The Blithedale Romance
Social Sciences and Psychology in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance
Hawthorne’s science fiction short stories, such as ‘The Birthmark’ and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter,’ are set in the seventeenth century. His novels, however, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, are set in the nineteenth century, his own era. The progression of science from alchemy to psychological and social sciences occurs in reality, and is evident as a shift in Hawthorne’s fiction. Science in the nineteenth century was no longer a crude physical chemistry, but evolved into psychology, a science based on the human mind and its behavior. With the American industrial revolution beginning in the eighteenth century, this scientific progress occurred quickly; therefore, a large element still resides in stages of experimentation in nineteenth century science. Experimentation is a key component in Hawthorne’s seventeenth century stories, and the fear of alchemy is still present in later contexts. Yet Hawthorne’s nineteenth century set fiction also exhibits a rationalization of science, as the experiments progress from using people as physical reactants, to instead social subjects. This transition to a rationalized modernity is also reflected in genre. The Gothic motifs in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’ such as the ‘mad scientist’ become less prominent. Hawthorne’s fiction instead evolves according to a Utopian tradition, where social science exists as a method of reform. However, this transition of genre does not occur readily. Motifs from the Gothic tradition, such as the decaying setting and virginal maiden, still feature in Hawthorne’s novels. Therefore, progress within Hawthorne’s fiction, specifically scientific, is challenging to achieve without the past acting as an inhibitor.
The House of the Seven Gables is a novel centered on how the past influences future action, and intent. Hawthorne’s symbolism moves beyond the inanimate to exist in people, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon. Hepzibah’s reaction to Mr Holgrave, the lodger, and his art of daguerreotypy, an early form of photography, suggests the difficulty with progression derives not only from procedure, but people. This suspicion of Holgrave is specific to the older generation. Hepzibah ‘had reason to believe he studied animal magnetism, and […] the Black [Arts].’ Hepzibah’s ‘reason’ is based on past fears. Just as Brown is suspicious of the intentions of his seemingly innocent townspeople in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ Hepzibah in her skepticism also belongs to a seventeenth century context. For the elders, the practice of science is still synonymous with alchemy, the devil, and the ‘Black Arts’. This belief suggests that science continues to be associated with the dangers of uncertainty in the nineteenth century, despite the increasing amount of knowledge collected in the field. Hepzibah’s ‘reason to believe’ sorcery of Holgrave is based entirely on suspicion. Her position is emphasized by Phoebe, the Pyncheon’s young and hopeful cousin, who trusts, and eventually loves, Holgrave with only a few questions. Hawthorne therefore presents a self-conscious transition beyond the ‘mad scientist’ motif. In this novel, Holgrave could be aligned with the stereotype through his unfamiliar practice. As belief transitions, science is accepted as progressive, and, daguerreotypy is presented as harmless. Instead, Hepzibah is aligned with the hysteric figure in her suspicions, as one who has been inadvertently affected by a seventeenth century version of the ‘mad scientist’, Matthew Maule. The focus is therefore on ‘belief’ and not ‘reason.’ Hepzibah’s suspicion originates in her mind, and is not based on fact. Charles Poyen suggests that many in the nineteenth century found the authority of witchcraft easier to believe than pseudoscience. Hawthorne inverts this concept. With the introduction of Phoebe and Holgrave as a new, rationalized generation, witchcraft becomes the absurd suspicions of an old woman. Hepzibah is a necessary, stock character in this novel, representative of a generation that struggles to progress as the new generation can.
The inability to progress from the past in The House of the Seven Gables is based on the failure to acquire necessary knowledge of how to break the curse of earlier times. The Pyncheons, especially Clifford, cannot escape the ‘curse’ of their family through their ignorance of Jaffrey Pyncheon’s true nature. Holgrave uses his daguerreotypes to psychoanalyze people, suggesting the Pyncheons need to also seek truth from living people, as opposed to their ancient ancestral history. Holgrave’s daguerreotype allows a recognition of Judge Pyncheon’s false benevolence, a key aspect in the remaining plot: ‘Would you like to be at it’s mercy? At that mouth? Could it ever smile?’ Daguerreotypy, as an early form of photography, should replicate the subject. However, Holgrave instead constructs a physical appearance that reflect the Judge’s true character, the character that framed Clifford for the murder of their uncle. Social science therefore extends to physiognomy, the ability to attribute temperament to outer appearance. In identifying the ‘mouth’ as incapable of smiling, Hawthorne implies the Judge’s internal character is incapable of good also. Hawthorne perhaps self-consciously uses daguerreotypy in ‘The Birthmark’ also to display the scientific progress made. Aylmer’s attempted image is ‘blurred and indefinable’, suggesting an inability to perceive and therefore imitate Georgiana’s true character, that is more than merely external. Whilst Holgrave’s image is more accurate, his psychoanalysis is still evidently primitive. However, he cannot be identified as the ‘mad scientist’ as his procedure is accurate, moderated and does not sacrifice human life. Furthermore, his appearance refuses to fit the expected convention. Both scientists in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’ physically embody their evil nature. As Hawthorne’s fiction transitions in setting to the nineteenth century, the scientists cannot and need not be identified by appearance alone, as their science is less threatening.
