Sara S.
March 12, 1999
Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville

Faith in ``The Artist of the Beautiful''

``Thus it is, that ideas which grow up within the imagination, and appear so lovely to it, and of a value beyond whatever men call valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the Practical. It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects to which it is directed'' (365).

Owen Warland is the possessor of wondrously inconceivable ideas ``which grow up within the imagination.'' A watchmaker by occupation, he is expected to be practical and concerned with utility. But his ideas are directly in contrast with the essence of practicality. Unlike the Greek idea of combining the useful with the beautiful, his is an idea of beauty in a form so pure that it cannot be tainted by the Practical. He is a scientist concerned with nature and deeply puzzled by mechanics, but fundamentally he is an artist, driven to create for the sake of creation alone, driven not by fact but by faith.

To the misfortune of the townspeople, Owen is concerned not with keeping accurate time, but with beauty and minute detail. He cares little for fixing watches when he could be making improvements on them and giving them melodies. He is fascinated by the mystical workings of nature and motion. He yearns for knowledge of that which is larger than himself. His is a pure aesthetic, and his desire is to replicate natural beauty. This he strives to embody in a replica of the beautifully delicate butterfly which is both natural and unnatural.

The town sees him as a nuisance, and he is generally considered to be crazy. Certainly he is inflicted with obsession; he is obsessed with impossible and impractical pursuits. Yet despite the resistance and scoffing with which he is presented, he maintains faith in his idea of spiritualization, of endowing a mechanical creation with a sort of life. He wants to be the artist not only only of the beautiful, but of the natural and enigmaticly incomprehensible. He wants to make something so great that man cannot even begin to fathom its design.

His lofty goals are foreign to his acquaintances. The antithesis of his personality manifests itself in the character of Peter Hovenden, an older man to whom he was apprenticed. Acquiring his shop, he supposedly learned from Peter so as to imitate him, but instead the ideas, in fact the very essence, of Peter repel him and drive him further into his perhaps unworthy pursuit. Owen's ambition is impractical not only because it serves no practical purpose, but also because of the excessive effort which Owen exerts. As Owen is compelled by the beautiful, Peter's raison d'etre is practicality. Unlike Peter, Owen is not at all concerned with the practical. While a watchmaker is supposed to be practical, considering beauty secondary if at all, Owen is wholly compelled by his desire to create the beautiful. Owen's dream is ``exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the Practical.'' For him the beautiful is pure, with vulnerability and without utility; those who fail to recognize beauty are ``Evil Spirits'' attempting to infect him with the disease of skepticism. And to some extent they do succeed in corrupting him with this malignancy.

The short story traces the progress and numerous setbacks of his endeavor. Essentially, any intrusion on the part of the outside world, any distraction from his task, disturbs Owen's advancement. Every scene that presents another person in his shop is destined to end in failure. It is interesting to note that while other people catalyze the demise of the art, until the very end, it is always Owen who is actively destroying his work. Talking to Robert, a blacksmith who represents brute force, Owen begins to doubt his cause. In Robert's presence, he and his ideal are reduced, diminutized to objects of ridicule. Then, having his concentration disturbed and forgetting the delicacy and precision necessary to his art, Owen shatters the object of his devotion and dedication. This is a devastating moment, the first of many in a path of frustration and acknowledgement of futility. This is the initial intrusion of doubt into Owen's self-contained world. Like Rappaccini's daughter, Peter's scornful skepticism is a poison which kills, his doubts victimizing the dreams and ideas of the beautiful.

It is only Annie, Peter's daughter, whose presence Owen does not find immediately nonconducive to his art. She is younger and may be able to offer him solace. He becomes, however, sorely disappointed, as Annie proves to be both distracting, causing him again to destroy his art, and incapable of understanding. As long as Owen devotes attention and affection to Annie, he cannot have the focus nor diligence to bring his aesthetic into material form. Again and again, Owen comes so close to achieving his goal, only to regress after seeing Peter. Peter's last intrusion into the store is to tell the artist of Annie's engagement. Owen, who earlier says he must suffer for his deception, here seems to play an active role in his suffering. The evil spirit inside him struggles to break free and he allows himself ``one slight outbreakŠ. Raising the instrument with which he was about to begin his work, he let it fall upon the little system of machinery that had, anew, cost him months of thought and toil'' (373). Clearly, it is Owen, not Peter, who is in control here, who allows his hard work to be decimated. He has lost faith in Annie, his future, and finally and fatally in his creation.

The artist is oppressed, above all, by a society that is concerned only with that which is practical. This society is too scientific, too calculating, to have any room for beauty. The same single-mindedness that causes Aylmer to see Georgiana's birthmark as a defect and enables him to become overwhelmed by the task of its removal to the exclusion of all other thought is the societal flaw that barricades beauty from entrance into the everyday world. Like the world in which Hawthorne finds himself, art seems to be persecuted by a non-appreciative audience.

In such an atmosphere, art is open to attack. Owen's beliefs leave him vulnerable; even ``the slightest pressure of [Peter's] finger would ruin [him] forever'' (367). He feels a strong sense of purpose and is very much aware of the societal forces with which he must contend. ``The leaden thoughts and the despondency that [the hard, coarse world] fling upon me are my clogs. Else, I should long ago have achieved the task that I was created for'' (367). Peter's contempt and indignation, emblamatized by his sneer, haunt Owen's so-called purposeless purpose. In a more positive reading of the interactions of these two men, one considers that this contempt is necessary in order to encourage Owen. His goal becomes twofold: to create the beautiful and to prove his worthiness to others by showing this beauty. It is only within this oppression that marginalizes the artist that Owen can really create and attain the purity necessary for bringing his dreams into reality. He is able to overcome disbelief and transform it into the fire needed to see his project to completion. But each failure on the part of others to understand precipitates his failure to retain faith, leaving him further from his goal. Their doubt of him instills doubt within his soul as well, a doubt which prevents him from peaceful work.

