beautiful" is a poignant tale about an earnest, ingenious, and thwarted young artist. Owen Warland is the artist of the beautiful and works as a watchmaker in his shop. His former master and his master's daughter walk by the window of the shop and see pale Owen inside hard at work. Owen Warland does not impress his former master Peter Hovenden who did not enjoy having him as an apprentice. Peter Hovenden is scornful of Owen who spoiled the accuracy of some of the best watches in the shop. Peter Hovenden and his daughter Annie Hovenden continue to walk down the street and pass the blacksmith's shop. Peter Hovenden approves of the blacksmith's work and praises the man inside, Robert Danforth. Peter Hovenden appreciates the blacksmith's work because it is productive labor that results in functional objects. By contrast, Owen is "attempting to imitate the beautiful movements of Nature as exemplified in the flight of birds." Peter Hovenden does not understand Owen's goal and considers him a useless dreamer.


Owen Warland experiences two strong emotions after Annie Hovenden passes his shop window. He loves Annie and is filled with frustrated longing for her. When Robert Danforth comes into his shop, Owen experiences another unsettling emotion. He is so disturbed by Danforth's coarse brute force that he accidentally destroys a delicate piece of the tiny mechanism he has been working on for a long time.

Owen is so distraught by the destruction of the tiny mechanism he spent many hours constructing that he abandons his creative endeavor. He directs his focus only on repairing watches. He is disheartened and depressed by these tasks. When Annie comes to the shop to ask Owen to repair her silver thimble, she reveals her notion of what she believes Owen is trying to accomplish. She says to him, "you are so taken up with the notion of putting spirit into machinery." Owen Warland feels a surge of warmth for Annie because she reveals an understanding of him that no one has ever expressed. However, he plunges into despair again when Annie accidentally destroys a tiny mechanism he has been working on for months. Owen gives himself up to drink and despair.

Creative Fulfillment

In a moment of inspiration when a butterfly flits around his head, Owen Warland regains the energy to engage in his work. His goal is to find a way to spiritualize a mechanical object. This is what he will focus on now. His imagination, his thought, and his keen sensibility return to him, and he labors for a long time to achieve his renewed commitment. Over a year later, he visits the home of Annie Hovenden to present her with a long-delayed wedding gift for her marriage to Robert Danforth. He gives her the miraculous invention he has spent so long creating.

Robert Danforth, his infant son, and Peter Hovenden are also there when Owen arrives. Owen opens an elaborate ebony box, and a glorious butterfly emerges. It is more perfect than "Nature's ideal butterfly" and is purple with flecks of gold. Annie cannot determine whether it is a living creature or a machine. They all wonder whether the butterfly is alive or if it is a spiritualized mechanism. When Annie's infant son catches the butterfly, he crushes it in his fist and it crumbles into a multitude of glittery pieces. The infant has destroyed Owen Warland's lifework of a machine infused with spiritual essence.



"The Artist of the Beautiful" begins with the conflicting dynamic among the three main characters. Owen Warland, Peter Hovenden, and Robert Danforth are very different from one another. They each have different purposes and goals in their lives, and these differences prevent them from establishing a strong connection. Owen Warland is the artist of the story. He suffers because he must repair watches rather than devote all his energy to the difficult goal he has set for himself. He wants to recreate the beauty that he sees in Nature, not by creating a painting or poem but by creating a mechanism infused with a spirit. At the end of the story he achieves this seemingly impossible goal. He manages "to spiritualize machinery, and ... produced a beauty that should attain to the ideal which Nature has proposed to herself in all her creatures, but has never taken pains to realize."

Peter Hovenden is the opposite of Owen Warland and is Owen's former master. Owen Warland was his apprentice in the watchmaker's shop. Peter Hovenden did not appreciate Owen Warland because he damaged more watches than he repaired. Peter Hovenden is not only unsympathetic but scornful of Owen who takes over the shop when Peter Hovenden retires. Peter Hovenden admires the strength and useful products of the blacksmith over Owen's fanciful ideas. Peter Hovenden remarks, "Did you ever hear of a blacksmith being such a fool as Owen Warland yonder?"

The blacksmith Robert Danforth is also the opposite of Owen Warland. He is a brawny, strong man who is proud of the energy he puts into his sledgehammer. He is not as scornful of Owen Warland as Peter Hovenden is, but he cannot understand what Owen is trying to create. For his part, Owen is disturbed by Robert Danforth. He says, "His hard, brute force darkens and confuses the spiritual element within me."

