"The Marble Faun" is a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1860. It's the last of his four major romances.
The novel is considered Hawthorne's most romantic book, claimed as one of the strangest major works in American fiction with a theme typical of Hawthorne, that of guilt and eventual destruction of a person.
Writing on the eve of the American Civil War, Hawthorne set his story in Italy. The romance mixes elements of a gothic novel, a pastoral and a travel guide. Less than halfway through the novel, Hawthorne gives the climax, and he intentionally fails to answer the 'whys' of readers.
The primary characters are Miriam, a beautiful painter who is compared to leading ladies of literature like Beatrice Cenci, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, among others, and who is being chased by a mysterious and threatening Capuchin monk; Hilda, an innocent copyist; Kenyon, a sculptor, representing the most rational person in the story; and Donatello, handsome, warm-hearted, and the Count of Monti Beni. Hilda and Kenyon are two Americans studying arts in Rome. Miriam is their friend. The three meet an Italian nobleman named Donatello and notice that he resembles the Marble Faun sculpted by Praxiteles.
Donatello falls in love with Miriam, but she is troubled with her past due to many innuendos and unproven rumours: that she may be the heiress of a Jewish banker fleeing from an unwanted marriage, or a German princess, or mistress of an English nobleman. Whatever the truth is, she is being tormented by a mysterious monk. One night, when the friends – Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon and Donatello - were walking among the hills of Rome, Donatello is angered to find the Capuchin following them. When he got the chance, he pushes him off a precipice.
Horrified by what he has done, Donatello flees to his ancestral estate of Monte Beni, followed by Miriam who shares his guilt. Eventually, he decides to return to Rome, gives himself up and goes to prison. Miriam embarks on a penitential pilgrimage while Hilda remains troubled by witnessing the entire events. She finds relief in a catholic confessional and marriage to Kenyon.
The secret of Miriam's past is never revealed, another of dangling question which Hawthorne prefers unanswered. In the Postscript to the novel, the narrator claims that to reveal whether Donatello is a faun, and the real lineage of Miriam, would destroy the poetry and mystery of the story.