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...

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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.

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, who like a true Transcendentalist rhapsodizes over communing with nature in his special treehouse, at the conclusion of the romance concedes nature is indifferent to the death of one of its noblest products, Zenobia.

In keeping with his practice of using characters as types, Nathaniel Hawthorne gives them names that suggest their symbolic role. Coverdale is a felicitous name for the narrator, who is adept at covering his personal feelings and motives while he attempts to uncover the hidden motives of others. Coverdale notes that Zenobia uses her exotic name like a mask. The name Zenobia recalls Queen Zenobia, a proud and capable ruler who ultimately fell victim to the all-too-male Roman Empire. The name Priscilla evokes the wan, enervated wraith who somehow inspires the love of Hollingsworth and Coverdale. The name Hollingsworth also reveals the person’s character; he is hollow in worth, since the suicide of Zenobia effectively destroys his project and his spirit. When the protagonists meet by Eliot’s pulpit, the name of the rock recalls the work of this idealistic Puritan apostle of the Indians; the irony is that his converts were massacred in King Philip’s War. The name, therefore, effectively prophesies the unsuccessful conclusion of the idealistic experiment in improving the world. Old Moodie is called Fauntleroy in the fairy-tale-like narrative describing his fabulous wealth and power prior to his crime and flight. That name is the same as that of a well-known contemporary English forger. Hawthorne probably expected his readers to be able to identify Moodie’s crime.

The most effective use of a name is the title of the work, apparently the name of the place. Any suggestions of the members to choose another name provoke objections; they feel Blithedale (happy valley) is appropriate. Madness, suicide, and depression soon find their way to Blithedale. Designating the work a romance in the title expresses Hawthorne’s purpose of creating a work of mystery and fantasy, not a realistic work. The use of the word “romance” is ironic; the novel is all about disillusionment. The novel is filled with veilings and coverings; the author effectively shrouds his real-life adventure in utopian living at Brook Farm in 1841 in a fantasy of titanic star-crossed lovers. It remains for the reader to separate truth from fiction.

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