The Artist of the Beautiful | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Artist of the Beautiful | Themes


The Creative Spirit

The protagonist Owen Warland is an artist. Owen Warland is compelled to translate the beauty that he observes in the natural world into something of his own creation. At the beginning of his work life, Owen Warland struggles to adapt himself to practical pursuits. He observes that this is what the majority of those around him do. Owen Warland has excellent manual dexterity, so he becomes an apprentice to a watchmaker. However, he cannot nourish his creative spirit repairing watches. He must turn his attention to creating the dream of his imagination.

The goal of Owen's creative imagination is to infuse a tiny mechanized object with a spirit. This seemingly impossible goal is a challenge not only to his creative life but also to his practical life. Owen Warland passes through periods of despair as he rises to the challenges of both. Several times either he or someone else destroys the tiny mechanisms he creates. During some periods he is unable to sustain his creative spirit and surrenders to drink and depression. When his creative spirit is dormant during these times, it is as though he leads a hollow existence. This is not his true nature, and his spirit and soul must emerge. His inspiration returns when a splendid butterfly flies through a barroom window and flits around his head. The beauty and the soul of this creature reawaken Owen's soul. He can commune with this creature better than with most human beings in his life. He sees his goal clearly again.

Universal Soul

Transcendentalism was a 19th-century movement of social thinkers in New England. A core belief of the transcendentalists was that there was a pervading universal spirit that inhabited all living organisms. The transcendentalists believed all creatures of the natural world possessed this spirit. These philosophers encouraged people to transcend the materialism of the world to become mindful of this universal spirit.

There is no evidence that Nathaniel Hawthorne subscribed to the ideas of transcendentalism, but his character Owen Warland does. When describing the butterfly he has created, Owen Warland says that "it has absorbed my own being into itself; and in the secret of that butterfly ... is represented the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful!" The butterfly and the artist share the universal spirit that exists in the whole universe of living things. The narrator comments that the butterfly's "ethereal instincts with which its master's spirit had endowed it impelled this fair vision involuntarily to a higher sphere." When the butterfly tries to fly back to Owen Warland's fingertip to regain his positive energy, Owen rejects it. He says to the butterfly, "Thou has gone forth out of thy master's heart. There is no return for thee." The butterfly shares the universal spirit with Owen Warland, but it must exist on its own as Owen has had to do his whole life.

Human Dynamics

The artist Owen Warland is an isolated individual. He does not experience personal or artistic support from other human beings. His life is a lonely struggle even though he attempts to participate in material pursuits like those around him. He works for the watchmaker Peter Hovenden and is manually dexterous, yet the work gives him no satisfaction. Peter Hovenden is not supportive of Owen Warland and is scornful of his lack of strength and practicality. He says, "Did you ever hear of a blacksmith being such a fool as Owen Warland yonder?"

Owen Warland feels a glimmer of hope that he might have a connection with another human being when Annie Hovenden pays him a visit. She comes into his shop one day for him to repair her silver thimble. She laughingly asks him if he will condescend to the task because she knows that he is much occupied with another goal. Annie Hovenden observes, "you are so taken up with the notion of putting spirit into machinery." Owen Warland is thrilled that Annie Hovenden understands his desired goal. He is so excited that he tells her he would do anything for her sake, "even were it to work at Robert Danforth's forge."

Annie has a minimal understanding of Owen, but Owen connects "all his dreams of artistic success with Annie's image. She was the visible shape in which the spiritual power that he worshipped, and on whose altar he hoped to lay a not unworthy offering, was made manifest to him." In the end Owen Warland realizes that his connection with Annie Hovenden is a figment of his imagination. He has deceived himself. When he goes to her home to present her with his miraculous mechanized butterfly, there is "amid all her kindness towards himself ... a secret scorn—too secret, perhaps, for her own consciousness, and perceptible only to such intuitive discernment as that of the artist." Owen Warland has not experienced a sustaining human connection. He has lived a solitary life, but he has achieved the goal of his creative spirit.

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