Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964

The self-conscious ironical tone of The Blithedale Romance is one of the first things that strikes the reader, and this tone is set by the first-person narrator, Miles Coverdale, an independently wealthy poet. In spite of his expressed desire to participate in the experimental paradise of Blithedale, Coverdale’s implicit attitude is that of a dilettante, someone who loves his creature comforts but who, through boredom, is pursuing an idealistic alternative to his privileged artificial life. If Coverdale typifies those who, like Hawthorne, participated in the Brook Farm experiment of 1841, the reader can understand why the project failed.

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Coverdale is essentially an observer of life. He is able to situate the socialistic experiment of Blithedale historically: It is a successor of the Puritan attempt to make one’s principles the foundation of daily living. Coverdale notes that group living requires a sacrifice of individual development, and the prime leaders—Hollingsworth and Zenobia—are individualists incapable of such a sacrifice. Perhaps because of the first-person narrative mode, none of the three main characters described by Coverdale ever comes to life on the page.

Hollingsworth is the type of the single-minded philanthropist who has channeled all of his considerable energy into founding an institute for the reformation of criminals. This apparently selfless devotion endears him to the two female protagonists: the dark and sensual Zenobia and the pale and spiritual Priscilla.

Like true romantic heroines, Zenobia and Priscilla are initially shrouded in mystery. The proud, wealthy Zenobia chafes at the restrictions society places on her sex. Priscilla, on the other hand, a seamstress before coming to Blithedale, possesses an essentially dependent character, devoting herself first to Zenobia and later to Hollingsworth. According to their father, the impoverished Old Moodie, his daughter Zenobia represents the wealth and power that her father abused and lost through some unnamed crime, while Priscilla is the child of his poverty, a reclusive person who fills her imagination with her father’s stories. Zenobia possesses many social qualities; Priscilla is rumored to be psychic.

Irony dominates the narration of The Blithedale Romance. For example, the judgmental narrator Coverdale finally acknowledges that if it is true, as he believes, that Hollingsworth’s life is empty of human warmth because he cares only about his criminal project, so it is also true that Coverdale’s own life is empty because he has no real interests beyond his own comfort. Ironically, Zenobia, a dominant personality who espouses the rights of women to receive equal treatment in society, is so devastated when Hollingsworth turns away from her to propose to the subservient, adoring Priscilla that she commits suicide. Again ironically, because of this suicide, Hollingsworth is so haunted by feelings of guilt he no longer pursues his great project of criminal reform and becomes a recluse devoted to converting one murderer, himself. Furthermore, the once powerful but now debilitated Hollingsworth is cared for by the weak Priscilla. Finally, Coverdale, who fills his narration with the wonders of Zenobia, admits in the final sentence of the novel he was in love with Priscilla all along.

Irony also envelops the account of the Blithedale experiment itself. These participants who aspire to improve the world are unable to handle their personal lives. Their condescension toward their managing farmer Silas Foster certainly undermines the professed sincerity of this democratic project. Ironically, Foster tells them that if they wish to succeed as farmers they must compete with more market-experienced farmers. Such competition seems a direct contradiction to their socialist goals. Coverdale,...

(The entire section contains 964 words.)

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