“The Artist of the Beautiful,” Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1844 — Owen Warland is a watchmaker who has taken over the shop of his former master, Peter Hovenden. His delicate hands suit him for intricate work, but his aspiration to create the beautiful leads to a disinterest in work and society, with the exception of Hovenden’s daughter, Annie, whom he believes might possess an intuitive or spiritual connection to Beauty, despite a failed attempt to elicit a “deeper understanding” of his intricate creations (miniature insects, a butterfly) to Annie.
When he learns that Annie is engaged to the town blacksmith, Robert Danforth, he is stunned. The narrator notes that had he won the heart of his “angel” earlier, she might have faded into “ordinary woman,” or he may have found that he was now “rich in beauty that out of its mere redundancy he might have wrought the beautiful into many a worthier type than he had toiled for…”
But now that Annie has been “snatched away,” he falls into a “fit of illness.” Once recovered, he is changed, and the townspeople happily regard his endless babbling on topics such as automata and the “Brazen Head of Friar Bacon” as a sign that he has finally gone mad. He confesses that his intent was to “spirtualize machinery, and to combine with the new species of life and motion thus 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.” But he has gained “common sense” now, and intends to abandon the dream, as he has “lost faith in the invisible.”
However, for reasons unknown, Warland once again takes up his obsession. He attends Annie’s engagement party and is startled by the present of an infant, something so “sturdy and real” in his presence. He quickly regains his composure and presents her with a gift that, if she knows how to “value” it, “can never come too late.” She opens the jewelbox and a butterfly of indescribably radiant beauty emerges and flies around the room. Delighted, Annie repeatedly exclaims, “Is it alive?” Warland explains that it has absorbed his life essence, the intellect, imagination, the sensibility of the Artist of the Beautiful, not merely outwardly but “deep as its whole system.”
Danforth, too, is grinning with childlike delight at the “plaything” and asks whether it would alight on his clumsy finger. With Warland’s help, it does, and Danforth lavishes praise on Warland, but notes that as a blacksmith, he would have put the time Warland spent on his creation to much better use. Warland waits for Annie–now a “represenative of the world” to Warland–to sympathize or reject Danforth’s “estimate of the comparative value of the beautiful and the practical.”
As he waits, Peter Hovenden asks to examine the butterfly; when it touches his finger, its spiritual essence or “magnetism” is affected, and it droops, as if dying. Hovenden withdraws his finger and the butterfly alights on the hand of the toddler, suddenly regains its lustre. It tries to return to Warland, but the artist refuses, as it has now been sent into the world. It approaches the infant, who suddenly adopts his “grandsire’s sharp and shrewd expression.” The infant snatches the butterfly out of the air and crushes it. Annie screams; Hovenden laughs. Warland is calm. “He had caught a far other butterfly than this. When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal sense became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality.”
Comments: Online text at Novel Shelf. Those interested in this period or this author are encouraged to read the introduction to H. Bruce Franklin’s Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Franklin notes in a later section on Automata that this story is akin to many tales of automata in that the mechanical creation takes the place of sexual reproduction. Themes include automata, women’s intution, the mad misfit, the relation of science to art, woman as a stand-in for the ideal of beauty, the material versus the spiritual, perpetual motion, the obsession of the artist.
Author: Wikipedia: “Nathaniel Hawthorne (born Nathaniel Hathorne; July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864) was an American novelist and short story writer.”