Seventeenth and nineteenth century science are extremely different in procedure. Yet, they are aligned in their insistence on progress. Aylmer and Rappaccini endanger human lives to ‘find a perfect future in the present.’ The social science of reform evokes the same persistence, an impatience that Hawthorne suggests will lead to inevitable failure. To scientifically, and socially, progress to this ‘perfect future’ requires patience and time, and without such qualities comes harm. In the nineteenth century, reform movements swept New England to encourage the ‘restoration of a human togetherness.’ In The Blithedale Romance, the characters seek beyond this restoration to a complete reform to a ‘Paradisiacal System.’ Yet as the skeptical protagonist, Miles Coverdale refers to the system as ‘Arcadian’. The importance of this concept is emphasized through Hawthorne’s consideration of the title The Arcadian Summer for the novel. This concept differs from ‘paradise’ as it infers a lack of sustainability in their planned utopia, or perhaps a completely imaginary aspect altogether. The Blithedale project aims to ‘restore’ human togetherness through abolishing artificial social boundaries that restrict this. In striving for this ‘paradise,’ it implies the ultimate restoration to the beginning of mankind in the Garden of Eden, an impossibly high standard for the reformers to attain. Taylor Stoehr argues it is dangerous to completely abandon social boundaries, as one loses contact with traditional laws of social conduct, such as gender relations. This idea is established in the novel. Without the introduction of revised rules for a bettered society, the original boundaries of social hierarchy could be readily re-established. However, it is this complete abolition of boundaries that allows the characters to commit human mistakes, and for individual reform to stem from this. For reform to occur on a larger, societal scale, the Blithedale residents need a more structured, specific idea of the conditions they desire.
As previously established, scientific progression was met with resistance, especially in light of the introduction of new procedures. While Hawthorne was skeptical that people were capable of immediate social reform, he was also skeptical of mesmerism as a process capable of spiritual elevation and reform. Benjamin Storey presents mesmerism as reducing ‘the passions we most deeply experience as our own’ to ‘reverberations of underling magnetic forces.’ This suggests that any emotion one feels is unoriginal, caused by an external source and not based on emotional idiosyncrasies. Hawthorne inverts this measured, nineteenth century concept – in 1845, a Boston mesmerist Dr. Robert H. Collyer, claimed to discover phrenomagnetism, the ability to excite the brain by magnetic action – through a flashback in the chapter ‘Alice Pyncheon’. Through regressing to an earlier era where mesmerism was considered a spiritual phenomenon, it re-introduces fear as a reaction. It also re-affirms the action as a sin that infiltrates ‘thy holy of holies’, and not just a scientific process. Alice Pyncheon, the great granddaughter of Colonel Pyncheon, has ‘a power, that she little dreamed of […] [lay] its grasp upon her maiden soul.’ The mesmerist, Matthew Maule, is aligned again with the ‘mad scientist.’ Hawthorne’s use of the motif outside his science fiction suggests that categorization does not depend upon specific scientific procedure, but an inherent greed for power. Matthew Maule asserts a patriarchal dominance in laying his ‘grasp’ upon Alice’s ‘soul.’ As a ‘maiden,’ and presumably a virgin, Alice is vulnerable through her naivety. Maule’s ‘will’ is assumed to extend to the sexual, and her purity is tarnished. Psychological manipulation is thus arguably more abhorrent than physical bondage. As psychological control was considered only achievable through sorcery, it is suggested that the average mortal cannot be freed from such bondage through traditional methods. In indicating abuses of this power, Hawthorne suggests an authority behind the fears of scientific progression. The ‘mad scientist’ stereotype, therefore, still exists beyond the Gothic tradition. However, in the nineteenth century, the abilities of these scientists are more threatening, as they extend to manipulation of the psychological.
The majority of concepts that are explored in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance are centered on advancement. Despite featuring Gothic concepts, both novels exist partially in the Utopian genre in this element of evolution. Often, Utopian novels have construed reform as a universal ideal; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World requires an absolute genesis. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance does encourage reform, but only partially, in the return to traditional labor and ideally traditional relationships between men. However, searching for answers to a modern problem in ancient practices inevitably fails. The protagonist ‘reluctantly concedes’ that ‘clods of earth […] can never be etherealized into thought.’ Coverdale is a poet, typically concerned with the metaphorical, yet seeks for intellectual inspiration in physical ‘clods of earth.’ This Wordsworthian concept of poetical, superior thought is rejected by these ‘clods of earth,’ which is such a base vision that even a poet cannot ‘etherealize’ the experience. Individual failure is emphasized by the definitive adverb ‘never’, which suggests inspiration cannot be found in any endeavor at Blithedale. It is these individual goals that complicate the entire project which claims to restore ‘togetherness.’ All the residents are gathered to reform, yet each has singular, ulterior motives. As each character exposes individual goals, it becomes clear that the members of the social experiment are pre-emptive in their aspirations of reform. The project must first identify the flaws of both society and the individual, such as self-indulgence and manipulation, before it can seek to change them.
