Book Review: The Blithedale Romance

Upon finishing this strange, voyeuristic tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the single, burning desire I had was to reread the first few chapters.  I did, and it was if a veil had been yanked away, so different was my perspective after knowing the whole story.

Hawthorne, known by most because they had to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, is one of those authors that I’ve really come to love through his short stories. He fits into this sort of gothic colonial genre along with Washington Irving of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. They make America into this wild, untamed place of both delight and horror.

Hawthorne’s sort of like O. Henry, too.  Although his endings are not complete twists, there’s a sense of irony pervading everything. “The Birthmark” is my favorite short story of Hawthorne’s and is about a scientist who marries a beautiful woman who has a birthmark on her cheek. The scientist becomes obsessed with removing the birthmark, trying experiment after experiment, and for love of him, his wife suffers through it.  I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess that it’s not happy.

The Blithedale Romance does indeed have romance in it as well as other themes and topics.  It deals a bit with the Transcendental movement of the time and the search for utopia–basically the idea that with enough brain power and ingenuity humans can make themselves and the earth perfect. I was surprised to find that Hawthorne himself took part in one of these commune schemes because he’s always seemed to be someone practical about the limits and foibles of human nature. Contrasted with this Walden Pond-ish scheme for getting back to nature, is the Spiritualist movement. Table turning, magicians, and veiled ladies were all the craze at the time as well, and the first clue we have that the narrator and main character, Miles Coverdale, is not very serious about “going to the woods and living deliberately” is that he attends a magician’s show featuring a veiled lady right at the beginning. Coverdale is a man in search of an epoch in his life, especially one that will give him a purpose.

As both a narrator and a character, I don’t really like Miles Coverdale, perhaps because I see some of the same annoying traits in myself. Coverdale is an observer, not a man of action, and he overthinks everything. The second clue that he’s not too serious about this striving for utopia is that he falls extremely ill the day they are to begin work and takes what feels like decades to recover, sitting and musing in his room, when it is clear he’d be a lot better off outside in the sun and getting exercise.

Now, he did surprise me by eventually doing the hard work (according to himself), but I was shocked by how affronted he is by his friend, Hollingsworth, who seems to be a genuine believer in being able to reform people. Coverdale believes Hollingsworth’s philanthropic desires and plans are leading him straight to the doorway to hell next to the gates of heaven in Pilgrim’s Progress.  As Coverdale tends to overdramatize everything and is not a very reliable narrator, I struggled to understand just what was so awful about Hollingsworth, a man of action who has purpose and a good heart. Now, the saying goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I gather that’s what concerns our narrator, Coverdale. It is also no big revelation to find that Coverdale doesn’t really believe in the whole utopian idea like his friend does. Coverdale’s problem is that he doesn’t believe in anything and has no purpose to his life. He is pretty honest about that by the end of the book, along with his final revelation, which makes his issue with Hollingsworth clear.

I had to go back and reread the first few chapters, because I just plowed away into the book without knowing anything about the story. (I usually don’t read introductions or anything, because they often give away too much of the plot.) The happenings of the first 2-3 chapters, I was thinking, okay that’s nice, veiled lady, maybe a mystery? Scary story? And the farm. Something about the follies of hippie communes?  But The Blithedale Romance actually ended up being about romance, about the clash between men and women in the world, and that I didn’t expect.

The first character Coverdale scrutinizes in the book is a young woman with the stage name of Zenobia. She is necessarily beautiful, vivacious, and is a mover and shaker who appears to be somewhat the head of this group (not sure how many) of people who have come to live at Blithedale to farm and live off the land. Coverdale fancies a love triangle is being played out over the summer among Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and another woman. Our narrator plays at being detached when he’s anything but. Zenobia’s a bit theatrical and takes pride in living unconventionally for a woman at the time. She jokes about how at first the women will take care of the house duties and then move on to sharing the men’s work. She and Hollingsworth argue about her wish to begin or be a part of a women’s liberation movement (something with which Coverdale appears to agree and Hollingsworth disagree), and Coverdale is surprised when Zenobia gives into this philanthropist rather easily and meekly.

Underlying the plot is the theme of women just wanting to be loved aside from or despite age or beauty or riches. The story of the veiled lady that Zenobia orates for her comrades is a peek into her heart. With a mention of Eve near the beginning of the book, the thought of the Biblical curse that God put on women is present, specifically that they will always have a desire for their husband or a husband.  Zenobia is young, beautiful, single, rich, independent, and it’s ultimately not enough. And it’s not enough, because she’s a woman. It is a curse of womanhood, and we see this most clearly at the end of the story as we realize she and Coverdale share the same heartache, yet Coverdale with no purpose except maybe his poetry, is able to move on and be content in middle age.

Zenobia also delivers one of the greatest lines and I don’t want to make fun of it because her character means it in all seriousness, but it’s definitely a line you could use as a joke, too. Coverdale takes her hand and it’s as cold as ice. He says as much to her and she replies: “the extremities die first, they say.” I really got a kick out of that line for some reason–maybe it was the extreme drama from both her and Coverdale.

At the end of the book, Coverdale fancies Hollingsworth to be living in a state of perpetual defeat. All life and purpose seems to have left him. The readers are again made aware of the unreliable and fanciful nature of our narrator as he describes Hollingsworth’s woman as trying to keep Coverdale away from him. Is Hollingsworth truly defeated or has his life found a different purpose? It’s evident in a lot of ways that Coverdale isn’t just the poetic voyeur and analyzer that he pretends to be. I reread the beginning and then fully understood that he may know all of these people a lot better than his narration tells. That this carefully detached man ends up alone in middle age isn’t surprising, his grand ending confession aside. Coverdale reminds me a little bit of the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, another character who can’t stop overanalyzing everything, and to his own detriment.

The Blithedale Romance will eventually require a second reading for me to really soak in everything going on in the story, and it’s the knowledge of that which really brings to light just what a master Nathaniel Hawthorne was at his craft. That subsequent readings of a work would make the story even better and richer is one of the ultimate goals in writing because you know your work has value that can be experienced again and again.  Now, of course, I need to put The Scarlet Letter on my list of classics that I’m either rereading or reading for the first time.

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