A New Critical Reading of The Blithedale Romance
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance is an extremely enigmatic text. Due to its highly complicated and confusing plot, as well as its somewhat unreliable narrative, it is difficult–and some theorists would say impossible–to determine its final, definitive meaning. In order to create a definitive reading of the text, some theorists, such as Sacvan Bercovitch in “Hawthorne’s A-Morality of Compromise,” delve into the Hawthorne’s background, as well as the historical context of his writings. However, according to New Critical theory, to do so would be to commit the intentional fallacy by assuming that the meaning of the text is determined by the author’s intention. Instead, a New Critical reading of The Blithedale Romance looks at the text alone–its tension, form, ambiguity, and irony–in order to uncover its one, universal meaning. Thus, due to the text’s clear central tension, the vast amount of ambiguity, and considerable irony, a New Critical reading is extremely useful in determining the theme of The Blithedale Romance. For example, through a New Critical analysis of the text, one can identify that its central tension involves feminism and sexism. Furthermore, this reading studies and finds the significance of the text’s ambiguity as to which side of the central tension it privileges. Much ambiguity is created in the characterization of Zenobia and her feminist views. Finally, a close reading of specific aspects of the text indicates that, despite Zenobia’s feminism, the novel supports the sexist ideals of the male characters. Thus, despite the ambiguity of the text, and at times in fact because of it, a New Critical reading would conclude that the overall message of The Blithedale Romance is that feminism is a negative force that will ultimately cause chaos and death.
First and foremost, a New Critical reading of The Blithedale Romance would recognize the central tension within the text between feminism and sexism, or more specifically between feminism and the values of tranquility and righteousness, as the text implies that the former prevents the latter. Reflecting these conflicting ideologies, the central tension of The Blithedale Romance is represented by the characters Zenobia, Coverdale, and Hollingsworth. Zenobia is portrayed as an absolute feminist and seems to be a strong and independent female figure: “She declaimed with great earnestness and passion, nothing short of anger, on the injustice which the world did to women, and equally to itself, by not allowing them…their natural utterance in public” (Hawthorne 120). Meanwhile, Coverdale seems to think that feminism is unnecessary, and Hollingsworth believes that feminism is entirely wrong and dangerous. These conflicting beliefs are evident very early in the text. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Zenobia delegates tasks of labor in the following quote: “We women…will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course…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!” (Hawthorne 16). From this, it is clear that Zenobia does not see it necessary for women or men to conform to the gender roles they’ve been assigned by society, and thinks that women are as capable as men of physical labor. To this, Coverdale responds that he does not understand why anyone has to do housework at all, revealing that he does not at all understand Zenobia’s point or the immense amount of labor that goes into “women’s work.” In this way, the text utilizes dialogue to establish the characters’ conflicting feminist and sexist beliefs, the tension between which drives the plot of the novel.
This central tension becomes particularly important in defining the meaning of the text, and it seems to support Coverdale and Hollingsworth’s sexist ideals. For example, Zenobia’s death in the end of the novel acts as her punishment for being a resistant and powerful female, and for wanting women’s revolution. In contrast, Priscilla, the very example of a submissive, silent woman, gets a happy ending. Priscilla represents the “perfect” woman: she is submissive, indecisive, and lacks self awareness. As Zenobia puts it, “She is the type of womanhood, such as man has spent centuries in making it” (Hawthorne 122). As Coverdale says in the following quote, Priscilla only cares for Hollingsworth, who is, ultimately, her male master: “But a character, so simply constituted as hers, has the room only for a single predominant affection. No other feeling can touch the heart’s inmost core, nor do it any deadly mischief….So with Priscilla! Her one possible misfortune was Hollingsworth’s unkindness” (Hawthorne 241). So, when Priscilla, the “perfect woman,” marries Hollingsworth and lives happily ever after, she is being rewarded for choosing the least resistant path. Furthermore, she is being rewarded for adhering to Hollingsworth’s sexist ideal that a “woman’s place is at a man’s side” (Hawthorne 122) by choosing happiness with him over her relationship with her own, much-adored sister. In this way, the text seems to favor the sexist idea that feminism should be punished, and female subservience to man should be rewarded.
