30 pages 1 hour read

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Artist of the Beautiful

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1844

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Summary: “The Artist of the Beautiful”

The United States Magazine and Democratic Review first published Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” in 1844. Two years later, it appeared in a collection of Hawthorne’s stories, Mosses from an Old Manse. Drawing from both Romantic and Transcendentalist traditions, “The Artist of the Beautiful” is a science-fictional tale about the creation of art and the life of the artist, set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution.

Peter Hovenden and his daughter, Annie, walk by Owen Warland’s watchmaking shop, where the young man is working on a delicate mechanism. Peter used to own the shop and is Owen’s former master. He makes a disparaging comment about Owen, noting the man’s “foolery,” and points out that what Owen’s working on is clearly not a watch. Annie thinks that Owen may be inventing something, but Peter doesn’t think that he has the required ingenuity. He adds that Owen ruined the accuracy of some of the watches in his shop. Annie hushes him, thinking that Owen might be able to hear.

Peter and Annie pass the blacksmith’s shop, where Robert Danforth is working amidst sparks of light. Peter is more approving of this tradesman, saying, “He spends his labor upon a reality” (6). Again, Annie hushes him, but Peter doesn’t care. He says that watchmakers lose their health and eyesight; by contrast, blacksmithing uses strength and is wholesome and real. Robert hears and agrees.

Back at the watchmaker’s shop, Owen has a “delicate ingenuity,” and tries to make his work imitate movement in nature. He does not like working with ordinary machinery. Once, when he saw a steam-engine, Owen got sick, feeling the machine was “monstrous and unnatural” (7). Family members, knowing his peculiarities, apprenticed him to a watchmaker. Owen was a quick learner, but he ignored the main business of watchmaking. After taking over the shop, Owen’s work became fanciful, and his clients stopped using his services. Owen doesn’t mind his lack of clients, since he is obsessed with “the characteristic tendencies of his genius” (8).

After Peter and Annie stopped outside the shop, Owen becomes too nervous to proceed with his work, as he is in love with Annie. While he is trying to settle himself back to work, Robert comes inside to deliver an anvil. When Owen calls it suitable, Robert notes, “I put more main strength into one blow of my sledge hammer than all that you have expended since you were a ‘prentice’” (9). Robert asks what Owen is working on, and Owen scoffs at Robert’s question of whether he’s working on perpetual motion. Robert leaves, after an offer of help. Owen reflects on how all his work seems “vain and idle” (10) after Robert’s visit. He tries to get back to work but ruins his mechanism with a fatal stroke.

Following this incident, Owen despairs for a while, then starts to do what the townspeople considers to be good work. Eventually, they invite Owen to regulate the church steeple clock, and “the town in general thanked Owen for the punctuality of dinner time” (11).

Peter visits Owen, saying that if only Owen would rid himself of his notions about beauty, he could be successful. He inspects his former apprentice’s work and finds a delicate piece under a bell glass, Owen’s labor of love.  Peter threatens to smash the piece and free Owen from his unearthly bonds. Owen, overexcited, tells Peter that Peter is the evil spirit. Peter leaves with a sneer on his face.

As summer arrives, Owen starts to neglect his work in favor of the outdoors, chasing butterflies and wandering through fields and forests. At night, he goes back to his project, though his progress is slow. One night, Annie comes in, wanting him to repair a thimble. She makes a remark about his being “taken up with the notion of putting spirit into machinery” (14), which makes him think that she truly understands him better than anyone. He wants to explain his work to her, but in the next moment she touches the item in a way that makes Owen realize he has been fooling himself. He tells her, “That touch has undone the toil of months and the thought of a lifetime!” (15).

That winter, Owen receives a small inheritance and slips into dissipation, failing to work and spending his time drinking wine. One day, a butterfly enters the room and flutters around his head. He remarks, “Are you alive again, child of the sun and playmate of the summer breeze, after your dismal winter’s nap? Then it is time for me to be at work!” (16). He quits drinking and starts wandering again, watching butterflies whenever he sees one and working at night. The townspeople think he is mad.

Peter Hovenden invites Owen over to celebrate the engagement of Annie and Robert, and Owen shatters his “little system of machinery” (18). He becomes ill, causing him to look plump and round like a child. He babbles about machinery and how to combine life and motion to produce an ideal beauty.

Soon, Owen is back to his project. This time, he is more diligent because he fears that death will interrupt his labors. However, “It was his fortune, good or bad, to achieve the purpose of his life” (21).

One night, Owen goes to Robert and Annie’s home, where Peter is a guest. Peter’s first greeting to his former apprentice is, “How comes on the beautiful? Have you created it at last?” (23). Owen responds that he has indeed succeeded. In fact, he presents it to Annie as a bridal gift to his childhood friend: “If,—forgive me, Annie,—if you know how—to value this gift, it can never come too late” (23). He produces a jewel box inlaid with a picture of a boy chasing a butterfly. When the case opens, a butterfly exits and alights on her fingertip: “It is impossible to express by words the glory, the splendor, the delicate gorgeousness which were softened into the beauty of this object” (23). The butterfly flies around the room and then settles again on Annie’s finger. Annie and Robert wonder if it is alive, and Owen confesses that the mechanism has absorbed his own being.

The butterfly lands on Robert’s finger, and he praises it, adding that there is no “real use” in it compared to his sledge hammer. Owen longs for Annie to appreciate the mechanism the way he does, but he can see that she scorns it in a way so secret she may not even realize it.

Annie calls to her father to appreciate the butterfly. Peter rises from his chair, but the butterfly will not land on his fingertip. Instead, it droops and grows dim. Annie cries out that it is dying. Owen is calm, saying, “In an atmosphere of doubt and mockery its exquisite susceptibility suffers torture, as does the soul of him who instilled his own life into it” (26). Annie tells her father to take his hand away; she hopes that if the butterfly rests on her son’s innocent hand, it will revive. It does, growing brighter; yet Owen sees an expression of Peter’s in the boy’s face that is “redeemed from his hard skepticism into childish faith” (27). The parents admire their child.

The butterfly, meanwhile, brightens and dims. It rises, leaving sparkles on the carpet. It tries to return to Owen, but Owen murmurs that it cannot. The butterfly struggles toward the child, who snatches it and shatters it into glittering fragments. Owen looks on placidly, but it is no loss for him. The narrator notes: “When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality” (28).