Therefore, Hawthorne’s fiction set in the nineteenth century seemingly suggests that progression is threatening, especially when demanded instantaneously. Yet, this implication is not completely accurate. His fiction actively encourages reform, if the past has first been addressed. This means that the reformers, whether the revolutionary scientists or the social progressives, must learn to wield their power responsibly. Hawthorne executes this through rationalizing Matthew Maule’s curse, and stripping Westervelt of his assumed mesmeric control. Robert S. Levine argues that reformers, whether social or not ‘have no heart, no sympathy […] no conscience.’ However, Hawthorne’s fiction rejects this notion. The sinners –Matthew Maule, Colonel Pyncheon, Zenobia and Hollingworth –initially have none of these traits. Yet, The Blithedale Romance presents a character development that allows Hollingworth’s conscience to evolve. If the sinner is now dead, Hawthorne repeats history in the current generation, yet this time introducing both ‘heart’ and ‘sympathy’. Thus, he reconciles the current generation with past sin. In The House of the Seven Gables, Holgrave’s slight ‘gesture upwards’ prevents Phoebe from being subjected to her ancestor’s fate, and acts as a penance for Alice Pyncheon. In a sense, every novel Hawthorne sets in the nineteenth century is subject to a curse. Social or ancestral mistakes continue to haunt his characters until these individuals have acknowledged and reconciled with their moral failure. It is only through developing either a ‘heart’ or ‘conscience’ that the characters emotionally, and then socially, progress.
Robert S. Levine, ‘Sympathy and reform in The Blithedale Romance’ in The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. by Richard H. Millington (Cambridge: CUP, 2004)
Benjamin Storey, ‘Love Conquers All’ in The New Atlantis, ed. by The Editors, 45 (2015) 139-163 (142) The New Atlantis Journal online
Taylor Stoehr, Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists: Pseudoscience and Social Science in Nineteenth Century Life and Letters (Hamden: Archon, 1978
George Ripley, founder of Brook Farm in ‘Love Conquers All’ by Benjamin Storey, The New Atlantis, 45, (2015), 139-163 (150), The New Atlantis Journal online
Selected Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne ed. by Joel Myerson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002)
‘The Birthmark’ in Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales, ed. By Brian Harding (Oxford, OUP, 1987)
Charles Poyen in Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists: Pseudoscience and Social Science in Nineteenth Century Life and Letters, by Taylor Stoehr (Hamden: Archon, 1978)
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.
Hindsight Is 20/20: How Characters in The Blithedale Romance Rely on the Past
Nathaniel Hawthorne is notorious for portraying characters whose past largely affects who they are and how they act in the future, and The Blithedale Romance is no exception. The interesting thing about The Blithedale Romance is that much of the characters’ past is not known until later on in the novel. However, once found out, it is made clear how the characters’ past shapes who they are and what they choose to do. The most obvious recipients of this characterization are Zenobia and Priscilla. Zenobia’s whole persona, both viewed by herself as well as by other people, is largely because of an anticipated inheritance. Priscilla, on the other hand, is constantly thrown into different situations, leaving her with little to no free will. Both of these characters have very different pasts, yet are prisoners of their previous experiences.
Throughout the novel, Zenobia is perceived almost as a goddess. She is described many times as ethereal. Granted, this description is normally given by Coverdale, so it is a little biased. However, most people in the novel view Zenobia as a picture of perfection. This is, in part, because of the way she carries herself. She carries herself almost as if she is separate from others in society. This is represented by the flower that she always has in her hair. The flower represents her willingness to differentiate herself from others in society. She, therefore, carries herself in this manner which causes other people to view her the same way. This is represented on page 189 which says, “In fact, was her native power and influence, and such seemed the careless purity of her nature, that whatever Zenobia did was generally acknowledged as right for her to do”(189). This brings us to the question, what is the main reasoning for this perception? The answer is her anticipated wealth. This “anticipated wealth” is talked about in chapter 22, about Fauntleroy (or Mr.Moodie). It further explains the relationship between Zenobia and Priscilla as well as Moodie’s wealth. It is said that Moodie’s wealth was supposed to be handed down to Zenobia, a piece of evidence that shows us the reasoning behind the perception of Zenobia having wealth.
