Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ has a curious claim to fame: it’s thought to be the first short story to contain a robotic insect. This intriguing tale is layered and rich in symbolism, so like so many of Hawthorne’s stories it requires some careful close analysis.
‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ was first published in 1844 in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review before being included in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1846 collection, Mosses from an Old Manse. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Artist of the Beautiful’: plot summary
Owen Warland makes watches, but he becomes side-tracked by a secret project which consumes his time and attention. He is the former apprentice of Hovenden, who doesn’t speak very highly of Warland’s talents. Hovenden has a daughter, Annie. The story begins with Hovenden and Annie walking around the village; during the course of their watch, Hovenden dismisses Warland and praises Robert Danforth, a practical-minded blacksmith. Hovenden prefers men who work with iron, like blacksmiths, because iron represents ‘reality’. Gold, which Warland works in, is too delicate and rare.
Warland likes to make small, pretty items and dislikes big machines made of iron, like steam engines. He is generally shunned by the people of the village. Warland loves Annie, whom he sees walking outside in the street with her father. Just after that, Robert, the blacksmith, comes into Warland’s shop with an anvil Warland had ordered. When the blacksmith leaves, Warland finds that the influence of Robert’s ‘brute force’ has led to him ruining months of work on a delicate device he has been making.
Despairing, Warland returns to watchmaking, and the people of the village admire this commitment to more orthodox work. He neglects his pretty, delicate projects. Hovenden is encouraged by this change of heart in his former apprentice, but when he visits him and sees the delicate contraption Warland had been working on, he accuses Warland of witchcraft and leaves.
Annie visits Warland’s shop to see if he will mend a thimble for her, and when she remarks upon his efforts to put ‘spirit’ into machinery, he believes she may be the one person who understands what he is endeavouring to do. But when she reaches out to touch the invention with her needle and breaks it, he decides that she doesn’t understand what he is doing.
Annie gets engaged to Robert Danforth, while Warland neglects his work, until one day a butterfly flies into the room and he is inspired to give up drink and return to his project. However, seeing Annie, his ‘angel’, snatched by the blacksmith leads to him falling ill.
Some time later, when Annie has become a wife and mother, Warland finally achieves his ambition to create something beautiful: a tiny jewelled clockwork butterfly, which he presents to Annie as a belated wedding present. Robert admires its beauty but dismisses its lack of practicality next to his blacksmith’s work, and when Hovenden touches it, the butterfly wilts and ‘dies’. Finally, the butterfly lands in the hands of Annie and Robert’s son, who crushes it.
But Warland doesn’t mind: the physical butterfly was merely a mechanical embodiment of his task, which was to make beauty perceptible to the senses.
‘The Artist of the Beautiful’: analysis
As so often in Hawthorne’s work, this tiny mechanical butterfly represents something much greater: in this instance, the artist’s pursuit of ‘the beautiful’. However, Hawthorne puts a considerable amount of distance between his narrator and the views of Owen Warland, whose work is founded in the world of illusion, and is too divorced from reality.
Although we may see Peter Hovenden as too bloody-minded in his pragmatism, and his lauding of the brawny Robert Danforth’s iron ‘reality’ over the delicate and ultimately ‘useless’ toys which Warland creates, Warland’s outlook is too far the other way. He is disdainful of such things as accuracy and timekeeping, much to his former master’s annoyance. When the villagers applaud Warland for turning his talents to practical use – fixing the church clock – he is at odds with their view and believes such a pursuit is a waste of his time and skill. Art may not always need to have a practical purpose, but Warland seems to revel in the attitude later embodied by the Aesthetic movement, and memorably summed up by Oscar Wilde in his statement: ‘All art is quite useless’.
Certainly, the ‘reality’ of Warland’s world is one of rejection and failure: the mechanical butterfly is destroyed, the woman he loves marries someone else, and the villagers largely shun him. Is Warland, then, deluded? Is Hawthorne suggesting that artists must live in a world of their own making, believing their own myths, in order to create? Perhaps, and yet the idea that the artist should live in a world of escapism rather than drawing upon (if not quite fully embracing) reality does not tally with what we know of Hawthorne’s other works of fiction, which are shot through with the interplay between the real and the symbolic.
Another way of viewing ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ is to ask: for the artist, does it necessarily have to be a strict choice between the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘practical’? Is it one of the other? Shortly after Hawthorne wrote ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’, an artist (and writer) across the Atlantic, William Morris, an important figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, would argue that the beautiful and useful should both be present in great art: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
A number of Hawthorne’s stories revolve around individuals who place themselves at odds with the society around them: perhaps the minister’s mysterious adoption of the black veil to cover his face in ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, a decision which costs him his sweetheart and his enjoyment of life, is probably the most famous example. But such figures are often doggedly obsessive about their particular mission or pursuit, as the scientist protagonist is in ‘The Birthmark’, where he will seemingly stop at nothing to rid his beautiful wife of the unsightly blemish on her face.
In the last analysis, Owen Warland of ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ is another such obsessive, who is focused too much on beauty and its creation through art at the cost of reality and the kinship of other people. After all, even Annie, whom he loves, can be dismissed once he has made up his mind that she does not share his artistic vision.