Although both physically weak and thoroughly impractical, Owen has a strength unmatched by any of the other characters. He ``possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy.'' In order to complete his task, Owen Warland must have unwavering faith in his ability to reach its completion. It is this strength, this hungry burning desire, that is characteristic of the artist. From each setback he eventually acquires renewed faith to continue. He is an artist working against, almost in spite of, reality. This requires tremendous determination. His only real hindrance is doubt.

Like its creator, the butterfly is not immune to vulnerability. The Achilles tendon of both is doubt. Much as Owen is unable to retain himself in the presence of Peter, the butterfly's wings droop when it rests on the old watchmaker's finger. Owen explains the quintessential thesis of the story, which applies to the beautiful and its artist. ``In an atmosphere of doubt and mocking, its exquisite susceptibility suffers torture, as does the soul of him who instilled his own life into it'' (383). Faith is the fuel for Owen's inspiration, doubt the genesis of his failure.

Unlike Aylmer and Rappaccini, Owen is successful. He succeeds because he is interested not in the beauty that he has created, but in the beauty from which it was created. Owen's true beauty is not the marvelous almost-living butterfly he crafts, but the beautiful faith that was needed to create the butterfly. Owen has the soul of an artist, never ceasing because of hardships, because something seems impractical or impossible.

Despite his self-proclaimed success, the ending is tragic. The butterfly, representing years of Owen's work, is cruelly crushed, as should be Owen's remaining faith in the innocence and potential for redemption of humanity. Owen is to be forever ostracized in his community. Not even a small child has appreciation for the awesome; not even Annie is capable of fully understanding his motivations. ``Alas, that the artist, whether in poetry or whatever other material, may not content himself with the inward enjoyment of the Beautiful, but must chase the flitting mystery beyond the verge of his ethereal domain, and crush its frail being in seizing it with a material grasp!'' (368) This is a bittersweet success, an internal triumph not to be recognized by the outside observer. The butterfly is too perfect, too fragile, to exist in this world. At the conclusion of the story, very little has changed. The butterfly is destroyed; Peter is still scornful; the blacksmith is still the forceful masculine counterpart to Owen's appreciation of the delicate. The mystery of beauty is gone. None of Owen's acquaintances attain any enlightenment. But the butterfly was not brought into being for their edification. The butterfly exists only for those who want and need the butterfly, and the butterfly attempts to protect itself from those who are not ready for beauty.

Owen's success then stems from his self-reliance. His happiness is not affected by the derision of society because he has no need for society and its acceptance. He transcends beyond the physical realm. Indeed, as the story concludes: ``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'' (385).

Process Notes:

When I first sat down to write this paper, I only knew that I wanted to write about one of three stories: ``The Artist of the Beautiful,'' ``The Birthmark,'' and ``Rappaccini's Daughter.'' I considered writing about all three (science, art, and success), but decided that would be far too much material. After rereading the stories, I settled on ``The Artist.'' I've read the story a number of times now, and it is starting to make more sense to me. I originally saw the primary struggle as one between the practical and the purely aesthetic, but now I think it has more to do with a faith that is stronger than the rational versus practical doubt. It is not about Owen's struggle with others, but his struggle with the doubting element of himself. Rereading the scene where Owen learns of Annie's engagement, I was surprised to find the possibility that Owen purposely broke his machinery.

I also tried to consider what each character represents, and I am still not certain. In the final scene Peter laughs, Robert displays his force, Annie cries out, and Owen is mostly not affected. It seems then that Peter is cruel mockery and scorn, Robert the strong to contrast the delicate, Annie the hope for understanding of the beautiful, and Owen the artist above this reality. But that analysis is not wholly satisfactory to me because it doesn't touch upon practicality and doubt, the two universal qualities of his town.

Another ambiguity for me to consider was the role that Annie plays in Owen's life. I am not really convinced that she is important. She is Owen's distraction and disappointment. He would like his love to be for her and hers for him, but he must focus his love on his art if he is to achieve greatness in that aspect. If they were to be happily married, it seems to me, Owen would be giving up the potential of his art. If they were to be unhappily united, perhaps Owen would continue his art.

This idea of overcoming obstacles and reclaiming their power occurs many times in the story. Owen, and the artist in general, is not only growing in spite of oppressive conditions, but is flourishing from ruin and decay (moss).

The butterfly was another symbol I wanted to consider and the analogy of a child chasing a butterfly, aspiring to grasp an unattainable beauty, desiring to understand the mysteries of the natural world. Butterflies are beautiful because of their intricate design and coloration and because of their motion in flight, they flutter somewhere off the ground, but not too far off the ground. And butterflies are short-lived and undergo a rapid succession of change. They epitomize Owen's aesthetic as they are minute and delicate.

But this is all too much material which is why it is in my process notes. I started with almost three pages of thoughts and quotes and ended up deleting more than half of them. I tried to keep the focus of this paper on only two things: faith and success, resisting the urge to bring up other points. The opening quotation is about dreams, value to society, delicacy, faith, antagonism, and direction. These are crucial ideas to the development of the story and to the development of the beautiful.