The Blithedale Romance: A Review of Early Criticism




            The Blithedale Romance, the third of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s major novels to be published between 1850 and 1852, is perhaps his most controversial and misunderstood piece of fiction. The book has aroused criticism from many quarters with reactions ranging from mild indifference to impassioned vituperation. Critics have generally agreed that it is his weakest novel, but wide differences of opinion exist regarding the total value of the work, Hawthorne’s reasons for writing it, and the effectiveness of the characterizations.

            The story of Blithedale is centered on an experimental community reminiscent of the Brook Farm Transcendental group with which Hawthorne had briefly been associated in Roxbury, Massachusetts. No doubt his participation in the communal experiment served as the germ for the novel, which was written ten years after his one-year stay there, but the impact that his experience among the social reformers had upon the fictitious Blithedale community is a point of much conjecture and debate among critics. Many of them see distinct parallels between Hawthorne’s characters and actual persons of the day, while others have rejected any but the merest resemblance to the actual Brook Farm experimenters.

            This analysis includes the various critical approaches to the text by the major Hawthorne scholars, biographers, and other minor reviewers to 1968, along with a concluding personal evaluation of the work.


Newton Arvin

            Newton Arvin in his book, Hawthorne, suggests that much of the writer’s own attitude toward life is written into The Blithedale Romance. He portrays him as a shy, silent, self-absorbed member of Brook Farm who is dissatisfied and disgusted by farm work, unable to settle down to his writing, and frustrated at the delay of his marriage to Sophia Peabody. Thus, he finds within the little community “a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood” (1). Arvin notes that Hawthorne’s passion for isolation causes him to leave Brook Farm and to estrange himself from society for three or four years because he had come to believe that there was no actual “center” to life. Hawthorne comments that “no sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint” (2). Although the Brook Farm experiment is not totally wasted on Hawthorne, he considers it no triumph for the idea of socialism.

            Regarding the technical aspects of the work, Arvin notes that Hawthorne deliberately builds his romance apart from the mainstream of life while exhibiting an obsession with the forces that impede personal development. He grants that love is present in the novel, but that it is dominated by other forces. He feels that the characters, which are all affected to some degree by pride and selfishness, are unable to communicate with one another. In addition, he faults a clumsy structure, ineffective dialogue, distraction, and a mechanical treatment of the material. The result, says Arvin, is a book that is kept from being a complete flop only by the fine narration of Zenobia’s suicide.

            As to Hawthorne’s development of the characters, Arvin identifies what he feels is the main problem in each case: Coverdale, the narrator, becomes hard as an uninvolved observer; Hollingsworth, the former blacksmith, has a capacity for affection but sets up philanthropy in its place and makes it the sole object for living, which destroys his worth as a man; Zenobia, the beautiful dark heroine, is driven by her pride to compete with men, which makes her abnormal to the point that she never fits into her proper perspective to others; Priscilla, the mysterious maiden, is not substantial and is, therefore, easily destroyed between the strong forces of Hollingsworth and Zenobia, both symbols for Selfishness; Westervelt, the mesmerist, lets his cold skepticism smother any spiritual growth; and Old Moodie, the father of Zenobia and Priscilla, is superficial and flimsy as a human being.

            According to Arvin, Hawthorne thinks of personal tragedy as a product of outside forces, believing that free choice is so limited that it can be lost if it is ever used incorrectly. The first errant step is the planting of the evil seed, after which everything follows.


Richard H. Fogle

            Richard Fogle treats the text in his study called Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light & the Dark. He relates the idea of communal living to the American pastoral dream, an idea that today seems unworkable and perhaps even impossible. The relationships in the community are as artificial as the environment. The misguided attempt to reunite body and soul is a failure. The effect of the novel, according to Fogle, is achieved by viewing reality at a distance. Its main issues are skepticism vs. faith and materialism vs. idealism. The two main themes are the human heart and the experiment at Brook Farm. Hawthorne wisely realizes that “in the nature of the world, the death of this project was inevitable, yet the attempt has enlarged the boundaries of the human spirit” (3).

            Fogle devotes much of his analysis to the characters of the novel. Because he sees materialism as one of the major issues, he focuses on Westervelt (Western World), the embodiment of evil disguised as materialism, who reflects the absurdity of a life that substitutes appearance for reality (e.g., Westervelt’s good-looking false teeth). As a result, he negates life’s moral meaning. Westervelt’s “unpardonable sin” is the violation of the individual heart (Priscilla). Hawthorne’s traditional symbol for Satan, the walking stick, is one of Westervelt’s ever-present accessories, and, as a Satan figure, he ultimately deceives Zenobia.

