Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Artist of the Beautiful

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The Artist of the Beautiful Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 29-page guide for the short story “The Artist of the Beautiful” by Nathaniel Hawthorne includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Importance of Art and the Evolution of the Artist and Self-Isolation and Self-Trust in the Face of Criticism.

The United States Magazine and Democratic Review first published Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” in 1844. Two years later, it appeared in a collection of Hawthorne’s stories, Mosses from an Old Manse. Drawing from both Romantic and Transcendentalist traditions, “The Artist of the Beautiful” is a science-fictional tale about the creation of art and the life of the artist, set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution.

Peter Hovenden and his daughter, Annie, walk by Owen Warland’s watchmaking shop, where the young man is working on a delicate mechanism. Peter used to own the shop and is Owen’s former master. He makes a disparaging comment about Owen, noting the man’s “foolery,” and points out that what Owen’s working on is clearly not a watch. Annie thinks that Owen may be inventing something, but Peter doesn’t think that he has the required ingenuity. He adds that Owen ruined the accuracy of some of the watches in his shop. Annie hushes him, thinking that Owen might be able to hear.

Peter and Annie pass the blacksmith’s shop, where Robert Danforth is working amidst sparks of light. Peter is more approving of this tradesman, saying, “He spends his labor upon a reality” (6). Again, Annie hushes him, but Peter doesn’t care. He says that watchmakers lose their health and eyesight; by contrast, blacksmithing uses strength and is wholesome and real. Robert hears and agrees.

Back at the watchmaker’s shop, Owen has a “delicate ingenuity,” and tries to make his work imitate movement in nature. He does not like working with ordinary machinery. Once, when he saw a steam-engine, Owen got sick, feeling the machine was “monstrous and unnatural” (7). Family members, knowing his peculiarities, apprenticed him to a watchmaker. Owen was a quick learner, but he ignored the main business of watchmaking. After taking over the shop, Owen’s work became fanciful, and his clients stopped using his services. Owen doesn’t mind his lack of clients, since he is obsessed with “the characteristic tendencies of his genius” (8).

After Peter and Annie stopped outside the shop, Owen becomes too nervous to proceed with his work, as he is in love with Annie. While he is trying to settle himself back to work, Robert comes inside to deliver an anvil. When Owen calls it suitable, Robert notes, “I put more main strength into one blow of my sledge hammer than all that you have expended since you were a ‘prentice’” (9). Robert asks what Owen is working on, and Owen scoffs at Robert’s question of whether he’s working on perpetual motion. Robert leaves, after an offer of help. Owen reflects on how all his work seems “vain and idle” (10) after Robert’s visit. He tries to get back to work but ruins his mechanism with a fatal stroke.

Following this incident, Owen despairs for a while, then starts to do what the townspeople considers to be good work. Eventually, they invite Owen to regulate the church steeple clock, and “the town in general thanked Owen for the punctuality of dinner time” (11).

Peter visits Owen, saying that if only Owen would rid himself of his notions about beauty, he could be successful. He inspects his former apprentice’s work and finds a delicate piece under a bell glass, Owen’s labor of love.  Peter threatens to smash the piece and free Owen from his unearthly bonds. Owen, overexcited, tells Peter that Peter is the evil spirit. Peter leaves with a sneer on his face.

As summer arrives, Owen starts to neglect his work in favor of the outdoors, chasing butterflies and wandering through fields and forests. At night, he goes back to his project, though his progress is slow. One night, Annie comes in, wanting him…

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