A Summary of The Artist of the Beautiful
The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about the young artist Owen Warland. A synopsis of his story follows.
His Former Master
The story opens with the old [wiki]Peter Hovenden[/wiki] walking with his daughter Annie. They pass a small clock shop where they see a young man hard at work.
The sight of his former apprentice, Owen Warland, at work irritates Peter. Peter is positive that Owen is not working on a clock but rather messing around with Perpetual Motion or some other nonsense.
Annie defends Owen saying that he is certainly smart enough to invent something new but Peter denies the possibility saying that Owen’s ingenuity only ruins good clocks.
Annie and Peter walk on and soon they pass the shop of Robert Danforth the blacksmith. The watchmaker admires the trade of smithing saying that it is best to earn a living doing something that relies on strength and reality. He claims that a watchmaker gets his brains addled thinking about wheels and ruins his eyes looking at tiny things.
Inherent Love of Beauty
The narrator returns to the subject of Warland stating that from early childhood Owen had a curiosity about the hidden mysteries in Nature. He was never interested in usefulness only in gracefulness. Once, when he saw a steam engine. It made him sick.
Owen preferred the Beautiful Idea to the useful; and was inclined to find more interest in working with small things than large. As a result, his family decided that it would be best to apprentice him to a watchmaker. His master, Peter Hovenden, found him quick to understand ‘professional mysteries,’ but also discovered that Owen didn’t care about the measurement of time at all.
Hovenden’s eyesight failed and he was forced to turn the shop over to Owen. Owen’s business diminished rapidly after several incidents where he was given family clocks to repair and he embellished them with moving figures that represented the twelve hours.
In addition to failing his customers, Owen became obsessed with a time-consuming, secret project.
Annie is the only acquaintance that Owen thinks might understand what he is trying to do and so he worships her from a distance. Whenever he spends time with her, he finds his concentration disrupted and his fingers clumsy.
Owen’s old schoolmate Robert Danforth is also a negative influence. When delivering a small anvil that Owen had commissioned, Danforth attempts to understand his friend’s work. Owen assures Danforth that he isn’t at all interested in Perpetual Motion. He also acknowledges that strength such as Danforth has is an earthly monster and his ‘force’ is of a spiritual type.
The Destructive Properties of the Practical World
After Danforth leaves, Owen worries about how his “passion for the Beautiful” seems worthless whenever he meets with Danforth. Immediately after this, Owen inadvertently wrecks the fragile mechanism on which he works.
After the destruction of his project, Owen becomes dejected and becomes a proper craftsman. He succeeds and is commissioned to work on the town clock. Peter Hovenden comes to the shop to rejoice over the worldly success of his former apprentice. Owen is discouraged and cries out to Hovenden “You are my Evil Spirit, you, and the hard, coarse, world!”
Renewing Properties of Summer
As summer progresses, Owen leaves his shop to itself and wanders around musing over butterflies and his dream to create a physical machine that would make his ideas seem real. After wandering during the day, he returns to town, goes into his shop, and works on his ‘Idea.’
One day Annie enters his shop to ask him to repair her thimble. She jokingly remarks that she wonders if Owen will do such a small task when he has more important things to do like putting spirit into machines. Owen is startled by her comment and thinks that it means that she understands him. As a result, Owen thinks decides to reveal his ‘Idea’ to her. When he shows her the mechanism, she touches it and once again, his works is ruined.
A Return to Practicalities
Owen despairs and returns to practical life. In the spring, he sees a butterfly and once again he returns to his passion.
Owen becomes ill when Hovenden announces the engagement of Annie to Robert Danforth. When his health returns, he becomes fleshy, he begins to socialize, he loses his faith, and is proud that he has become wise.
A Spirit Awakened
It is unknown what causes Owen to resume his task. However, he begins to work diligently, afraid that death will interrupt him. Life becomes precious. Owen succeeds.
He brings his project to Annie and Robert Danforth as a gift for their son. When he meets the child, he thinks its facial expression matches grandfather Hovenden’s.
Owen presents his gift. When Annie opens the box an exquisite butterfly emerges. The butterfly flits around the room; first Annie and then Danforth hold it. Annie offers it to Peter thinking it will please Owen to receive praise from his former master. Hovenden scorns it and creature droops. Hovenden removes his hand and the butterfly flits to the infant and is reenergized but seems to recognize that the child is heartless and alternately grows bright and then grows faint. It then attempts to fly to Owen.
Owen says that it cannot return for he has released it. Suddenly the child snatches it from the air and destroys it. However, Owen is not upset because he recognizes that when an Artist has the ability to create true beauty, the symbol of that beauty, which he gives to the world doesn’t create his happiness because he now owns the source of Real Beauty.