            Zenobia’s character demands more than life can give. She is unable to adjust to the reality of life and is so proud of her own perfection that she makes the same mistake that her father makes earlier—she judges by appearances and falls for a heartless illusion. Zenobia rejects the two chances for success that she is given: she refuses Priscilla, and she derides the Blithedale experiment. Fogle feels that her strength of character, which leads her to excesses, makes the rest of the community pale by contrast.

            Hollingsworth, the reformer, does not know himself well enough to let his head direct him. Fogle notes that what Hollingsworth thinks is love of his fellow man is really his own proud egotism. Coverdale views him as a devilish perversion of spirit who sins against the whole community by selfishly attempting to further his own interests. Priscilla (the heart) is his only hope, but his salvation is not assured. Hawthorne writes, “I see in Hollingsworth an exemplification of the most awful truth in Bunyan’s book [The Pilgrim’s Progress] . . . ;--from the very gate of heaven there is a by-way to the pit” (4)!

            The narrator, Miles Coverdale, considered by many to be a portrait of Hawthorne himself, has enough humanity to keep from becoming cold-hearted, according to Fogle. Coverdale remains outside of the action and achieves a balance between spectator and participant until he declares his love for Priscilla at the very end of the story. Sadly, Coverdale’s potential remains unfulfilled as he illustrates the danger in becoming a scientific analyzer of human beings.

            To Fogle, Priscilla represents the human heart untouched by sin. She is fragile and simple, and her veil protects her from the world. She is the object of Westervelt’s exploitation, but she is ignored by Zenobia. Only Hollingsworth sees her value, yet she is almost betrayed by him. Fogle sees Priscilla as “faith” exposed to evil (Westervelt and Zenobia) and completely dominated and controlled by others.


Roy R. Male  

            The chapter in Male’s Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision that deals with the novel is called “the Pastoral Wasteland.” Male feels that Blithedale is neither an ineffectual effort to document the Brook Farm experiment, nor is it merely a collection of satirical comments on philanthropy and reform movements. He feels that Hawthorne is attempting to criticize mid-nineteenth-century American efforts at transformation. The underlying idea, Male contends, is that moral conversion—the only kind that matters—much be a suffering, tragic experience.

            Male also feels that speculations, such as whether Zenobia was meant to represent Margaret Fuller, have kept the novel from being evaluated properly. A Hawthorne notebook entry states that the book was written “to allegorize life with a masquerade, and represent mankind generally as masquers. Here and there a natural face may appear” (5). Because the novel represents experience out of context, so to speak, it must be evaluated on its own merit.

            The name “Blithedale” itself is ironic, according to Male. This group called “Happy Valley,” symbolizing a conscious effort to change men’s minds without changing their hearts, degrades to a desolate wasteland. The regeneration theme recurs throughout with allusions to constant seasonal changes in contrast to the feeble human efforts being exerted, the results of which disappoint.

            Male also notes the pattern of withdrawal and concealment in the novel. Hawthorne frequently uses the veil in his depiction of a masquerade apart from real life. Male contends that each character wears his/her own mask, whether it be a tangible drape or another device, such as Hollingsworth’s guise of philanthropy. At one point, Zenobia tells him, “You are a better masquerader than the witches and gypsies yonder; for your disguise is self-deception” (6).

            Male identifies the characters as symbols in the following ways: Zenobia is a type of Eve; Hollingsworth is man; Westervelt symbolizes their guilt; and Priscilla is their possible redemption, or the medium of the artist that embodies both truth and falsehood. Male feels that “the action of the book is summed up in the efforts of each character to manipulate, corrupt, or achieve the medium of truth” (7).

            Zenobia is a victim both of the “wasteland” and of her companions. Because she rejects her own womanhood, she is gradually destroyed by a false, shallow existence. Hollingsworth, by abstracting himself from reality, fails to be a real man and dooms himself to a life of self-accusation for Zenobia’s death. Interestingly, Male feels that Priscilla with the sealed envelope represents both Hester Prynne and Margaret Fuller, the difference being that Hester shows her “letter” while Margaret does not. Male does not insist on a close identification of Coverdale with Hawthorne, but he thinks that it might have occurred had not Hawthorne experienced love and a happy family life. Male sees in Miles Coverdale a resemblance, not with the Bible translator of the same name, but with Miles Standish who tries to “live by proxy.” Male also feels that Coverdale resembles the modern intellectual who finds himself alienated from society.

