“The Blithedale Romance”: A Utopian Commentary

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

The Blithedale Romance is a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852. The novel is based on his experiences in Brook Farm. Brook Farm was one of many utopian projects in the 19th century. It only lasted five years but gave many an insight into utopian projects and utopias in general.

The house where Nathaniel Hawthorne was born.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in Salem, Massachusetts. (Image: Michael Sean OLeary/Shutterstock)

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne is best known for his novel of Puritan scandal, The Scarlet Letter, and for his gothic short story, Young Goodman Brown, both texts worthy of their inclusion in the literary movement called the American Renaissance.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member of Brook Farm and one of its co-directors of agriculture. Brook Farm was a utopian community founded in 1841. The Blithedale Romance is partly based on his experiences in Brook Farm.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Is The Blithedale Romance a Utopian Classic?

Initial reactions to the novel were mixed at best, but scholars of all kinds— and perhaps utopian scholars in particular—have by now taken a very long look at this text. It isn’t a utopia in the classic sense—there’s no isolated society, no long speeches or writings about societal precepts (economic, political, legal, etc).

Here is what Richard Millington, a literary scholar, thinks about The Blithedale Romance:


Time has been good to this brilliantly innovative, absorbing, off-putting book, with its maddening narrator, its elusive plot, and its powerful but self-thwarted characters.

There’s much more time devoted to relationship development between the central characters than to satirizing contemporary society or the utopian project. Hawthorne only wrote four novels, and only one of them is set in a utopian planned community.

The Stories and the Symbols in The Blithedale Romance

A portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne recognized the darkness in human nature that made a utopian community impossible. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Hawthorne is well known for employing heavy symbolism, and certainly his semi-utopian novel, is no exception. He gives us a first-person narrator named Miles Coverdale, a handsome Boston poet who’s taking a break from his privileged life of leisure and socializing, where he participates in empty spiritual rituals like the mesmerist spectacles of the Veiled Lady. 

He is attempting to leave the world of artifice to find something real—real work, real nature, real relationships even. What does he find at Blithedale?

Well, on his first evening, he finds a spring snowstorm. And as he reflects on that snow, he realizes that in the city, the snow looks almost dingy, but in its rural form, it’s pure and beautiful.

Learn more about Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complex.

The People of Blithedale

Coverdale meets the people, and they seem pure and kind of beautiful just like the snow he saw. There’s Silas, a strong, weatherworn farmer, salt of the earth. There’s Hollingsworth, a bear of a man associated with iron throughout the novel, which in Hawthorne’s work tends to mark him as a Puritan, a religious judge of some kind.

Hollingsworth is a skeptic about the Blithedale project, but he’s a charismatic visionary when it comes to his own personal obsession: prison reform. And, we soon learn, Hollingsworth actually thinks the land they’re using for the communal farm would make a great place for a new reformatory for criminals.

And, there is Zenobia. Zenobia is a strong, vivacious woman, bright and committed and larger than life in her charismatic project of gender reform. She is marked by a hothouse flower always found in her hair, a flower that is to be replaced by an expensive, but somehow paler, jeweled flower when she returns to society.

As Coverdale is getting to know his new friends, another inmate to the farm arrives unexpectedly, a mysterious young waif of a girl who is to be called Priscilla. There are social tensions from the start, which is typical of Hawthorne.

Naming the Utopia

Zenobia suggests Sunny Glimpse for the name of this community,  but the group concludes that it’s “rather too fine and sentimental a name (a fault inevitable by literary ladies, in such attempts) for sunburnt men to work under,” which indicates that her hopes for gender equality may be dashed.

Someone else proposes The Oasis, since the farm will be like a moral oasis in the midst of a corrupt world. Well, this is a group of skeptics, since someone else rejoins, maybe they should hold off and decide at the end of the first year whether to call it The Oasis or Sahara.

Is Blithedale Really a Utopia?

A stream in the middle with two houses in the background with trees without leaves.
Hawthorne’s Blithedale is based on Brook Farm. (Image: Joanna Eiger/Shutterstock)

Coverdale himself makes a suggestion: “I ventured to whisper ‘Utopia,’ which was unanimously scouted down, and the proposer very harshly mistreated, as if he had intended a latent satire.” Is this Hawthorne telling us how to read his novel? It looks like a utopia, with the commitment to satire inherent to that genre, but it certainly isn’t meant that way.

Coverdale awakens the next morning feeling like death warmed over, and there follows a lengthy illness for him. This acts as a kind of symbolism where the visitor has a near-death experience.

Learn more about Thomas More’s Utopia.

The Ending of The Blithedale Romance

Eventually, Coverdale leaves Blithedale and returns to Boston, and now everything is different for him, although certainly it is not better. He has flirted with various relationship possibilities and has gone back to his bachelor life. He no longer writes poetry. He concludes, on the very last page:

As regards to human progress (in spite of my irrepressible yearnings over the Blithedale reminiscences), let them believe in it who can, and aid in it who choose! If I could earnestly do either, it might be all the better for my comfort.

For Miles Coverdale—and maybe for Hawthorne, too—it’s impossible to either believe in a utopian vision or to satirize it enough to disrupt convention and construct through humor, an idea of a different vision that he could believe in. Richard Millington, in a classic essay, writes:

At the center of Hawthorne’s depiction of character and culture in The Blithedale Romance is the suspicion that middle-class existence has been reduced to the self’s absorbing effort to disguise its own emptiness.

In Hawthorne’s hands, the utopian planned community fails to actualize the utopian imaginings of philosophers or social engineers. Instead, it confirms what Coverdale, and maybe Hawthorne too, already knew: that contemporary urban life leaves a lot of people empty, and the solutions to that problem are not to be found in utopian communities or utopian writings.

Common Questions about The Blithedale Romance

Q: What is The Blithedale Romance based on?

The Blithedale Romance is partly based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s experiences in Brook Farm.

Q: What is Hollingsworth’s personal obsession in The Blithedale Romance?

In The Blithedale Romance, Hollingsworth is personally obsessed with prison reform.

Q: What does Miles Coverdale find on his first evening in Blithedale?

On his first evening in Blithedale, Miles Coverdale finds a spring snowstorm. And as he reflects on that snow, he realizes that in the city, the snow looks almost dingy, but in its rural form, it’s pure and beautiful.

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