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
The story of
Blithedale is centered on an experimental community reminiscent of the Brook
Farm Transcendental group with which
analysis includes the various critical approaches to the text by the major
in his book,
the technical aspects of the work, Arvin notes that
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
Fogle treats the text in his study called
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).
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
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
feels that speculations, such as whether Zenobia was meant to represent
Margaret Fuller, have kept the novel from being evaluated properly. A
“Blithedale” itself is ironic, according to Male. This group called “
notes the pattern of withdrawal and concealment in the novel.
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
redemption through tragedy occurs as it does in The Scarlet Letter and The
Marble Faun, Male feels that The Blithedale
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
of fire and masks or veils are vehicles for carrying the themes throughout, but
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
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
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.
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.
characters, James says that Coverdale is as much
that the novel lacks any satire. Instead, it is a delightful, beautiful book
full of deep, delicate touches.
notes in his biography of
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
George E. Woodberry
calls Blithedale the least
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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
first reading, I was captivated by the unusual atmosphere pervading the story.
I agree with
William Dean Howells’ assessment that this novel has more “realistic” elements
than the other
as is typical of a
that is either subordinated or entirely missing from most critical evaluations
of Blithedale is reference to
in his handling of the elements,
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne,
The Blithedale Romance.
2. Ibid., 174.
3. Richard H. Fogle. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light & the Dark. Norman: U of OK Press, 1952, 168.
5. Roy R. Male. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision.
7. Male, 149.
9. Frank Davidson. The
10. Ibid., 378.