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  • Reading with “The Eye of Faith”:The Structural Principle of Hawthorne’s Romances
  • Magnus Ullén

In a passage of The Marble Faun that reads like a metatextual comment on his own artistic practice, Hawthorne expatiates on the principal importance of the viewer, or reader, of art:

A picture, however admirable the painter's art, and wonderful his power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and imagination. Not that these qualities shall really add anything to what the Master has effected; but they must be put so entirely under his controul, and work along with him to such an extent, that, in a different mood, (when you are cold and critical, instead of sympathetic,) you will be apt to fancy that the loftier merits of the picture were of your own dreaming, not of his creating.

(335)1

While this passage makes it clear that Hawthorne is aware of the reader's creative input in the artistic process, it makes equally clear that the role he assigns to the reader is not one of interpretive freedom. On the contrary, the interpreter's office is to subject himself to the artist's vision, to put his "resources of sensibility and imagination entirely under" the Master's "controul." Art, from this perspective, requires the same devotion as religion. What is not literally present in the work of art (its "highest excellence"), the interpreter must figurally provide. Figurally, because in truth the interpreter is incapable of adding "anything to what the Master has effected," since "the highest excellence" of a work of art is always—and again, in truth—already present within it, albeit simply in figural form. Indeed, it is precisely because the highest excellence of a work of art exists only in figural form that we are liable to doubt its actual, literal existence. [End Page 1]

This play upon the tension between the literal and the figural aspect of art is obviously closely related, if not identical, to Hawthorne's well-known concern for the problematic relation between the Actual and the Imaginary. The present essay attempts to highlight how literally Hawthorne's romances can be seen to pursue the latter relation, and how, in so doing, they invoke the reader's active participation, a participation conducive to a paradoxical faith in the true ideality of the romance. All of Hawthorne's longer fictions, I will argue, are structured on what could be termed a principle of chiastic inversion, to the effect that the second half of the narrative in question subtly but significantly repeats the events of the first half in inverted order. While critics have long admired the symmetrical structure of The Scarlet Letter, in which the narrative acquires artistic form by virtue of the tri-fold location of the scaffold scenes, the structural conception of the other romances has still not been properly appreciated. Yet, as shall be demonstrated, the principle of chiastic inversion at work in The Scarlet Letter revives in each of the subsequent romances.

The reader of the present essay is likely to be struck by the fact that most of my references are to books and articles published between the mid-1940s and 1970s. It may seem then, that the essay is a recrudescence of a brand of New Critical formal analysis that has long gone out of style. While I am happy to acknowledge my debt to this mode of reading, I wish to emphasize at the outset that my principal reason for undertaking this kind of analysis is not that the existing analyses are defective (although they are), but that they rely on a conception of Hawthorne's aesthetics that makes them inherently incapable of accounting for the specific function of the spatial form of Hawthorne's romances. To this very day, Hawthorne is habitually praised for relying on the interpretive freedom of the reader, a notion which can be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-7303
Print ISSN
0040-4691
Pages
pp. 01-36
Launched on MUSE
2006-05-08
Open Access
No
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