Moreover, it is difficult to see Zenobia, the most progressive character, as a true feminist icon in the novel, because she is not as steadfast in her views as she says she is. Often, her choices and behavior contradict her supposed beliefs. New Critical theory suggests that ambiguity and irony are key in determining the text’s meaning; thus, through close readings of several key scenes, New Critical analysis would analyze Zenobia’s ambiguity and irony of character to create meaning. For example, as feminist as her ideas may be prior to male retaliation, Zenobia often submits to Hollingsworth’s opinionated influence. At one point, Zenobia announces her belief that “When my sex shall achieve its rights, there will be ten eloquent women, where there is now one eloquent man” (Hawthorne 120). To this, Hollingsworth responds, “[Woman’s] place is at man’s side. Her office, that of the Sympathizer; the unreserved, unquestioning Believer…All the separate action of woman is…false, foolish, vain, destructive of her own best and holiest qualities…and productive of intolerable mischiefs!” (Hawthorne 122). While the reader would expect Zenobia, or any feminist, to stand up to such an argument, Coverdale says that “She only looked humbled. Some tears sparkled in her eyes, but they were wholly of grief, not anger” (Hawthorne 123). It is evident here that Zenobia cannot fully represent the feminist ideal, because when presented with the exact mindset that feminists strive to disprove, she remains silent. Instead of defending her opinion, and speaking up as she claims all women should be able to do, she submissively listens to Hollingsworth. Through analysis of this scene, it is again clear that the overarching message of the novel cannot be a feminist one, because by allowing Zenobia to be shut down by Hollingsworth’s retort, the text implies its support of his opinions.
Examples of Zenobia’s ironic self-contradiction continue throughout the text. For example, later in the novel, Zenobia tells Hollingsworth and Priscilla, “At least, I am a woman– with every fault, it may be, that a women ever had, weak, vain, unprincipled, (like most of my sex; for our virtues, when we have any, are merely impulsive and intuitive)” (Hawthorne 217). In this, she is excusing her own behavior because she’s “just a woman,” which is not a feminist concept in itself. Furthermore, not only is she criticizing females as a gender by calling them “weak, vain, unprincipled,” and essentially lacking in virtue (“when we have any”), but she’s also lumping them together as if all women are the same. This is an ironic argument for a self-proclaimed feminist to use as a self-defense, and only enhances her ambiguity of character, thus reducing her credibility.
In addition, Zenobia’s ultimate demise–her suicide in the end of the novel–is ironic in that it isn’t necessarily a feminist action. One possible reading is that, in killing herself because Hollingsworth has rejected her, Zenobia is in fact submitting to the patriarchy; she is killing herself, devaluing her own life, all in the name of a man. Furthermore, her suicide is a form of self-punishment for pursuing Hollingsworth, which contradicts her feminist beliefs that women should have the freedom to do what they want. On the other hand, one could argue that by killing herself she is exercising her agency by choosing not to live in a world that hasn’t given her what she wanted.
However, because Zenobia is the only feminist character, and the rest of the characters are particularly sexist, her inconsistent upholding of feminist beliefs renders it difficult to conclude that The Blithedale Romance’s meaning is a feminist one. On the contrary, based on all of the aforementioned textual evidence, it would be perhaps more prudent to assume that Zenobia’s feminism exists in the text solely as an opportunity for the male characters and the plot to prove that it is negative and deserving of punishment. Therefore, based on the central tension, ambiguity, and irony in the text, a New Critical reading would identify the ultimate, universal meaning of the text as a statement that feminism is negative and only creates tragedy and unfortunate consequences.
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