Drowne, a woodcarver who has established a reputation for producing adequate
but not inspired figures, accepts a commission from Captain Hunnewell to carve
a specific figurehead for Hunnewell's ship the Cynosure. As he works upon the
carving, Drowne becomes more engaged with his artistry and more aware of the
potential to convey the energy and dynamism of the human form in sculpture.
Like Pygmalion, whose myth inspires this tale, Drowne falls in love with his
creation and wishes it were real. Hawthorne reveals that a living version of
this figure does exist when she appears in the company of Captain Hunnewell.
The carved figure of the mysterious lady is Drowne's one great success; afterward
he returns to being "the mechanical carver in wood, without the power even of
appreciating the work that his own hands had wrought."
Within this retelling of the Pygmalion myth, Hawthorne embeds a number of issues
that relate to the experience of the artist within his community and with his
art. The painter John Singleton Copley, famous for his portraits of distinguished
Colonial New Englanders, appears in the story. Like Drowne, Copley was primarily
self-trained, yet saw himself as an artist, not a craftsman. Hawthorne uses
dialogues between these two men to explore the lack of community for artists
in America, the ways in which an artist is viewed by his or her local community,
and the ways an artist thinks about his or her work and the nature of art.
Critics and biographers, such as Claudia Durst Johnson and James Mellow, have
commented on Hawthorne's sensitivity to the place of an artist within American
culture that shapes some aspects of this tale. In his prefaces, Hawthorne commented
on the lack of appropriate material in America for the writer of Romance. In
this tale, the inspiration for the artist Drowne resides in the foreign and
exotic aspects of the woman from Portugal. Other critics, including Millicent
Bell read the story as one of Hawthorne's explorations of the Romantic ideal
of creativity, while Michael Wutz suggests that the story also encompasses another
of Hawthorne's explorations of the concept of the fortunate fall.