However, in chapter 25, it becomes known that Zenobia actually has no incoming wealth. This is where we see her become a prisoner to her past. Her past self and experiences were very reliant upon her perception as a wealthy person. However, when it becomes apparent that she has no wealth, things start to fall apart. Hollingsworth leaves her for Priscilla. Even her confidence, which used to be her strongest asset, was shaken. After finding out that Hollingsworth is leaving her, Zenobia says, “Why should he seek me? What had I to offer him? A miserable, bruised, and battered heart, spoilt long before he met me!” (225). Throughout the novel, Zenobia shows a sense of composure and confidence. Yet, when it is found out that she has no wealth, all of that is gone. She even goes as far as taking the beloved flower out of her hair. Coverdale describes this act as “the act of a queen, when worsted in a combat, discrowning herself, as if she found a sort of relief in abasing all her pride”(226). This perfectly describes Zenobia’s demise after her past experiences have essentially changed. This is solidified by her suicide.
Priscilla is a second example of a character being a prisoner to her past experiences. She is completely and utterly reliant on other people and past experiences to make up her lives. She simply goes with the flow and does as she is told. This is exemplified by Coverdale comparing her to a leaf, “floating on the dark current of events”(168). This essentially leads to her having little to no free will. The best example of this is in chapter 23 when she acts as the Veiled Lady. She seems to almost be under the spell of Westervelt until she takes off the veil and runs to Hollingsworth and “was safe forever”(203). Another example is how from the moment she arrived at Blithedale, she adhered to Zenobia and essentially was at her beck and call. The whole reason she was even at Blithedale was because Moodie dropped her off. Every decision of her life has been made for her. She became a prisoner to her past experiences because those past experiences were made for her. Therefore, she had no free will and no experiences that were truly her own. Consequently, she was reliant on those experiences which were made for her.
In The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne presents characters that are prisoners of their past experiences. Priscilla is a prisoner to her past experiences because those experiences are not her own. Zenobia is a prisoner to her past because her assumed wealth plays a big part in how she carries herself and how others perceive her. In both cases, the two characters’ past experiences affect their current and future actions and experiences.
Utopian “Simplicity”: A Comparison of Gilead and Blithedale
Throughout history and literature, utopias usually materialize as attempts to fashion a more perfect society, typically catalyzed by a disagreeable quality of the current civilization. Having an understanding of the purpose for the creation of these faultless organizations can offer justification for the structure and rules of the society found in utopian fiction. Although Margaret Atwood and Nathaniel Hawthorne in their novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance respectively, designate distinct severities of punishment for breaking the rules, both authors fashion utopias that ensure each member plays a critical role in the functioning of society. Both Gilead and Blithedale possess a societal structure of a simpler nature as a result of the faults of their preceding civilizations. To investigate the guarantee that society will continue to operate flawlessly, Atwood and Hawthorne design social structures that ensure that each member participates in the advancement of the community.
Within the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead maintains a significantly rigid social structure in order to fulfill the immediate goal of the society: repopulation. Due to a variety of consequences from their previous civilization, the number of infertile women remains dramatically higher than ever before. Thus the founders of Gilead incorporate a new social class, the handmaids, into society to resolve the issue by commanding them reproduce constantly. According to the Aunts, who instruct the girls how to fulfill their duty to the community, “[The handmaids are] in a position of honor” (Atwood 13). Since every female does not qualify for the position of a handmaid, Gilead’s founders designated other roles that can still aid society in achieving its overall goals. For instance, the marthas handle a majority of the domestic responsibilities of the household such as cooking and cleaning so that the handmaids do not have to worry. The Guards of society also provide the handmaids with stability and safety so that the women can focus on their responsibilities. Similarly, in the community of Blithedale, within the first few hours of the society’s creation, the inhabitants determine that each person must fulfill tasks to keep the organization operating. As with Gilead, the responsibilities of the men and women of Blithedale correlate with their specific gender. For instance, according to Zenobia, the women will,
“take the domestic and indoor part of the business… 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” (Hawthorne).
The men, on the other hand, tend to the outdoor tasks of husbandry, gardening, and generating infrastructure. With each social group performing their designated function, the community of Blithedale works seamlessly during its first few months of operation. In the end, the authors of the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance, each construct a social structure that incorporates every individual of the community in order to satisfy its needs.
Likewise, the organization of both the societies of Gilead and Blithedale reflect the desire for a simpler way of life as both authors intend for their communities to demonstrate perfection in comparison to their predecessors. In Gilead, for instance, the mistakes and horrors of the previous civilization spark the generation of a firm hierarchy. Each tier on the social pyramid upholds a clear objective or two in order to maintain the peace in society. The reasoning behind the reversion seems to stem from the errors of the past, “These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice” (22). Hence, by not integrating education and the opportunity for choice, Gilead supposedly cures its potential demise in the future as no inhabitant has a chance to go against the wishes of the society. Comparably, Hawthorne’s utopian community in his novel The Blithedale Romance also reverts to an uncomplicated societal structure thus reflecting their desire to seem dissimilar from the complex way of life in the old society. In the minds of those who reside in Blithedale, the society they once resided in heads towards a downward spiral,
“Alas, my countrymen, methinks we have fallen on an evil age!… We are pursuing a downward course, in the eternal march, and thus bring ourselves into the same range with beings whom death, in requital of their gross and evil lives, has degraded below humanity” (Hawthorne).