            Because no redemption through tragedy occurs as it does in The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun, Male feels that The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s most pessimistic novel. Even sexual passion is sacrificed to the “reformation,” and Male views it as ugly distortion or “dark comedy.” Coverdale’s emotional vacuum, Zenobia’s tragic death, and Hollingsworth’s agony of reappraisal afford no tragic vision, no understanding, and no moral growth—resulting in a pastoral wasteland.  


Hyatt H. Waggoner

            In his work, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Waggoner suggests that The Blithedale Romance is interesting if it is read, not as a history or a romance, but as a poem. He claims that the book is not more popular perhaps because it is too gothic and mysterious. He contends that Blithedale has textural richness and beauty and deserves more careful reading than it is generally given, but he also admits that it is cold, negative, and more hopeless than the writer’s other novels. Regarding the meaning of the work, Waggoner suggests that Hawthorne probably only means that utopian communities need members who undergo a change of heart because evil resides in the human heart, not in institutions. He also sees it as a possible return to Eden—man reverting to innocence.

            The symbols of fire and masks or veils are vehicles for carrying the themes throughout, but Hawthorne uses other symbols, such as the heart, as well. The veil hides the answer as to whether any hope exists for humankind, either by its own doing or by something outside itself.

            Waggoner does not study the characters in detail but only makes general comments about them. Zenobia is a “suggestion” of Margaret Fuller, whose “veil” is her secret identity. Hollingsworth (whose name “holy-worthy” is ironic) loves abstract humankind, but not actual people. Priscilla is the only character motivated by love. The others—Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and Coverdale—use Blithedale for their own purposes and lose touch with each other. Coverdale, Waggoner contends, does not represent the author fully, but the part of himself that he disliked. In Coverdale, we find the ambiguity of the head and the heart. What he believes, he cannot feel; what he feels, he cannot believe. He seems to be portrayed unsympathetically, which may explain his remoteness. Because Hawthorne reacts negatively to the use of reason alone for effecting reform, the general coldness of the novel comes through.


Mark Van Doren

On the negative side, Mark Van Doren makes it clear in his work, Nathaniel Hawthorne, that Blithedale has little to recommend it. According to him, the work has no virtue of any kind and few books exist that are poorer having been written by a first-rate writer. Although Robert Browning preferred it to Hawthorne’s other novels, Van Doren views it as a failure because, he says, Hawthorne used his imagination instead of his experiences at Brook Farm, and his imagination did not work in the real world. He also cites Hawthorne’s known coolness to Transcendentalism, his general skepticism of schemes to regenerate society, and his belief that at the time that he was suffering from a lack of material to write about.

            Van Doren feels that the novel suffers from a pale narrator who tells the story badly, whom the author himself denounces. Even if Zenobia is patterned after Fuller, the reader never feels her beauty, never sees her as effective, and never senses her tragedy. Priscilla is a feeble character whose situation is always unclear. The mesmerism is tame, and Coverdale is an ass for insisting on tragedy that does not exist. The reservations that critics expressed when the novel was first published were completely justified according to Van Doren.


Henry James

            On a more positive note, Henry James, in his little volume called Hawthorne, calls Blithedale “very charming,” in fact “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest” of Hawthorne’s novels. He feels that it is told from a more joyous point of view than the others, even though it contains the most tragic event (Zenobia’s death) in all of his other writing. In Blithedale, James sees a mixture of elements, a combination of brightness and shadow that leaves an impression in the memory. The effect of the novel, says James, is to make one think more agreeably about life.

            Of the characters, James says that Coverdale is as much Hawthorne as he is anyone—an objective observer spinning fancies. Coverdale is not just a spirit; he is a real man—a thinker, an analyzer with an active imagination, a gentle skeptic, and a mild cynic. Hollingsworth’s fault is that he has no patience with his friends and is ruined by an overdose of purpose, ironically after he criticizes Coverdale for having none. Zenobia, says James, is the finest character, the most concrete image, and the nearest approach to creating a real person that Hawthorne ever makes. He says that a comparison with Margaret Fuller is pointless because as many differences as similarities exist between them.

            James notes that the novel lacks any satire. Instead, it is a delightful, beautiful book full of deep, delicate touches. Hawthorne used Brook Farm only as a starting point for his flight into imagination; in fact, the novel’s principal merit lies in its difference from the actual experiment. In fact, Brook Farm owes its memory to the novel because it has been brought back to our attention through the imagination of a great writer.


