Culture Clash - American Expatriates in Europe in: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady

Bachelor Thesis, 2004

37 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Relationship between the Continents
2.1 The Evolving of the Stereotypes
2.2 The Europe Reception in the Nineteenth Century

3. The Literary Methods of James and Hawthorne
3.1 Romanticism and Realism
3.2 The Different Approaches to the Topic

4. Transferring the Topic into a Story
4.1 Character Constellation
4.2 Setting up the Conflict
4.3 Characterization of the Heroines
4.4 Inferiority and Superiority
4.5 The Developments of the Characters
4.6 Developing into Opposite Directions

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

When Henry James first travelled to Europe on his own in 1869, for the purpose of improving his education and his health, he was considerably young. With twenty six years of age he was independent of any family restrictions and could freely enjoy the intellectual life of Europe’s metropolises. Even though he was already determined to become a writer it was in fact the European experience that launched his career and supplied him with ideas throughout his life (Wright 199). Nathaniel Hawthorne, in comparison, was nearly fifty years old when the opportunity to go to Europe was offered to him. In 1853 he left for Liverpool with his family to take over the office as American consul. He was already an established writer back then, having chiefly used New England settings for the composition of his stories.

During the nineteenth century journeys through Europe became increasingly popular with Americans. Travelling the Old World belonged to the educational program for young men of the upper classes. By the 1850s the European experience was also affordable for the middle classes thus giving way to the phenomenon of commercial tourism. Accompanied by this movement was the growing popularity of travel literature by American writers. Among those who returned and wrote fiction or essays inspired by their journeys were Margaret Fuller, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving, to name but a few. So, both Hawthorne and James followed an American literary tradition.

Europe constituted in these days an inseparable part of the American consciousness. Political independence had long been achieved but the fascination with and the orientation towards the “mother” continent in the east failed to cease. Everything rendered culturally or artistically important was an European import or imitation, no matter if in architecture, painting, or dressing style. This dependence resulted in ambivalent feelings. Great admiration mixed with feelings of inferiority, reverence with repudiation. The cultural density and the historical richness of metropolises like London, Paris, and Rome attracted thousands of American tourists each year. At the same time Americans were shocked by the – at least from an American point of view – obvious moral decadence of the Europeans. These circumstances provoked James and Hawthorne into dealing with themselves as Americans in Europe, with their emotions, opinions, and prejudices, experiences which were fruitful for their creative outpouring. Especially James made excessive use of his experiences, referring in most of his novels and shorter pieces to the international theme (Wright 217). For all their travels through the Old Continent it was Italy that impressed both authors the most. In a letter to his brother William Henry James conveyed how deep his impression with Italy must have been: “If I might talk of these things,” he wrote,“ I would talk of more and tell you in glowing accents how beautiful a thing this month in Italy has been and how my brain swarms with pictures and my bosom aches with memories.” (qtd. in MacDonald 11). Although Hawthorne’s recollections of Italy were far from being this positive – in his Italian Notebooks he speaks of seldom or never having “spent so wretched a time anywhere” (qtd. MacDonald 14) – he nonetheless spent eighteen months with his family in the Italian scene and confessed later that “the intellect finds a home there, more than in any other spot in the world, and wins the heart to stay with it…” (qtd. in Wright 140). It may be that in Italy the authors felt the cultural differences between the Old and the New World most intensely because being in Italy meant to be confronted with the oldest of European cultures, and therefore with the feeling of their country’s own cultural youth. Chiefly Rome turned out to be a source of inspiration for both writers. The Eternal City formed the ideal setting for fiction dealing with the confrontation of European maturity and American youthfulness.

Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun and James’s The Portrait of a Lady deal with the struggles of Americans living in Europe. The major setting is in both cases Rome. Ambivalence towards European culture and life style determines most of the action and descriptions of the settings. Both novels attribute stereotypic behaviour and opinions to their European and American characters. Stereotypes used for the Europeans are moral decadence, filthiness, cultural distinction, and wisdom and knowledge. Those used for the American expatriates are innocence, purity, which leads to a certain moral superiority but also to naiveté, and lack of culture. Inferiority and superiority are recurrent themes which are displayed through the constant battle for superiority of the Americans. Throughout the course of the stories the Americans encounter situations which put their “Americaness” to the test; their convictions and beliefs are challenged. In both novels these conflicts are carried out by a young female American. Despite the common ground on which the novels were written Hawthorne and James maintained different attitudes towards this topic and found different solutions for the culture clash. In The Marble Faun the American characters flee from Europe, in The Portrait of a Lady the American expatriates remain in the Old World.

The aim of this paper will be to illuminate and explain these differences, by means of a comparison of the two female expatriates Hilda and Isabel. The first two introductory chapters are concerned with the stereotypes by which America and Europe have been usually described, and with the American feelings towards Europe in the nineteenth century. The following two chapters deal with the different methods that James and Hawthorne used to approach the America versus Europe topic and with the differences in the representation of the conflict. After introducing in the first half of the middle part the characters and their specific function in the novels, and the ways in which Hawthorne and James played out and interwove the conflict in their stories, the last three chapters of this work will concentrate on the analysis of the significance of inferiority and superiority in the novels and on the different directions the developments of the characters take.