As a result, in efforts to avoid the degradation of society, the founders construct a community with a nonexistent class structure, except for the division between genders. All in all, in order to rectify the errors of previous civilizations, authors Atwood and Hawthorne incorporate uncomplicated social structures in their utopias to allow them to embody the idea of perfection.
However, despite both communities develop simpler societal pyramids, the punishments that the Gilead and Blithedale establish in order to uphold societal values vary greatly as they seem dependent on the length of time since the civilization’s beginning. Commencing with the society of Gilead, since it embodies an older status, the punishment system seems further developed than that of Blithedale. The culmination of past disobediences paved the way for the creation for the ideal system of punishment to keep the citizens of Gilead in line. Inhabitants of this community fear crossing the Eyes which, in reference to the Bible and the eyes of God, always seem knowledgeable of every single event of each person’s life. Those who act against the rules face the possibility of disappearing. This punishment generates an enormous sense of terror within the people of Gilead, inspiring civilians to follow the laws of society. For instance, when Offred and Ofglen finish their forbidden conversation which doubts the presence of God, they spot the infamous black van of the Eyes, causing the protagonist to enter into a state of pure trepidation, “I freeze, cold travels through me, down to my feet. There must have been microphones, they’ve heard us after all” (169). Conversely, due to the relatively short lifespan of Blithedale, a punishment system never materialized within the community. Initially, it appears that one seems unnecessary as no one noticeably breaks the established rules of society, even when people take a leave of absence from their way of life. While in Gilead, any attempt to leave the walls of society receives a severe punishment of banishment to the colonies. Inhabitants of Blithedale find no restrictions regarding separation from civilization. Since they often refer to themselves as an infant community, the founders seem unaware if castigation would seem necessary if someone desires to take leave of Blithedale. Coverdale, for instance, faces no resistance when announcing his spontaneous vacation from the society,
“What’s in the wind now, Miles?” asked one of them. “Are you deserting us?”“Yes, for a week or two,” said I. “It strikes me that my health demands a little relaxation of labor, and a short visit to the seaside, during the dog-days.”“You look like it!” grumbled Silas Foster, not greatly pleased with the idea of losing an efficient laborer, before the stress of the season was well over” (Hawthorne).
Rather than face a serious consequence, Coverdale only meets slight grumblings from others due to the loss of a productive hand. Ultimately, both Atwood and Hawthorne fashion different systems of punishment in correlation with their simple societal structures based on the number years since the commencement of the communities.
Comprehension of the origin as well as purposes of the formation of utopias can enrich a reader’s appreciation for a novel of utopian fiction as they now possess justification for the ways of life that the civilization functions under. In the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance, Margaret Atwood and Nathanial Hawthorne devise societies that utilize each member to further enhance the advancement of society. Additionally, the foundation of both communities stems from the complications of previous organizations and the desire to seem perfect in comparison. However, due to the distinct ages of the civilizations, Gilead and Blithedale each possess a different system of punishment to enforce the way of life that the founders dreamed of creating.
Miles Coverdale, the Limits of Queer Subjectivity, and Political Ambivalence in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance
Benjamin Scott Grossberg, in “Coverdale’s Queer Utopia,” responds to what he posits as “attempts to contain [Miles] Coverdale’s erotic desire,” attempts that consequently “lead to strange contortions of the text” (24). Other critics, according to Grossberg, portray Coverdale as a “power-hungry monster” or theorize his sexuality in a way that distorts his character’s true identity. Grossberg, however, asserts that “Coverdale’s actions and affections are best understood through his own lens, one that staunchly refuses to limit desire or gender to stable, discrete categories” (25). For the duration of this essay, I will refer to this phenomenon, in which categories and definitions of human sexuality are undermined or viewed as restrictive and limiting, as “queer subjectivity.” And while Grossberg’s response is undoubtedly an attempt to disentangle Coverdale’s rhetorical ideology from a century of misguided conservative interpretation, this reader further posits that Grossbergs’s theories complicate Hawthorne’s narrative in unexpected ways, particularly in regards to the ethical nature of the Blithedale project itself. This tension between conservative and progressive values are indicative of Hawthorne’s work, particularly in The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne’s adultery is humanized but never completely devillified. This paradox, I argue, is not so much a blight upon Hawthorne’s legacy as a testament to the psychological complexity of his work. In keeping with the postmodern idea that there is no universal set of values that govern our lives and choices, my interpretation acknowledges that both progressive and conservative questions of identity, ethics, gender, and sexuality are equally viable so long as the potential veracity of conflicting realities is equally acknowledged and respected.
