As a Hawthorne fan, I allowed this book's title to dissuade me. A romance? Not my thing. Surely, this would be sub-par fiction from one of my favorite American authors. I set aside my objections, however, after seeing that England's Westminster Review called this book "the finest production of genius in either hemisphere." I was further intrigued by its exploration of the Utopian ideal, in this case, the fictional communal farm of Blithedale, based on Hawthorne's own real-life experiences at the short-lived Brook Farm outside Boston. There are romance elements within this story, yes, but the initial romance is that notion of a better life somewhere else, with like-minded souls, forgetting the reality of the fallen nature in mankind.
"The Blithedale Romance" is told first-person through the eyes of Miles Coverdale, a young poet. It's an easier read than Hawthorne's other novels, told with a wry sense of humor and sarcasm. He wonders, for example, whether this social experiment will be aptly named "The Oasis" or "Saharah." As Coverdale joins the other dreamers at Blithedale, he imagines the spiritual benefits of hard work, the joys their own labors will bestow upon them, but those "clods of earth . . . never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish." The romance of their fellowship and shared subsistence loses its sheen, even in its first days, when they realize they must beat out the local market-goers, if they are to find the best produce. The very dog-eat-dog mentality they hope to escape becomes part of their reality, if they hope to survive their first winter together.
The idealism of their Community begins to crumble beneath the personal, though outwardly philanthropic, ambitions of formidable Mr. Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth's goals draw in the equally formidable--and unforgettable, among women in fiction--Zenobia, who seems to be the leader of this ragtag Community. While Coverdale resists Hollingsworth's requests, Zenobia is joined by the farm's newest member, frail but graceful Priscilla, in falling in love with Hollingsworth. The connections between these four souls become clear as the story goes along, including the mysterious Mr. Moodie and the ominous Westervelt. These characters' pasts, their hurts, their loves and affections, will ultimately doom the otherwise noble intentions at Blithedale. Tragedy will ensue. And once again, as in the Garden of Eden, mankind's selfish endeavors derail his attempts at bettering humanity.
Hawthorne, through Coverdale's confessions, not only warns us against the laziness that makes no effort at betterment, but against the lofty ideals that can become so narrow-minded they harm our greater good. He gives thought-provoking commentary on love, feminism, socialism, art, hard work, and the fundamentalism that now plagues our country in various modes. In confession, Mr. Coverdale shows his own culpability in the farm's failed experiment. If we are to live together in harmony, if we are to improve as a society, we could take a few lessons from "The Blithedale Romance," choosing a balanced view of men and women, the spiritual and physical, and the need for community with occasional retreats for personal refreshment.
Despite its numerous ideas and commentaries, this is the most whimsical--until the end--of Hawthorne's stories. Its plot meanders, but the characters are deftly drawn, full-bodied and multifaceted. Even in providing a cautionary tale, Hawthorne seems to follow his own advice and take a lighthearted approach to the unpredictability of the mind and the human heart.