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Amber Paulen

Good and Bad in The Marble Faun

So much of fiction is a delicate play between all the good forces and all the bad. It’s a theme we can’t tire of. The amount of delicacy used is the choice of the writer. Think of the Lord of the Rings, where some characters are obviously good or bad, while others—the most interesting characters—waver between their affinities. It is such indecision that grabs us because it’s something we can relate to. It’s closer to the truth of daily life and our choices. The thing is, we’re rarely placed between two moral decisions—it’s usually, which option is less bad?

Most of the books I read use the weight of morality subtlety. Like in the last book I read, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. We get the character’s backstory, and under that light, how could he possibly have avoided making such bad choices? There are no clear lines, ever, like life. But this current book I’m reading steps out of that most usual treatment and deals with such issues, as the good and bad within us, very head on.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Marble Faun in the mid 1800s—sadly I know more about Europe at this time than the States—though I do know it was Civil War times and times of Herman Melville. Most of us ran into Hawthorne in school because of The Scarlet Letter. I remember thinking that book boring, and maybe that’s why I’ve avoided The Marble Faun until now. (I picked it up because it’s set in Rome.)

In the beginning of the book (I’ve read half so far), two out of the four characters embody “good,” one is followed by the shadowy part of life, and the last has a kind of genial comfort with both. The symbolism is so obvious: white doves, white robes, Virgin shrine, sylvan dances, catacombs, dark secrets, and a mysterious envelope. At first I thought I wouldn’t like the book because everything was so straight forward, but now, as the book advances I see that this obviousness makes it interesting and that the story couldn’t have been pulled off with characters who had subtle leanings towards the light or dark.

It has also made me wonder if my reaction had something to do with the lack of strongly delineated characters in much of contemporary literary fiction I’ve read. Good or bad characters usually show up in a genre novels. I don’t know enough about Gothic fiction to know if this is one of the archetypes, as The Marble Faun is in that category. But these characters do pose some good questions about what happens when good or bad are put in a novel that tries to get close to life. Will they, can they, remain the same throughout? Can that kind of pure virgin, white goodness survive? Anyway, I’m still reading and finding out.


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