Grossberg commences his article on Romance with the following question: “To what can we attribute the failure of the Blithedale experiment?” (3). He asserts that the general consensus among critics is that “Blithedale fails because of an incompatibility of vision” (4). Whereas Hollingsworth’s philanthropic enterprise and Zenobia’s feminist vision have been well discussed and analyzed, Grossberg contends that Coverdale’s utopian vision has received comparatively little attention from both readers and critics. There is a reason for this: According to Grossberg, Coverdale’s vision seems transparent because “all events of the narrative are inflected through it”; it is, he says, “the one we get most intensely because we can only judge the other two paradigms through [it]” (5). Which begs the question: What exactly is Coverdale’s utopian vision? According to Grossberg “Coverdale both explicitly and implicitly characterizes Blithedale as a utopia of sexual desire” where both sexuality and gender definition are fluid and open (6). Thus, Coverdale’s hopes for the Blithedale community are formed by his unconscious (?) longing for a queer subjectivity. To Coverdale, Blithedale becomes a potential haven for sexual emancipation, one in which even categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality, themselves just beginning to form at the time of the novel’s composition, are destabilized and erased.
Before he gets into the meat of his argument, Grossberg provides context regarding nineteenth-century attitudes towards sexuality. He states that “the latter nineteenth century saw a culmination of centuries of increasing talk about sex—and this increased talk, and the ever more rigid and specific definitions it entailed, eventually opened up spaces of power through which behavior might be manipulated” (6-7). He also points out that “definitions of homosexuality (and therefore also heterosexuality) were just becoming fixed in the period during which Hawthorne wrote” (7); as a result, suggests Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the nineteenth century became “suffus[ed with] the stain of homo/heterosexual crisis” (qtd. in Grossberg 7). Until this time, the idea that a person’s sexual proclivities constituted a legitimate identity was both utterly foreign and deeply troubling. Consequently, Grossberg suggests that “Coverdale’s vision may be read as an attempt to cope with a society whose sexual definitions are crystallizing” (7). “Rather than succumb to the new identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual,’” states Grossberg, “Coverdale attempts to make Blithedale a community apart from them”—“a place where the discrete categories of man, woman, heterosexual and homosexual are set up to be undermined” (7).
Coverdale, contends Grossberg, “begins disrupting stable categories as one must—by constructing them” (7). Coverdale accomplishes this disruption through Hollingsworth and Zenobia, who he sets up as “the prototypically masculine man and prototypically feminine woman” respectively, only to later undermine these characterizations (7). For example, Hawthorne has Coverdale note that Zenobia’s hands are “larger than most women would like to have, or that they could afford to have”; he also remarks: “It is one peculiarity, distinguishing Zenobia from most of her sex, that she needed for her moral well-being […] a large amount of physical exercise” (8). Likewise, Hawthorne feminizes Hollingsworth by casting him as Coverdale’s nurse when the latter becomes sick after arriving at Blithedale (9). At this moment, Coverdale muses that “[t]here was something of the woman moulded into the great, stalwart frame of Hollingsworth, nor was he ashamed of it” (qtd. in Grossberg 9). According to Grossberg, “Coverdale’s […] descriptions of Zenobia and Hollingsworth make masculinity equally defining for the ideal woman, and femininity inseparable from the ideal man, thereby dissociating gender from gender-identity” (8). Moreover, Grossberg adds that Coverdale “presents two almost genderless characters, himself and Priscilla, and shows that they evolve into traditionally gender identified types” (9). “In this way,” argues Grossberg, “masculinity and femininity are further characterized as acquired and acquirable, learned roles, rather than essentially tied to gender” (9).
Next, Grossberg asserts that “Coverdale presents his relationships with all three characters, Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and Priscilla, in terms of sexual desire […]” and “makes it clear that his desire for each is in no way discrete from his desire for any other; in this way, terms such as monogamy, homosexuality, and heterosexuality have no place in qualifying his erotic impulses” (11). Put simply, Coverdale’s “erotic desire” is for Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla collectively; “He does not want just want each individually” states Grossberg, “he wants them all together” (14). Grossberg claims that Coverdale symbolically represents his polyamorous desire for Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla in the image of his “hermitage,” which “function[s] as a template for his utopian vision of queer desire” (12). But “just like [the] vines knotting between trees,” says Grossberg, “Coverdale’s vision of the Blithedale connection is messy, defined by a lack of order” (13). Furthermore, Coverdale, when in his hermitage, “is largely reduced to auditor: that is, to isolation, not independence” (14).
According to Grossberg, Coverdale not only complicates his own heterosexual desire for both women by displaying a similar desire for Hollingsworth, but he also interjects himself into others’ heterosexual encounters (both real and imagined) as not simply an observer but as a partaker. Grossberg offers the example of Coverdale’s dream, where Coverdale finds himself straddled by Zenobia and Hollingsworth exchanging a “kiss of passion” (qtd. in Grossberg 15). Caught in the midst of such an intimate act while observing Priscilla dejectedly slink from the window, Coverdale’s “primary pleasure,” suggests Grossberg, “may lie with watching and identifying with all participants […] not just seeing, but also naming (and therefore experiencing) every sensation” (15). To Grossberg, Coverdale’s sexuality and sense of pleasure “stubbornly resist attempts at categorization” because he aligns with neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality, thereby reinforcing Grossberg’s interpretation of Coverdale’s “desire [as] specifically queer” (15).