Randall Stewart

            Stewart notes in his biography of Hawthorne that although Blithedale was received less enthusiastically than The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables, the critic William Dean Howells prefers it to the others because of its greater “realism.” Stewart feels that instead of drawing Zenobia to resemble Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne goes more to his general view of human nature and the difficulty in transforming it by artificial culture. Hawthorne thinks that the Transcendentalists are too optimistic in underestimating human problems. His attitude toward the reformer Hollingsworth shows us that Hawthorne thinks it worthless to appeal to the “higher nature” of a sinner.


George P. Lathrop

            Lathrop in A Study of Hawthorne, written only twelve years after Hawthorne’s death, contends that Blithedale shows the author’s insight into the demonianism of reformers who forget that the center of every true reform is the heart. Lathrop believes that Hawthorne looks on the socialist experiment as a jesting matter, possibly even sneering at the idea, even though in his preface, the author states that he does not “put forward the slightest pretensions to illustrate a theory, or elicit a conclusion, favorable or otherwise, in respect to socialism” (8). Although some of the author’s acquaintances suggest certain character traits found in the novel’s characters, the point should not be labored. Lathrop agrees with Arvin’s later assessment of Hawthorne’s attitude toward reform movements—hostility, rather than brotherhood.


George E. Woodberry

            Woodberry calls Blithedale the least substantial of Hawthorne’s longer works, lacking the intense power of The Scarlet Letter and the rich surface of The House of the Seven Gables. The interest lies primarily in the connection to the Brook Farm experiment and the author’s judicial study of the kind of reform movement that prevails during his lifetime. Because Hawthorne is antipathetic to the theme of the work, the story elements suffer. The characters are isolated, and the writing weakens as it combines old methods to depict a moral situation that carries little conviction. As a result of these weaknesses, the novel conveys little universality and, therefore, little interest.


Herbert Gorman

            Gorman’s book, Hawthorne: A Study in Solitude, credits Blithedale with one attribute not found in his other two novels of the same period—it is written more in “sunlight” with an attempt at realistic writing, though decidedly romantic. The book has a certain charm and contains several strong scenes. It is not so much a picture of Brook Farm as it is set in a “pocket of time” and “removed from the rest of the world.” Although not a “great” book or even a “good” one, it is adequate, full of sunlight and humor.


Frank P. Stearns

            In an early study, Stearns assigns to Blithedale more tragedy than that of The Scarlet Letter, which he feels ends with happiness. The prime theme is moral affectation. Zenobia and Hollingsworth are hollow shells that crush at the first temptation. Zenobia is in love with herself, and Hollingsworth has no hope at the end. To Stearns, Zenobia is Margaret Fuller where she relates to Priscilla. Compared to The House of Seven Gables, Blithedale is written more freely and more carelessly and is better for it. Because the author is closer to the subject, it is perhaps the least poetic or imaginative of the other novels.


Edward Mather

            According to Mather, the passages that refer directly to the community are written with amusement and evident enjoyment. The book, he feels, is mostly fantasy, even though parts of the story are realistic and actually recounted in Hawthorne’s notebooks. Although Zenobia is the most striking and original of the author’s characters, some of her conversation, her views, and the incidents in her life (e.g., her drowning) are very much Margaret Fuller. In spite of Hawthorne’s denials, Mather reminds that he always attempts to fool his readers. He says that it is better that Hawthorne is not more autobiographical in this novel because, as a result, he is truer to his imagination.


Frank Davidson

            In an article called “Toward a Re-evaluation of The Blithedale Romance,” Davidson recaps many of the trends in the criticism of the novel and finds that it has drawn the greatest extremes of opinion of any of Hawthorne’s works.

            In spite of all the explanations written heretofore, Davidson feels that none has discovered the theme of the work, which is the tragedy bred from a “monomania of egotism” or the idea that an ideal brings man to a good end only if he keeps to the natural order of life. Perhaps Hawthorne himself possesses something of a morbid nature which shows up in his writing. This theme is built on a series of “veil” images found throughout the story. Coverdale’s supposed impertinence in spying on the others is a veil spun by Zenobia, who herself wears a mask of privacy. Priscilla appears to hear voices that are hidden from the others. Old Moodie wears an eye-patch behind which he hides. Westervelt is disguised in various ways. Hawthorne uses other veil images, such as the curtains in Zenobia’s city apartment, the masquerade in the woods, the river’s secret, and the man with a handkerchief over his face.

