The Blithedale Romance: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Let's take a look at Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Blithedale Romance.' After first examining critical responses to the novel, we'll then learn about the relationship between the characters and setting of the novel and their real-world context.

Overview of the Novel

American author Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Blithedale Romance was published in 1852, a decade after his jaunt at Brook Farm, an intentional community outside Boston. Blithedale Farm, the setting of the novel, was based on Brook Farm, and the story loosely follows the author's own experience living on the communal property.

Part mystery, part romance, the novel follows Miles Coverdale (thought to be a mirror of Hawthorne himself), who narrates his experience coming to Blithedale Farm. He becomes acquainted with the group of idealists who live there.

There's the leader of the group, the reformer Hollingsworth. Zenobia, a feminist, is the heroine of the story. Then there's Priscilla, her sister; Old Moodie, her father; and Westervelt, a hypnotist. They all have one thing in common; they came to the farm to retreat from a society they view as rotten.

In the process of getting to know the others, Coverdale becomes disillusioned by their hypocrisies and contradictions.

Fact or Fiction?

When it was first published, critics didn't know quite what to make of The Blithedale Romance. Riding on the heels of Hawthorne's breakout hit The Scarlet Letter, reviews initially panned the novel because of its close relation to actual events, and some had trouble accepting the novel as fiction. Was the story embroidered from real life? How much artistic license did Hawthorne take? Literary critics are still struggling with these questions today.

In the preface of the novel, Hawthorne assures his readers that any relation to real events or persons is 'altogether incidental.' He wanted to use Brook Farm as the backdrop to tell a story of romance, not to explicate a socialist theory. Still, critics panned the book for its thinly veiled attempt to represent Brook Farm and champion the principles of transcendentalism, a belief that people could 'transcend,' or rise above, the constraints of modern advanced society by living a simple, spiritual life in touch with nature.

Brook Farm has been described as an 'experimental' community. That secluded, idyllic place, set off miles from civilization, exemplified the ideals of its founders. On Brook Farm, they endeavored to model an alternate form of society where everyone was equal and workers labored collaboratively. Brook Farm collapsed in 1847 as a result of the Industrial Revolution: growth of industry shifted society toward automation and away from farming.

Along with modeling Blithedale on Brook and fashioning a narrator as his alter-ego, Hawthorne based his characters on real people. Zenobia, the passionate heroine, resembles Margaret Fuller, renowned as a pioneering feminist and influential writer of the transcendentalist movement. Hollingsworth was modeled on both Horace Mann, an educational reformer, and poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fuller, Mann, and Emerson all lived at Brook Farm at the same time as Hawthorne.

Portrait of Margaret Fuller, American Feminist

More About Transcendentalism

Along with other great works like Thoreau's Walden (1854), articles published in the magazine The Dial (1840-1929) and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836), Nathaniel Hawthorne documents transcendentalist ideals in The Blithedale Romance. These writings aimed to demonstrate the principles of the early nineteenth-century movement.

Transcendentalist literature was heavily inspired by Romanticism, an artistic movement that had been popular in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The art and literature of the Romantics idealized nature and was infused with emotion.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (1836). Transcendentalist art and literature reveres nature and simplicity
oxbow painting

Far from the call to action Thoreau provides in Walden, Hawthorne documents the failure of the transcendentalist movement to provide a promising model for social reform. Apart from illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of an idealistic socialist movement, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance is also an engrossing story about love, hope, and despair.

Symbolic Characters

Another important aspect of the novel relates to the way Hawthorne imbued his characters' names with significance.

The name Hawthorne chose for his alter-ego Coverdale suggests that he's an unreliable narrator, a character in a novel whose perspective can't be trusted. His name suggests he's trying to 'cover' something up. Secondly, Coverdale also watches others from concealed locations, suggesting that the narrator is a voyeur who enjoys peeping in on the lives of others to learn their secrets.

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