For Grossberg, Coverdale’s resistance to “restricting intimacies” counters “Hollingsworth[’s demand for] exclusivity,” further queering Coverdale’s desires (16). These incompatible visions are played out in “A Crisis,” where “Hollingsworth’s homosexual desire […] is incompatible with Coverdale’s queer vision because it requires [Coverdale] to be exclusively with Hollingsworth” despite Coverdale’s passion for “all the participants” of Blithedale (17). Coverdale thus attempts to destabilize each character’s desire in an attempt to undermine “exclusive coupling” in his pursuit of openness (17). However, Grossberg maintains that Coverdale is able to sway neither Priscilla nor Zenobia to recognize and partake in his utopian vision. Both Priscilla and Zenobia’s love for Hollingsworth trumps their respective ideologies. This is especially true of Zenobia, who one moment ardently advocates a feminist vision and the next is brought to tears by Hollingsworth’s misogynistic rebuttal (18).
Coverdale continues to complicate his own vision of Blithedale “both from within and without” (18). Coverdale’s apparent reluctance to “commit himself to any community, any utopia (even his own)” exemplifies the inward struggle that identifies him as “intellectual[ly] detach[ed] and ambivale[nt] about his every project” (18). Indeed, Grossberg is quick to point out that even the other characters remark that “‘Miles Coverdale is not in earnest’” (18). Furthermore, “Coverdale’s vision is also resisted from without, by both Hollingsworth and Zenobia” (19). In Hollingsworth’s case, he rejects Coverdale’s likening to Fourier who “stands against monogamy, but […] retains gender stability and discrete desire” becoming a means through which Coverdale presents his “paradigm to Hollingsworth” (19). This idea of the utopian “‘production of pleasure”’ elicits “vehement rejection” from Hollingsworth, who declares “‘Let me hear no more of it!” (19). “Unfettered sexuality—not just dissolution of monogamy, but possibly a wholesale dissolution of stable sexual categories” has no place in Blithedale for Hollingsworth, claims Grossberg. Similarly, Hollingsworth resists Coverdale when Zenobia’s burial plot is discussed, insisting that she be buried upon the hillside that once supplied the fodder for their proposed quintessential cottage (20). For Grossberg, Hollingsworth’s location is “associated with stable heterosexual coupling […] motivated by [a] conservative view of marriage, or perhaps by an impulse to express guilt over Zenobia’s suicide” (20). Conversely, Coverdale desires Zenobia to be laid to rest at Eliot’s Pulpit, a site tied in a “‘knot of Polygamy”’ that signifies the fours’ consensual gatherings (20).
As for Zenobia, Grossberg claims that her outward resistance of Coverdale’s vision is realized more indirectly “through her devotion to Hollingsworth and therefore to stable, monogamous desire” (21). Though Coverdale denies his attraction to Zenobia, Zenobia herself speculates and wonders at Coverdale’s sexuality. Ironically, by the end of the novel Zenobia admits, “It is an endless pity […] that I had not be thought myself of winning your heart, Mr. Coverdale, instead of Hollingsworth’s. I think I should have succeeded” (qtd. in Grossberg 21). According to Grossberg, had Zenobia not “reject[ed] queer desire by closing herself off to a more complicated model of sexuality” she may have proved more compatible with Coverdale and his queer vision. Instead, Coverdale ends the novel much as he began; “a bachelor, with no very decided purpose of ever being otherwise” (22). By Grossberg’s assessment, Coverdale’s final exclamation of being in love with Priscilla then is not so much an admission of his singular love for Priscilla, but rather his “acknowledgement of [the] expansiveness [of his love]. Coverdale may not simply be saying, I was in love with Priscilla, but rather, I was in love with Priscilla, too” (25).
Grossberg’s analysis warrants reading because it helps one to understand Coverdale’s possible motivations for acting as passionately as he does towards the other characters of Blithedale. Grossberg’s use of the term “queer” to describe Coverdale’s sexuality is appropriate since his sexual proclivities defy categories such as heterosexual or homosexual or even bisexual. Were Coverdale’s desires and sexuality to identify as strictly heterosexual, we would have trouble accounting for his impassioned responses to Hollingsworth. When one thinks of sexuality as being restrictive, it often is in response to normative heterosexuality, but for Coverdale, homosexuality also assumes a similarly restrictive role. For example, if one views Hollingsworth’s declaration that “there is not the man in this wide world whom I can love as I could love [Coverdale]” (Hawthorne 133) as an admission of homosexual desire, then we could infer that the prospect of such a relationship, compounded by Hollingsworth’s own rigid and single-minded nature, would force Coverdale to forgo his heterosexual desire for Priscilla and Zenobia. Though Coverdale is desperate for intimacy and acceptance, his ideals prove stronger than his desire, and thus he cannot commit himself exclusively to Hollingsworth when he truly desires a more polyamorous arrangement. Thus, Coverdale’s desire for a “‘third choice”’ is ultimately what seems to make his utopian vision incompatible with those of his companions (qtd. in Grossberg 17).
