In Blithedale, Sunday is a day of rest. Some people go to church, some people go into the city, and others enjoy the scenery around Blithedale or take long naps in the barn. Hollingsworth, Coverdale, Zenobia, and Priscilla make a habit of going to a strange nearby rock formation they call Eliot’s Pulpit, where legend says the Apostle Eliot preached to Native Americans. Hollingsworth sometimes climbs atop the rocks to deliver speeches on a range of topics and then climbs back down to rest while the others talk about the speech. Ever since talking with Westervelt, Zenobia’s moods have fluctuated more than usual from day to day. One day, after listening to Hollingsworth’s speech at the Pulpit, she passionately criticizes the world for how it limits women’s freedom to speak out in public. She determines to speak up more about this in future, which makes Coverdale smile.
Zenobia’s decision to discuss her frustration that women can’t speak when they want to reflects her own anger that she can’t speak out about whatever her inner conflict—probably having to do with Westervelt—is about. Zenobia has a chance to speak out and tell her friends the truth but feels like she can’t. She might be keeping silent out of fear of Westervelt’s retribution of possibly of being judged by others. Zenobia, then, knows that whatever Westervelt asked her to do is wrong, but she is too worried about her own reputation to tell people the truth.
Zenobia sees Coverdale smile and says it’s indicative of shallow thought. She predicts that as soon as women are granted full rights and equality, there will be ten times more eloquent women than men. As it is, laws and society limit women’s freedom to speak, which is unfortunate because women are better speakers than writers. Coverdale doesn’t tell Zenobia this, but the real reason he smiled was because he believes women don’t become passionate reformers unless they’re experiencing great inner turmoil—Zenobia is so passionate now because of her internal conflict. Instead, Coverdale says he wishes women would be rulers instead of men. Male rulers make him jealous, but he’d gladly kneel to a “woman-ruler.” Zenobia laughingly says this might be true if the woman is beautiful, but she questions if he’d be as enthusiastic if the woman were 60 and ugly.
Zenobia’s opinion is that women are superior to men and the only thing stopping them from proving it are the laws men created. Even though Coverdale seems to agree out loud, his private thoughts (that women don’t become reformers unless they’re suffering some internal conflict) reveal his own prejudice. He, like Westervelt, considers Zenobia’s sudden speech an indication that she’s just being emotional. This highlights how Coverdale and Westervelt aren’t as different as Coverdale thinks. Furthermore, the notion that Coverdale would be jealous of a male ruler but not a female one implies a prejudice, too, as it seems he sees men as a threat to his status but not women.
Coverdale says it’s Zenobia who “rate[s] womanhood low.” He says that he never like bearded male priests and wishes women were the religious leaders instead, since women were made for religious work. Priscilla says she can’t believe what he says and doesn’t want to believe it’s true. Zenobia scornfully says Priscilla is the “type of womanhood […] man has spent centuries in making” because a man isn’t happy unless he can degrade himself by stooping towards what he loves. Priscilla asks Hollingsworth if this is true and he says none of it is true. Zenobia asks if he hates women. He says he doesn’t—woman is God’s greatest creation when she’s in her proper place at man’s side. To Hollingsworth, women without men are monsters, and Hollingsworth would call upon other men to use physical force to push women back into their place if necessary—true women never venture beyond their sphere.
Coverdale accuses Zenobia of being the one who’s prejudiced towards women (she “rate[s] womanhood low”) just because she points out that Coverdale might not be as serious as he pretends to be. Zenobia’s charge that Priscilla is the kind of woman “man has spent centuries in making” is an insult; it means that Priscilla is submissive, chaste, gentle, dependent, and happy to take an inferior position in society. Priscilla, then, is the opposite of Zenobia, who is assertive, independent, and openly sexual. Hollingsworth’s ideas about womanhood are representative most of society’s beliefs about womanhood in the 19th century, but it’s striking that he expresses this while being so close with Zenobia.
Priscilla contentedly smiles up at Hollingsworth, happily absorbing everything he says. Coverdale knows the type of womanhood Hollingsworth idealizes is at his feet. He turns to Zenobia, expecting her to be as horrified by Hollingsworth’s words as he is; to Coverdale, Hollingsworth’s opinion strips women of their spirit, making them mere objects in the greater life of men. Hollingsworth’s opinion belongs to millions of despots, and Coverdale expects Zenobia to fight against it. He’s surprised to see that she’s crying tears of grief, not anger. She says she thinks Hollingsworth is right and if men would just be “manly and godlike” then women would be happy to be all Hollingsworth described. Coverdale smiles bitterly, observing that both women seem to worship Hollingsworth even though Coverdale tries to speak up in support of their cause. Coverdale wonders if women do this by nature or just because they’re used to humbling themselves.
Coverdale’s opinions here reflect Hawthorne’s own opinions. In most of Hawthorne’s works, he highlights injustices done towards women and how those injustices damage all of society, not just women. Zenobia’s tears of grief and her statement that women would be happy to be what Hollingsworth describes imply that she wants to be in the kind of relationship Hollingsworth describes. Zenobia wants the security associated with having a husband who works for the greater good and genuinely appreciates all that his wife does to make his life better. It seems reasonable to intuit here that Zenobia is trying to ingratiate herself with Hollingsworth, suggesting that she would become that kind of woman for him. It’s bizarre to see her shed her defining beliefs so easily.
Without another word, the group gets up and heads back. Priscilla skips on ahead, followed by Hollingsworth and Zenobia, and Coverdale in the back. Coverdale sees Zenobia press Hollingsworth’s hand to her breast. Coverdale recognizes a world of meaning in the gesture—Zenobia has professed her love for Hollingsworth. Priscilla can’t possibly have seen this happen, but at the same moment she seems to droop. Hollingsworth and Zenobia pass her, but Coverdale slows down and asks her what’s wrong. She says her heart hurts, though she doesn’t know why. Coverdale talks about Zenobia and Hollingsworth, pettily pointing out that the two make a gorgeous couple. Coverdale admits this was malicious, but it’s unfair that Hollingsworth has a monopoly on the women’s affections. Priscilla runs off, leaving Coverdale to wonder whether Zenobia is offering herself to Hollingsworth as a free woman that nobody else has a fair claim over.
Priscilla has a sixth sense and she picks up on the shift in energy between Hollingsworth and Zenobia when she presses his hand to her body. Priscilla senses this and it makes her sad, revealing her own growing love for Hollingsworth. However, Priscilla also loves Zenobia, so she feels torn between the two. She must either resign herself to losing Hollingsworth or risk losing Zenobia if she pursues Hollingsworth. Either way, Priscilla is obviously keeping her feelings a secret, although Coverdale picks up on them. Coverdale’s petty attempt to hurt Priscilla by pointing out how happy Hollingsworth and Zenobia look is also meant to encourage Priscilla to give Hollingsworth up. In other words, Coverdale is trying to fulfill his role as Priscilla’s savior by trying to convince her that giving her heart to Hollingsworth is useless.