2. The Relationship between the Continents

2.1 The Evolving of the Stereotypes

The stereotypic treatment of America and Europe is rooted in the history that connect the two continents. The American history began in Europe. Europe was the “mother” continent, the origin of the Americans with European ancestors. Being American was not a sufficient designation; the value of a person was also determined by the individual European ancestry. Irish people for example were not liked. With more and more Irish seeking shelter on American territory from the great famine (1845-49) Anglo-Americans, who had been longer in America and, therefore, claimed more rights, feared that the immigrants could overpopulate America and erode their culture and tradition (Berthoff 11). Although political independence from the English Crown had been achieved in 1776 the American influence on world politics remained marginal until the twentieth century. Also economically America depended upon the support from abroad (Opfermann 14). Since America was a country without a history of its own, culture was imported or imitated. There had not been enough time for an original American culture to follow a separate, independent path. Thus mentally and culturally America stayed closely linked with its “mother” or was even overshadowed by her, a fact that weighed heavily on the American consciousness. What was there to do to untie this bond and attain an independent identity? Since history could not be erased, history was used to turn it against Europe and transform the lack of it into an advantage. The lack of history spares the possibility to be found guilty of past deeds. America hence received the attribute innocent and pure. If the past belonged to Europe, America claimed the future. Europe was beyond its zenith, the diminishing influence of the aristocracy gave evidence to that.

Moral decay, corruption, and filthiness were the symptoms of a dying culture. The New World was unspoiled and fresh, its claim for moral superiority came therefore as a logical consequence, especially for those who were furnished with a Puritan mind.[1] The future was America’s chance to learn from the Old Continent’s mistakes and, without making any itself, become even more glorious than Europe. Having found these characteristics to build up an identity it was save to gaze at the cultural achievements in admiration and reverence. Even critique was possible, for the American existence didn’t seem altogether meagre anymore but had established its own values and, more importantly, was looking into a bright future while Europe was on its decline.

2.2 The Europe Reception in the Nineteenth Century

Europe remained fascinating. The process of emancipation took a long time because the feeling of inferiority in view of the cultural accomplishments was not that easily overcome. Self-consciousness mixed with national pride and created a confounding feeling in the expatriates of the nineteenth century. The numerous works of the nineteenth-century authors who dealt with the confrontation of Americans and Europeans give an account of the high significance this topic had in the national consciousness. Very few works take exclusively one side, most of them express the predominantly felt ambivalence towards Europe and sway between reverence and disapproval.

The nineteenth century was the American century of eastward pilgrimage. With the coming of commercial tourism travelling was simplified and became more comfortable. By the middle of the century packaged tours around Europe were offered, pre-paid hotel coupons were created and accepted world wide, and American traveller’s checks were issued for the first time (MacDonald 13). The big cities were a constant attraction to American tourists. Unlike today Paris, Rome, and London were gigantic, dense, and overpopulated places in comparison to New York or Boston, which must have appeared utterly provincial. This great accumulation of life attracted, above all, the American intellectuals and upper classes of all centuries.

Among the many writers, who found Europe a stimulating climate for their creative productions, were, of course, the politicians of the newly-founded republic, who sought the transatlantic exchange, like Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson (Hilbig 11). Many of them took up residence for several years and were sooner or later introduced into the higher circles of European society. What they found there was often bewildering and not rarely disagreeable. Chiefly those decently brought up Puritans were often horrified by the loose manners the Europeans displayed, particularly regarding sexuality. It was, for instance, quite normal for European ladies to have lovers apart from her husband. This look behind the scenes was hardly bearable for convicted Puritans like John Adams’ wife Abigail, who followed her husband to Paris in 1784, and made the acquaintance with a Parisian lady. She wrote afterwards: “I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast.” (qtd. in Hilbig 14). But also for people who did not mingle much with the locals, like Hawthorne (James, Hawthorne, 146), the differences in opinion towards morality must have been apparent when visiting or learning about places like Moulin Rouge in Paris or observing people in the streets. When treading off the beaten path of the tourist tours and the avenues and turning away from the pomp of the metropolises one was confronted with dirt and poverty, and beggars and mean living conditions. This coexistence of richness and poverty, of glory and decay that surrounded the attentive visitor, regardless if observed in the outer appearance of the cities or in the indecent behaviour of the upper classes, were an affirmation of the American belief that Europe was going downhill. No wonder that descriptions of Europe remained ambivalent when the continent was ambivalent in itself.