Through this lens, one can either analyze Coverdale as sexually liberated or sexually obsessed. While a contemporary reading may be inclined to cast Coverdale in the role of sexually liberated person who crosses boundaries and arbitrary distinctions between sexuality and gender, his desperation posits him dangerously close to sexually obsession with the other members of the Blithedale community. For example, when he tries to undermine Priscilla and Zenobia’s sexual desire for Hollingsworth, we concur that it is because 1) he desires something for himself; in this case a relationship with any, or preferably, all his Blithedale companions, and 2) the potential insecurity concerning his own sexuality leads him to obsessively dismantle others’ sexuality in a narcissistic attempt to validate his own.
Thus, by concluding that Coverdale never seems in concert with his own desires throughout the novel, Grossberg’s analysis of this “queer utopia” helps us to better comprehend Coverdale’s thoughts and actions. That being said, as we observe “the failure of [Coverdale’s] queer vision” at the end of the novel, perhaps we have to ask: Does the categorization of sexuality demand limits (Grossberg 22)? Coverdale’s lack of limits certainly seems to work against him in securing a relationship in Blithedale. In this sense, Hawthorne’s novel can be read as an indictment of the progressive values championed by the Blithedale community. In the case of Blithedale, excessive freedom leads naturally to a sort of spiritual ambivalence. Categories and their definitions become so fluid and destabilized that confusion naturally ensues. In this way, it is perhaps to be expected that the Blithedale project should come to such a messy and tragic end.
In the termination of the Blithedale experiment, the conservation fetishization of rules and framework, and the anxiety that ensues when those barriers are broken down, can be observed at play. Despite this, however, the heroic and progressive vision of the Blithedale project itself is never treated as the reason for its inevitable failure; it is, instead, the human inability to reconcile an innate longing for freedom and fluidity with the need for rules and routine that ultimately leads to Blithedale’s demise. This revelation is a timely one. Blithedale was written a little over ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 effectively demolished the American institution of slavery. By 1852, the year of the novel’s publication, the first stirrings of rebellion that would eventually culminate in the Civil War were already well on their way to fruition. American intellectuals, both Northern and Southern, were grappling with the possible demise of an institution that had formed the backbone of American society and culture since the nation’s inception. The movements for women’s and workers’ rights were well underway, and while the political revolutions of the 1960s were still over a century away, the birth of Sigmund Freud, a pivotal figure in the instigation of events that would eventually lead to the Sexual Revolution, was a mere four years away. Modes of thought that were previously considered part and parcel of American life were being called into question, and anxiety over what could ensue should the changes these “radicals” desired come to pass seeped into the zeitgeist. This anxiety is at the forefront of The Blithedale Romance.
Coverdale’s longing for a subjective reality in which sexuality is not defined in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality, of monogamy and polygamy, is an extension, perhaps somewhat farfetched at the time but perfectly viable today, of this cultural upheaval. In showing how Coverdale’s longing for queer subjectivity exacerbates the fall of Blithedale, Hawthorne unintentionally betrays his own anxieties regarding the forthcoming changes in the fabric of American life. While the noble motivations that led to the birth of Blithedale are never completely derided, Hawthorne nevertheless shows a marked cynicism toward humankind’s ability to make that vision a reality. Furthermore, it is not an unreasonable supposition to posit that Hawthorne, as a white heterosexual male of considerable standing, undoubtedly had trouble reconciling himself to the possibility of a society in which the institutions that provided him with unearned privilege were being called into question, no matter how ferociously he and others associated with him debated the ethical nature of those institutions. The ambivalence infects every inch of The Blithedale Romance, in its uneasy, half-hearted condemnation of progressive values, and perhaps most clearly in Coverdale himself. However, while many may criticize Hawthorne for his ambivalence, I continue to assert that this paradoxical attitude towards progressive values is indicative of the sheer complexity of his work and reason enough to continue to study his work in light of the recent ideological changes in the field of American literature. Furthermore, I contend that The Blithedale Romance deserves to be rescued from obscurity and given more critical attention in a milieu besieged by the same cultural and political anxieties that were prevalent at the time of the novel’s composition.
Grossberg, Benjamin Scott. “‘The Tender Passion Was Very Rife Among Us’: Coverdale’s Queer Utopia and The Blithedale Romance.” Studies in American Fiction 28.1 (2000): 3-25. Web. 19
September 2016. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Ed. Tony Tanner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.