The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition: Oxford World’s Classics, paperback.
My overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
19th century New England. A group of men and women set out to establish “Blithedale”, a community of farmers whose aim is to set an example to the world of their peaceful, profitable, and simpler life. Blithedale is led by three celebrities: Miles Coverdale, a poet and the narrator; Hollingsworth, a philanthropist; and the elegant “Zenobia”, an author and women’s rights advocator. They are also joined by a strange, timid girl, Priscilla, whose very existence and loving personality changes their lives–or rather, it helps bring to light the true characters of those around her.
This book was not originally on my reading list; I chose it at random at the library, because I’d been wanting to read more Hawthorne and it looked very readable. I really didn’t know what to expect.
As a work of American literature, I think The Blithedale Romance is hugely underrated. Not only is it easy to read, but it gives some excellent glimpses of American life/culture during Hawthorne’s times. The story, too, reads like a mystery novel, with a great climax and a heartbreaking ending. Unlike certain other 19th-century American lit, this book is not lofty, verbose, or slow; instead, it’s fast-paced, concise, and elegantly readable.
The word “romance”, though relevant also in modern-day meaning, would nowadays translates to “fantasy”. Rather than describing life in detail at Blithedale, Hawthorne simply uses the “community atmosphere”, as well as a rather unlikely plot, to make a study of the four main characters. They certainly make it an interesting read.
Miles Coverdale is a much more participating narrator than one would expect…mostly because he’s just plain nosy. He makes it his business to delve into people’s secrets, then he feels all hurt when nobody wants to confide in him (ha!). He’s certainly an unusual narrator and oddly likeable at times.
Priscilla is a bit of a mystery. Her personality is simplistic; at first she’s likeable, but later on she gets to be irritating.
Hollingsworth may well be more of a mystery than anybody else. He’s a man who has turned all his devotion to his philanthropic cause, leaving his personal life greatly drained of emotion, humanity, and conscience. Not cool.
Last but far from least, Zenobia. She’s an anti-heroine, but one can’t help but have a little sympathy for her. Her story is as tragic as any Thomas Hardy book, only more subtle and very poignant.
As for the plot, there’s a sort of love rectangle going on, a couple appearances by the enigmatic Professor Westervelt, and some weird magic show subplot that isn’t ever explained. Though ambiguous plots are fun to write, I wish Hawthorne had explained everything more–it’s a trifle frustrating. The ending, too, was sad. One thing I did like about the book, though, was that it reads like a movie or a play–there’s a heavy touch of drama and mystery in it. It would make an excellent costume drama!
Now, I subtracted 1/2 star for some of the plot elements and the fact that the narrator is very annoying at times. Other than that, it was a good read, and I recommend it!