The Dilemma of Owen Warland: a Reading of Nathanial Hawthorne’s Short Story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” alongside Research on the Psychosocial Development of Intellectually Gifted Individuals
Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful” (Hawthorn 1844), depicts a brilliant but eccentric man whose idealization of nature causes him to neglect his profession as a watchmaker, as well as his relationship with a potential love, to pursue the creation of a mechanical butterfly that rivals in beauty and realism any butterfly that could be found outside his workshop. That man is Owen Warland, and although his pursuit does cost him everything, he achieves his goal. At the end of the story, the butterfly that he creates flits about the home of the woman he’s lost to a brawny and practical blacksmith, until it lands upon the finger of their child who, in its innocence, crushes it. Owen had the life he created; they have theirs–a life that is all the more enduring and true. The story is a wonderful example of early American romantic literature with its emphasis on scientific skepticism, natural wonder, and individual struggle. It also anticipates modern psychosocial theories of development, specifically as related to intellectually gifted individuals.
In schools, the gifted designation is typically reserved for students who score above 130 – the top 3% – on an IQ test or who, based on other standardized tests, grades, and teacher observations, are noticeably ahead of their peers. Of course, while Owen in “The Artist of the Beautiful” would likely have been selected for a watchmaker apprenticeship based on an observable preciousness in his youth, a reader of literature would not expect to find such a designation as gifted assigned to him by the author, nor would he have received one in any formal school environment during Hawthorne's time. Recognition of giftedness through testing would not begin until the early 1900’s with the first version of the modern IQ test (Binet & Simon 1904), and not until the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik would Americans take seriously the need to challenge its most competent students with advanced courses in order to compete in the space race and beyond it (VanTassel-Baska, 2018). What Hawthorne describes and what readers may look for in Owen, then, are characteristics that have been elaborated on in gifted research since.
One of those characteristics is Owen’s intense dedication to his craft, which might otherwise be described in terms of an intellectual and imaginative overexcitability. Overexcitabilities were first described by Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1972) and have come to mean, “being very alive, perceptive, persistent, energetic, and intense—or quiet but feeling deeply and having vivid mental or aural pictures” (Piechowski, 2006, p. 16). Readers first get a sense of Owen’s intensity when, instead of working on watches, his old apprentice observes him tediously laboring over a project, which Owen has been absorbed in for months but that no one can understand. In fact, this activity causes a general disapproval among the village folk. A short while later, and after Owen accidentally undoes a half year's worth of work on the aforementioned project causing him to resume his normal occupation, he is roused from a depressive state by walks into nature where he observes the object that readers learn he has been trying to replicate–the butterflies. Owen is reinvigorated and returns to the project with persistence and dedication.
For what reason is all this about? Hawthorne tells us: “Like a child, he [Owen] found amusement in chasing butterflies or watching the motion of water insects. There was something truly mysterious in the intentness with which he contemplated these living playthings as they sported on the breeze or examined the structure of an imperial insect whom he had imprisoned,” (166). The butterflies, moreover, become for Owen a symbol of poetic thought, “a flitting mystery beyond the verge of his ethereal domain” and subject to destruction by those of ill-refined manners who fail to appreciate their beauty. Because of this idealization, he feels isolated yet unable to unmoor himself from his goal in a way not uncommonly experienced by gifted individuals according to Szymanski and Wrenn (2019 ): “Gifted students’ ability to respond to stimuli that may not be perceived by nongifted children may cause them to have qualitatively different life experiences. These differences may result in stress and anxiety that lead to explosive behavior or depression further distancing them from others.” Furthermore, a study by Cross et. al. (1993) found that more than half of 1,464 gifted adolescents, ages 14-18, reported they did not feel like they could be themselves at school. For Owen, his intellectual giftedness thus creates an internal struggle in which he is caught between remaining isolated and being generative or seeking intimacy and feeling stagnate.
To conclude, Hawthorne is an insightful and nuanced writer – a veritable genius in the literary canon that Americans can be proud to celebrate, but it’s worth considering whether he might have been prone to the influence of stereotypes during his time. On those stereotypes Rinn (2021) has this to say: “For hundreds of years, the general belief among most people was that highly intelligent individuals were doomed to lives of social isolation, emotional instability, and psychopathology.” Indeed, one can look at many examples of successful and well-adjusted highly intelligent individuals today and determine that social-isolation is not always the case. This is also confirmed, in part, by Stalnacke and Smedler (2011) who examined the psychosocial experiences of 302 adults in a Swedish Mensa group and found that most did not feel like they needed to downplay their giftedness in order to feel accepted. Perhaps a different story could round out what Hawthorne’s readers take away from his view on gifted or “genius” individuals. However, I find that readers could still believe the fictional truth that “The Artist of the Beautiful” presents. If only Owen had such a group as Mensa or other like minded associates in his village, perhaps his tale would seem less a tragedy than it does.
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