The Blithedale Romance, by nineteenth century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a very thought-provoking novel. Drawn from the author’s stay at Brook Farm, a communal experiment in living the pastoral life, this engaging story touches on many of the issues of Hawthorne’s day, such as brotherhood, women’s rights, socialism, mesmerism, and spiritualism.
The story is narrated by one of the main characters, a poet named Miles Coverdale, who visits Blithedale Farm, near Boston, where he meets the exotic, wealthy, and queenly Zenobia; the philanthropic, but self-engrossed, inhuman, and fierce, social reformer Hollingsworth; and the gentle, delicate girl Priscilla. As events transpire, Coverdale broods on Fourier, Carlyle, and Emerson, while both of the women fall in love with the fiery reformer Hollingsworth.
The story’s theme revolves around this group of utopians who abandon the city for a pastoral life and set out to reform a dissipated America. This choice of plot reflects quite clearly the author’s interest in the social and cultural upheavals of the prevailing market system of that time. Many people shared the sentiments and philosophies represented and exemplified by the various characters Hawthorne incorporates into the novel, and longed to abandon the dull, unfulfilling life they saw around them for a utopia on earth.
Zenobia of course represents and personifies the prevailing character of the wealthy set in America at this time, Hollingsworth represents the idealistic segment of society, many of whom were generous and philanthropic, but also self-centered and impractical. And Coverdale provides insights into the general characteristics common to many artists, their weaknesses and strengths, and the influence for good or ill that they can have on others.
The gathering is a powerful mix of competing ambitions, and it is not very long before everyone’s idealism finds little satisfaction in rustic farm work. Instead of changing the world, the members of the Blithedale community end up individually pursuing egotistical paths that prove disappointing and ultimately lead to tragedy.
It is interesting to note that this was at the time and still is quite symbolic of American society in general. People may initially, especially when they are younger, want to change the world for the better, but all too often they lose that dream rather quickly and end up chasing individual goals that are ultimately, and tragically, meaningless. Hawthorne’s plot is interpreted by many as a fictional microcosm of the larger world he lived in, and a symbolic statement of what he felt was wrong.
Shifting our focus once again to more specific elements of the story itself, egotistical concerns result in Zenobia and Priscilla setting up a type of competition between Coverdale and Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth is quite the charismatic figure, while Coverdale is more content to watch and observe, being afraid to act. Hollingsworth charms Coverdale at first, but when their friendship fails, Coverdale becomes resentful of Hollingsworth’s magnetism.
Coverdale’s reaction to this is to attempt, and not very subtly, to sway both Zenobia and Priscilla to becoming his love interest and not Hollingsworth’s. Zenobia’s response is to reprimand Coverdale for being so blunt about his approach. When Coverdale sees that Priscilla is saddened by the relationship between Zenobia and Hollingsworth, Coverdale does what he can to make both Zenobia and Hollingsworth look bad, while improving Priscilla’s estimation of him.
The two women in their comparison provide insightful commentary upon what was to be expected of women of the time, and how disappointing and even devastating these unfair and rigid expectations could be for some women. For example, Zenobia refuses to be made into chattel, despite the undeniable reality that males so obviously hold the power in her society. She also refuses to bear the name of the man who possesses her, declining to accept Westervelt’s name, because he is her former husband, while also rejecting her maiden name, because it is her father’s name.
In the social context of the times, because of her firm rejection of her expected role as daughter and wife, Zenobia loses the right to her place in contemporary society in the minds of most people, man and women, and, as a consequence of doing so, must die. Priscilla, on the other hand, is lacking in free will. She does not reject the maleassigned, stereotyped identities that Zenobia does, although the reader never sees her actively accept one.
Hollingsworth’s actions demonstrate to Zenobia that there is no place for feminism in a society that produces males such as Hollingsworth and Coverdale. Consequently, disillusioned to the point of utter despair, Zenobia tragically drowns herself because death is the only type of freedom she feels she can have in such a society.
Ultimately, Hollingsworth marries Priscilla, and Coverdale remains a skeptical, solitary observer of mankind’s aspirations and its disappointments. It should be noted at this point that some readers see Hollingsworth as having in effect put Zenobia on trial for her feminism and maternal neglect of Priscilla, and question Zenobia’s motivation for her suicide.
In other words, they basically view this as a case of Hollingsworth willing Zenobia to death by insisting that she submit to the patriarchal system, or lose her place in the rivalry to Priscilla. This is of course what happened. In contrast, the dutiful Priscilla simply takes the role that is given her by the male-dominated society and is rewarded in the end when Hollingsworth marries her.
In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Blithedale Romance, both mourns and satirizes a rural idyll not unlike that of nineteenth-century America at large. The characters in the story exemplify the social and cultural upheavals of the market revolution, and gain reward or suffer punishment symbolic of the larger rewards and punishments prevalent in American society in Hawthorne’s day due to the very same competing elements.
In essence, Hawthorne shows the reader in this novel not only how some of the characters meet with disappointment in their longings, but also just how the ideals of individualism and community can clash, particularly when romantic relationships are involved. Finally, he also shows a darker side of the character of the romantic poet, who becomes in the story a kind of voyeur of other people’s lives, appropriating them for his own artistic purposes.
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