Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207
As Miles Coverdale prepares to journey to Blithedale, where he is to join in a project in community living, he is accosted by Old Moodie, a seedy ancient who seems reluctant to state his business. After much mysterious talk about having Coverdale do him a great favor, Old Moodie changes his mind and shuffles off without telling what it was that he wanted. It is April, but Coverdale and his companions arrive at Blithedale in a snowstorm. There they are greeted by a woman called Zenobia, a well-known magazine writer. Zenobia is a beautiful, worldly woman of wealth and position. At all times she wears a rare, exotic flower in her hair. Zenobia spends most of her energy fighting for “woman’s place in the world.”
On the evening of Coverdale’s arrival, another of the principals arrives at Blithedale. He is Hollingsworth, a philanthropist and reformer. In fact, philanthropy is to him a never-ceasing effort to reform and change humanity. He brings with him Priscilla, a simple, poorly dressed, bewildered young girl. Priscilla goes at once to Zenobia and, falling at the proud woman’s feet, never takes her eyes from that haughty face. There is no explanation for such behavior. Hollingsworth knows only that he was approached by Old Moodie and asked to take Priscilla to Blithedale. That is the request Old Moodie tried to make of Coverdale. Such is the community of Blithedale that the inhabitants make the girl welcome in spite of her strange behavior.
It is soon evident to Coverdale that Hollingsworth’s impulse to philanthropy reaches such an extreme that the man is on the way to madness. Hollingsworth is convinced that the universe exists only in order for him to reform all criminals and wayward persons. The dream of his life is to construct a large edifice in which he can collect his criminal brothers and teach them to mend their ways before doom overtakes them. To Coverdale, he is a bore, but it is obvious that both Zenobia and Priscilla are in love with him. Priscilla blossoms as she reaps the benefits of good food and fresh air, and Zenobia views her, with evident but unspoken alarm, as a rival. Hollingsworth seems to consider Priscilla his own special charge, and Coverdale fears the looks of thinly veiled hatred he frequently sees Zenobia cast toward the vulnerable young Priscilla, who is, ironically, devoted to Zenobia. When Old Moodie appears at Blithedale to inquire about Priscilla, Coverdale tries to persuade him to reveal the reason for his interest in the girl. The old man slips away without telling his story.
Shortly after this incident, Professor Westervelt comes to Blithedale to inquire about Zenobia and Priscilla. Coverdale sees Westervelt and Zenobia together and is sure that, even though Zenobia hates him now, she once loved and was made miserable by this evil man. Coverdale knows that all the pain that he sometimes sees in Zenobia’s eyes must surely have come from this man. Coverdale believes also that there is still some bond between them.
After Westervelt’s visit, Zenobia is short-tempered and more vehement than usual about the poor lot of women. She is so much in love with Hollingsworth that even the misery, or perhaps terror, caused by Westervelt does not deter her from literally worshiping at his feet. Hollingsworth, in his egotism, believes that women are placed on earth only to serve men, he being one, and so great is Zenobia’s passion that she accepts his words without protest, not proclaiming her real thoughts in his presence. It is clear to Coverdale that Hollingsworth intends to use Zenobia’s money to build the school for criminals of which he never ceases to talk. When Coverdale refuses to join him in this project, Hollingsworth becomes quite cool in his dealings with Coverdale.
Tiring of the life at Blithedale, Coverdale takes a vacation in town. He is greatly surprised when Zenobia, Priscilla, and Westervelt also arrive in the town shortly afterward. He calls on the ladies and is disturbed by the tension that is apparent. When he chides Zenobia about Priscilla and Hollingsworth, she warns him not to interfere lest he cause serious trouble. Priscilla does not know why she is there. She tells Coverdale that she is like a leaf blown about by the wind. She has no will of her own, only the will of Zenobia. Then Westervelt calls for the two women, and the three leave Coverdale standing as if they did not know he was there.
Determined to uncover the mystery surrounding the three, Coverdale seeks out Old Moodie and pries from him the story. Once Moodie was a wealthy and influential man until, through dishonest business practices, he was ruined. Then, leaving his wife and daughter, Zenobia, he wandered about in poverty and disgrace. His wife died and he married again. To them Priscilla was born, as different from his first child as it was possible to be. Zenobia was beautiful and proud, Priscilla plain and shy. Neighbors thought Priscilla had supernatural powers, but her kindness and her goodness made everyone love her.
Zenobia, after Moodie’s disgrace, was reared by his brother; and since Moodie was believed dead, Zenobia, as the next heir, inherited her uncle’s wealth. She grew up a wild and willful girl; it was whispered that she had made a secret marriage with an unprincipled man. No one, however, knew anything definite. Such were her beauty and wealth that no one criticized her. Moodie called her to his home and, not telling her who he was, cautioned her to be as kind as a sister to Priscilla.
During his vacation, Coverdale chances upon a magician’s show in a nearby village. There he finds Hollingsworth in the audience and Westervelt on the stage. Westervelt produces a Veiled Lady, an ethereal creature whom he says will do his bidding. At the climax of the act, Hollingsworth arises from the audience and strides to the platform. He calls to the Veiled Lady to remove her veil, and Priscilla lifts her veil and flees into the arms of Hollingsworth with a cry of joy and love. She looks like one who has been saved from an evil fate.
Coverdale returns to Blithedale. There he witnesses a terrifying scene among Zenobia, Priscilla, and Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth admits his love for Priscilla to Zenobia. Zenobia reviles him and warns her half sister against the emptiness of his heart. She says she knows at last the complete egotism of the man and sees that he has deceived her only to get her fortune for his great project. After the lovers leave her, Zenobia sinks to the ground and weeps, and that night she drowns herself in the river flowing close by. Westervelt comes to view her dead body, but his only sorrow seems to be that he can no longer use Zenobia in his schemes.
After Zenobia’s tragedy, Coverdale leaves Blithedale. Priscilla and Hollingsworth live quietly, he giving up his desire to reform criminals because he feels himself to be one—Zenobia’s murderer. In his twilight years Coverdale confesses his real interest in these ill-fated people. He was from the first in love with Priscilla.
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