The Blithedale Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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How do Zenobia and Priscilla's situations in The Blithedale Romance reflect limited options for women then?

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Both Priscilla and Zenobia are shown to represent the male patriarchal society at the time that this novel is set and the way that is left women little control over their own lives and also restricted them in terms of the options that they had. Note, for example, in Chapter 3, when Coverdale is greeted by Zenobia, she describes the roles that women have in this new utopian community:

"Oh, we of the softer sex," responded Zenobia, with her mellow, almost broad laugh,—most delectable to hear, but not in the least like an ordinary woman's laugh,—"we women (there are four of us here already) will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,—to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,—and, at our idler intervals, to repose ourselves on knitting and sewing,—these, I suppose, must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by, perhaps, when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go afield, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen."

The laughter that she emits after describing women as being of "the softer sex" conveys her own ironic views on this presentation of women as being lesser than men, and this is supported by the way that she goes on to describe the traditional occupations that women in this new community have. However, the end of this quotation expresses her frustration at this division of labour into "feminine occupations," but she does dream that in the future women might be able to go out and labour on the fields whilst weaker men might work in the kitchens instead. In spite of this dream, Zenobia has to realise that gender conventions are still massively strong, and they are still strong enough to keep her to the kitchens, even though she would much rather play a different role. 

This is something that is demonstrated by Priscilla as well, as her appearance as a seamstress indicates that she has been forced to labour to keep both herself and her father alive. Ultimately, of course, both Priscilla and Zenobia show that they are dependent on men as their love for Hollingsworth demonstrates. Even though Zenobia, through her money and status, has more power than Priscilla, even she shows that she is subject to male authority through the way that she allows her wealth to be used by Hollingsworth. In spite of dreams of change, this text presents a rather limited world for female characters, where they have little option to do anything else apart from conforming to the kind of expectations that patriarchal society imposed on women at that time.

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