3. The Literary Methods of James and Hawthorne

3.1 Romanticism and Realism

Even though the authors lived, wrote, and were successful in the same century their literary methods differ greatly. James was a realist who was strongly influenced by the works of Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot, and Gustave Flaubert, the latter of whom he met personally during his residence in Paris (Encarta, entry: James, Henry). These role models became famous for their minute descriptions of social life and psychological mechanisms. James adopted this method and perfected the style which would later be called psychological realism. Because of the closeness to his older brother William, psychologist and philosopher who coined the term stream of consciousness, Henry James’s interest was directed towards the psychology of the individual who struggled with social conventions (Botta 8). His detailed descriptions of his characters’ inner life gave an account of this interest and paved the way for literary techniques like interior monologue and stream of consciousness, of which twentieth century writer like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf made use.

Yet, James did not always closely follow the method of realism. Realism, after a definition found in Lucie-Smith’s American Realism,

involves the introduction of such details as shall assimilate the representation of a ctual fact, and the incorporation of the result of generalisation in individual persons or concrete things. (qtd. in Lucie-Smith 9)[2]

In other words, the realistic mode implies firstly verisimilitude derived from observation, that is a detailed description of what can actually be seen and secondly a reliance on the average and representative rather than the exceptional in setting, plot, and character. These two criteria, verisimilitude and the representation of the average, add up to a third characteristic of realistic writing, which is objectivity as opposed to a subjective representations of characters and situations (Pizer 3-4).

In many of his works, and The Portrait of a Lady is one of them, James broke two of these rules. First of all, his main characters are neither average nor representative. Secondly, his narrative does not retain an objective view. Isabel is a thoroughly extraordinary person, for example with respect to her intelligence, her manners, and her attractiveness. She acts out of idealistic convictions; she is neither calculating nor selfish, which separates her from most other people. But also Isabel’s fellow beings are, in some way or another, special and may it only regard their social status, like Lord Warburton, who is unusually wealthy. James’s novels are often set in the social milieu of the European aristocracy or the upper, intellectual classes. His stories do not portray the life of the average man or woman out of the masses. As regards objectivity, James’s narrating style tends to be the contrary.

The narrator in The Portrait of a Lady, though omniscient, sides at times with Isabel or judges her and her companions’ behaviour.[3] The narrator’s observations are not sober and unemotional. This is achieved by shifting the point of view on Isabel, or her companions, from one character to another. In the case of Isabel, we often see her through Ralph’s eyes or the point of view is directly placed into Isabel’s consciousness. Since Ralph is emotionally too much connected with Isabel he cannot present an objective view on her. As remarked earlier, James was a psychological realist. Therefore, he depicted the world in his novels not as it is perceived by everybody, using a generalized point of view, but by filtering it through the perception of unusual characters. Here again the closeness to his brother’s philosophy becomes apparent. Henry agreed with William that there could not be just one general reality or ethical value system. The universe was pluralistic, thus interpretations of life needed consequently be individual (Botta 8). With his concentration upon the individual James touched the edges of Hawthorne’s genre.

Hawthorne dedicated himself to the romantic genre. Romanticism decidedly turned against the rationalism of enlightenment and instead searched for a formula which integrated both secular as well as spiritual aspects. Romanticist focused on the individual’s sentiments and perceptions, the individual was the center of the universe. The objectivity and sobriety of rationalism was banished and exchanged for subjectivity and splendid, overly rich descriptions of character and setting. Hence romantic literature does not necessarily follow reality, it often includes the inexplicable and mysterious. One can find all of these criteria in Hawthorne’s works. Especially his choice of characters shows how closely he followed the romantic principal. His pages are haunted with fanciful and lurid characters (Morse 169), like Miriam and her model; he now and then included a supernatural device, like Donatello’s pointed ears and his overall similarity to the Faun of Praxiteles.[4]

Although romanticism focuses on the individual, the narrator in The Marble Faun takes more of an overall point of view than in James’s piece. It is not that the narrator describes the emotions and thoughts of the characters less detailed or that he lacks the insight into the human psyche. In fact, Hawthorne’s works show, with respect to the historical period in which they were written, a surprisingly accurate understanding of psychological mechanisms, but his narrative retains more of an objective, analytic perspective on the characters. The presence of the narrator is much more felt than it is in James.


[1] According to Puritan belief Europe has missed its chance to act upon God’s will. It is the fallen land, stained with guilt because of its past. America is the God-given second chance for humanity to start anew.

[2] Italics mine

[3] “Poor human-hearted Isabel, what perversity had bitten her?” (James 363). This sentence reveals pity for Isabel and aversion for Gilbert Osmond.

[4] In fact, even James implied a supernatural device in The Portrait of a Lady, but it plays such a diminishing role and seems not to fit to the realistic mode in which the novel is written, that it is easily forgotten. In the opening chapters Isabel asks Ralph if Gardencourt has a ghost, to which he answers that she will not be able to see it because of her lack of “miserable knowledge” (45; ch.). In the end of the novel Isabel sees the ghost because she has suffered.

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Culture Clash - American Expatriates in Europe in: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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Culture, Clash, American, Expatriates, Europe, Nathaniel, Hawthorne, Marble, Faun, Henry, James, Portrait, Lady
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Tonia Fondermann (Author), 2004, Culture Clash - American Expatriates in Europe in: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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