The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Unnamed city

Unnamed city. Anonymous city representing the corruption of “civilization” from which the idealists who go to Blithedale come. For the affluent utopians (Coverdale and Zenobia), city life is soft and artificial, full of comforts, glitter, and social conventions that mask true feelings. For the poor (Moody and Priscilla), city life is a constant struggle marked by rigid class lines, poverty, and ill health. Wealthy and beautiful Zenobia leaves Blithedale periodically to resume her social life in the city. When Coverdale becomes disillusioned, he also returns to the city, where he indulges in comforts, eavesdrops on neighbors, and tells his friends he was never serious about the experimental commune. The city also supports popular and exploitative public entertainments. Here Priscilla becomes the Veiled Lady, a kind of slave to Westerveldt.


Blithedale. Experimental farm commune in Massachusetts that is founded to model life without class boundaries or competition, and one day, perhaps, without gender roles. The utopians want to live in harmony with one another and with nature. They assume such lives will ennoble them spiritually and will lead to heightened artistic and intellectual accomplishments.

Almost immediately, however, it becomes apparent that the Blithedalers are naïve and that the main characters are merely “playing” at being social reformers. They are uncomfortable treating the farming couple they live with as equals and had not understood that even farmers must compete in the financial market. Moreover, their lives quickly begin to revolve around worldly concerns. Zenobia and Priscilla become competitors for Hollingsworth’s affection, while he secretly plans to subvert the social experiment to his own obsessive project, the reformation of criminals. Coverdale, the narrator, is a complicated mix of idealism and ironic pessimism. He yearns to be bold enough to commit to utopian aims, but usually his ironic pessimism wins out and his emotional commitment to life remains shallow. Coverdale fails to form deep friendships with either Zenobia or Priscilla, despite his desires. He is befriended by Hollingsworth, but his refusal to help Hollingsworth betray the Blithedalers costs him this friendship, which he doubts was ever real. Priscilla, a poor, victimized, city girl, flourishes at Blithedale, but her simple response has nothing to do with the philosophy behind the project, and her belief in women’s inferiority aligns her with conservative, not revolutionary, social forces. Her unquestioning acceptance of Hollingsworth’s ideas eventually implicates her with his plan to take over Blithedale and with Zenobia’s death. The Blithedale experiment ends with Zenobia dead, Hollingsworth a broken man, and Coverdale returned to his city life unchanged. Priscilla’s life has a conventionally happy ending, including marriage and inherited wealth, but she seems content only because she is too shallow to be affected by the experiment’s failure or by life’s ambiguities.

Coverdale’s tree

Coverdale’s tree. Coverdale’s secret retreat when he wants time alone, away from the community of Blithedale. This retreat shows he is not comfortable with communal life, and it reveals his preference for spying on others’ lives rather than committing to a full emotional life of his own.

Hollingsworth and Zenobia’s hill

Hollingsworth and Zenobia’s hill. The Blithedalers assume Hollingsworth and Zenobia have picked this site for their house. Secretly, though, Hollingsworth plans to build his reformatory here, with Zenobia’s financial backing. After Zenobia’s death, the hill becomes her burial site. Like many other people and things in this novel, the hill was never what it seemed and did not turn out as planned.

Eliot’s Rock

Eliot’s Rock. Most important feature at Blithedale and the site of two confrontations involving the four main characters. Here Zenobia abandons her beliefs in women’s rights in order...

(This entire section contains 680 words.)

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to win Hollingsworth’s approval. Later, Hollingsworth puts Zenobia “on trial” here, apparently accusing her of a relationship with Westervelet and of abetting Priscilla’s subjugation to him. Zenobia in turn accuses Hollingsworth of wooing her for her money and of using philanthropy for egoistical ends. That night Zenobia dies, an apparent suicide, and Hollingsworth takes on the guilt for her “murder.”


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Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. Edited by Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Contains the text, background information, sources, criticism, and bibliographies.

Johnson, Claudia D. The Productive Tension of Hawthorne’s Art. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981. Chapter 4 contends that Hawthorne attacks the romantic tendency toward artist-centered art in The Blithedale Romance. Bibliography.

Kaul, A. N., ed. Hawthorne: A Collection of Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Kaul’s analysis of The Blithedale Romance identifies the author’s theme as social regeneration. Chronology and bibliography.

Lee, A. Robert, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne: New Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Depicts Hawthorne as looking back to the Puritans and forward to modernist themes and concerns.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Hawthorne Centenary Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964. Includes essays dealing with the reception of Hawthorne’s work in the nineteenth century. Suggests that the author’s complex, ambiguous feelings about the idealistic social experiment are evident.


Critical Essays