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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

The Artist of the Beautiful

Alienation in "The Artist of the Beautiful": Introduction

Material prepared by:
David Donavel , Department of English
Masconomet Regional High School, 


Andy's Butterfly Altered (photography by Andrew Martinez)

While the artist in many of Hawthorne's stories and novels is represented as both outside of society and a failure, Owen Warland of "The Artist of the Beautiful," however alienated, achieves a redemptive success through his art. Slim and delicate, fascinated by the ideal, Warland stands in sharp contrast both to the shrewd Yankee, Peter Hovenden, who is also the father of Annie, the woman Warland loves, and to Robert Danforth, the physically powerful, good natured, but intellectually limited blacksmith who takes Annie for his wife. From the outset Warland's dream is to imbue a mechanism with spirit, an ambition closely related to Mother Rigby's bringing a scarecrow to life in "Feathertop" or Drowne's animating his wooden sculpture in "Drowne's Wooden Image." On and off throughout the tale he devotes energy to this project and ultimately creates an excruciatingly delicate butterfly that he offers as a belated wedding gift to Annie and Robert. The butterfly delights Annie, interests Robert, earns the scorn of old Peter Hovenden and is finally crushed in the infantile but mighty grasp of the child who bears an uncanny and malignant resemblance to his grandfather, Peter Hovenden, the man whose coarse and ill humored temperament has been the bane of Warland's existence. The destruction of Warland's life work, however distressing to Annie and perhaps the reader, does not upset Owen Warland as he has discovered that "the reward of all high performance must be sought within itself, or sought in vain." Warland is able to look on serenely at the destruction of his mechanical butterfly-a mechanism worth, as an object of art, a good deal of money-because "he had caught a far other butterfly than this."


Warland can be understood as, perhaps, Hawthorne's most successful artist/intellectual. He neither sinks back into spiritual stagnation as does Drowne, nor does he live in constant battle with the world as does Ethan Brand, the old witch Mother Rigby of "Feathertop," or even poor Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. And, unlike Holgrave of The House of the Seven Gables, Warland does not opt for the values of the marketplace at his first opportunity. Whether Warland's ultimate "victory" at the end of the tale reflects the solace Hawthorne himself found in the act of creation remains a question. If it does, then it would seem "The Artist of the Beautiful" represents a kind of answer to the judgment Hawthorne imagined his Puritan ancestors making of him in "The Custom House:" "A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!"

Passages Related to Alienation in "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Andy's Butterfly Altered (photography by Andrew Martinez)
  • In this excerpt artist Owen Warland's contemporaries assess his fascination with the beautiful and with art as mere madness. Hawthorne observes that such a judgment is "soothing to the injured sensibility of narrowness and dullness," a judgment as harsh in its own way as the one made of Warland. Hawthorne goes on to suggest that the artist or intellectual has always been judged this way: "From Saint Paul's days, down to our poor little Artist of the Beautiful, the same talisman had been applied to the elucidation of all mysteries in the words or deeds of men, who spoke or acted too wisely or too well."
  • Even Annie, the love of Warland's life, has a secret scorn for his pursuit of the beautiful, but Warland, understanding that Annie is a woman belonging to a coarser world than the one he inhabits, remains unaffected by her judgment, for Warland has found something finer in the pursuit of his art than any other person might give him. 
  • In this passage Hawthorne suggests the kind of aspirations that drive all artists, not just Owen Warland, and may here be revealing something of his own artistic ambition.
  • The conclusion of the tale leaves little doubt that Owen has transcended any attachment to the actual physical butterfly and has caught, in the act of creation, something much more valuable and rare than the likes of Peter Hovenden will ever see. 
  • Peter Hovenden, representative in Hawthorne's view of a large portion of mankind, shares the popular perception that artistic creation is morally suspect, the province of evil spirits, a perception not altogether rejected by Hawthorne himself. The passage also illustrates Hovenden's mercantile blindness, his inability to raise his sight above the "dusty" prizes one might find "along the highway." It is no surprise, then, that Hovenden is represented as Owen Warland's nemesis
  • In a passage remarkable for what it reveals about the loneliness of one devoted to artistic or intellectual pursuits, Hawthorne groups poets, prophets, reformers, and criminals. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter comes immediately to mind as well as numerous other characters from his stories and novels, individuals blessed and tortured with imagination or aspirations that take them out of the mass of mankind. 
      Full text of "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Images Related to "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Andy's Butterfly Altered
Andy's Butterfly Altered
This living butterfly gives a sense of what Owen Warland was trying to recreate mechanically. The image here has been altered by the photographer and so, in a way, is as artificial a butterfly as the one Owen created in "The Artist of the Beautiful." (photography by Andrew Martinez)

Critical Commentary Related to Alienation and the Artist in "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Andy's Butterfly Altered (photography by Andrew Martinez)


Lectures and Articles Related to "Feathertop"

Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)