            Other “veils” are “woven by time, by circumstance, by imagination, by manner, by mood, by temperament” (9). Coverdale tells the story ten years later, telling a bird of his love for Priscilla, although he is in love with the image, rather than the person. In fact, Davidson Says, the whole Blithedale experiment was unreality “inevitably estranged from the rest of mankind” (10).

            In Blithedale, Davidson locates a number of famous Hawthorne motifs: 1) the loneliness and tragic potential of the single-track mind; 2) the presence of evil in human life; 3) the harm caused by the intellect ruling the heart; 4) the vanity of hasty reform; 5) the ephemerality of the absolute; 6) the perversion of nature; and 7) social isolation. The novel, Davidson asserts, has rhythm, balance, and imagery, so we should attempt to determine what Hawthorne was trying to do before we can suggest that he failed to achieve it. 

Personal Evaluation

            My first experience with Blithedale occurred three or four years ago when I selected the novel to read one summer afternoon. Because I was familiar with other Hawthorne works, I was not expecting what I found on the pages of the novel. It seemed different from his other stories. The structure felt less precisely, rigidly planned. The effect was that it had almost been carelessly set down, as if a storyteller would relate it to a group assembled around a campfire. Subsequent study indicates, however, that the author achieved what appears to be a loosely drawn novel only by conscious effort.

            During the first reading, I was captivated by the unusual atmosphere pervading the story. Hawthorne had seemed to have achieved a delicate balance between daydream and fact, and being removed in this way from the mainstream of life made the novel enchanting. Even though I first read it superficially by comparison, even this casual approach to the work made an impression of the author’s possible limitations without conceding a defeat. Having re-read it recently in a more scholarly context, my original impressions have deepened, and I have gained a new appreciation for Hawthorne’s writing skill.

            I agree with William Dean Howells’ assessment that this novel has more “realistic” elements than the other Hawthorne works probably because he was writing partly from experience rather than purely from his imagination. In the writer’s notebooks, we find accounts of many of the events and people at Brook Farm that seem to form the basis of the work. These personal contacts no doubt added “stuff” to his depiction of the characters in the novel, which should not detract from it, but should heighten interest in how he handled the material in fiction form.

            The novel, as is typical of a Hawthorne piece, is replete with symbolism, the most dominant being the mask or veil, as has been noted by numerous critics. Hawthorne seems to suggest that all people wear masks of some kind. The symbols are carefully, systematically arranged and can be interpreted on many different levels. It is unfortunate that we cannot know Hawthorne’s full intention in writing this novel because that would allow us to see it in its proper perspective. The critics included in this review have made many salient points about the book, except for Mark Van Doren, who flatly asserts that the work has no value. Having heard Mr. Van Doren read his own work, it is disappointing to hear such a response that completely misses any intrinsic worth in the story. Perhaps the truism that criticism reveals more about the critic than it does about the work can be applied here.

            One issue that is either subordinated or entirely missing from most critical evaluations of Blithedale is reference to Hawthorne’s profound insights into human nature apart from the plot line of the story. These “asides” (spoken most often through Coverdale, but sounding much like the author’s voice) add interest and delight to the novel. For example, at one point, the narrator describes the relationship that often exists between a brilliant woman and a younger admirer. Penetrating, poignant observations like this are made by a writer who recognizes the complexity and worth of humanity in the presence of the obvious failings of humanity. Likewise, throughout the novel, Hawthorne presents the reader with the paradox of brotherly love vs. self-love. This omnipresent commentary on the nature of human existence should not be overlooked even by the most myopic critic.

            In addition, in his handling of the elements, Hawthorne has created an ethereal atmosphere which is appealing because it is abstracted from the ordinary. Characters like Priscilla and Westervelt are not clearly delineated as they are “impressions,” which seems like a more difficult task for the writer than straightforward character portrayal might be. Even if the work were missing everything but its descriptive nature passages, the piece would have value. Even with its imagined faults, the novel’s merits make it deserving of thoughtful reading.


1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance. New York: Dell, 1960, 43.

2. Ibid., 174.

3. Richard H. Fogle. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light & the Dark. Norman: U of OK Press, 1952, 168.

4. Hawthorne, 284.

5. Roy R. Male. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1957, 140.

6. Hawthorne, 256.

7. Male, 149.

8. Hawthorne, 21.

9. Frank Davidson. The New England Quarterly. XXV (Sep 1952) 374-383.

10. Ibid., 378.