The opposition of Peter Hovenden and Robert Danforth to Owen Warland represents the universal struggle of the unrecognized artist who has a unique life goal. Owen's goal is distinctly impractical and unproductive, especially in a society changing dramatically because of the Industrial Revolution. Owen's solitary, unsupported struggle to create the object of his imagination is all the more poignant when his work of art is destroyed. Owen's response to this occurrence represents the true fulfillment of an artist. Owen knows that this fulfillment lies in the process of creation rather than in the product of the creation.

Owen's Emotional Desolation

Several events in Owen Warland's life cause him to plunge into despair. He experiences unrequited love for Annie Hovenden who is the daughter of his former master Peter Hovenden. Owen is a lonely man and suspects that for him Annie Hovenden is unattainable. However, this does not lessen his love for her. His love even increases when she comes into his shop one day and reveals to him her understanding of what he is trying to create. She says, "But that is a strange idea of yours ... about the spiritualization of matter." She may think it is strange, but she has more insight into Owen Warland's goal than anyone else. This recognition fills Owen with hope that he may have found a soul mate in Annie Hovenden.

Owen's hopes are dashed when Annie carelessly destroys a tiny mechanism he has been working on for months. He is filled with despair because he loses his great purpose in life "as if the spirit had gone out of him, leaving the body to flourish in a sort of vegetable existence." Owen is crushed not only because Annie has destroyed his work but also because she has destroyed the connection he believed he had with her. He feels isolated from any human understanding as well as from the goal he so desperately wants to achieve.


Owen Warland spends many hours during this period of despair chasing butterflies as he did as a youth. While he may be unaware of it, his reunion with the natural world nurtures him. Though dormant his desire to recreate a miraculous creature in a mechanism of his own making is still within him. His desire reawakens when a splendid butterfly flits into the barroom window where he is sitting and flutters around his head. At that moment Owen Warland's life purpose floods back to him as if the butterfly has brought him an essential message and reminded him of his higher purpose.

Owen now views the passage of time in his life with anxiety and fears that he will never complete his creation before his death. He works intensely and finally creates his masterpiece which is a spiritualized mechanism with a soul. He chooses Annie Hovenden as its recipient, perhaps because he believes she is the person most likely to understand what he has done. Though he is greeted with cynicism by Robert Danforth and Peter Hovenden, Owen is unperturbed. He has accomplished his goal, and these men cannot deprive him of the fulfilling process he has experienced.

The small group gasps when Owen opens the ebony box he has been carrying and the purple butterfly with flecks of gold on its wings emerges. Owen Warland has not only created a thing of beauty that exceeds Nature's ideal butterfly. He has also infused this wondrous mechanization with a spirit. The onlookers can clearly witness the spirit of the creature as they watch it fly from one fingertip to the next. The butterfly is able to glow on Annie Hovenden's fingertip, but when it lands on Peter Hovenden's fingertip, it loses its brilliance, its wings droop, and it almost falls to the floor. The butterfly is spiritualized. It can intuit when someone like Peter Hovenden believes only in material existence and is doubtful and mocking. A climactic moment occurs when the butterfly lands on the fingertip of the infant. The butterfly and Owen Warland are both aware of something unkind in the infant who very much resembles his grandfather Peter Hovenden. The infant crushes the butterfly in his fist.

Surprisingly, Owen Warland is not shattered by this destruction. He has successfully achieved his dream in creating this spiritualized mechanism. The value for him did not lie in the creation itself but in the act of creation. For every artist this is a universal truth. For Owen Warland the butterfly is the symbol of his creative spirit and the achievement of this spirit in the act of creation. As an artist his spirit rose high enough to create this thing of perfect beauty, and it was the flight of his spirit rather than the flight of the butterfly that gratified him. The narrator observes, "The deeds of earth, however etherealized by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit."

The Artist of the Beautiful Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Owen Warland is working in his watchmaker's shop.

Rising Action

2 Owen Warland accidentally destroys a tiny mechanism.

3 Owen Warland is filled with despair and cannot work.

4 Owen Warland is reinspired and creates his masterpiece.


5 The infant destroys the masterpiece.

Falling Action

6 Owen Warland is unperturbed by the destruction.


7 The process of creation gratifies Owen Warland's spirit.

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