One of the fundamental ideas behind the creation of the would-be utopian community at Blithedale was that men and women are essentially equal. This idea is in part pioneered by Zenobia, one of the community’s founders, who is a social reformer known far and wide for her lectures on women’s rights. However, when Zenobia falls in love with Hollingsworth, she seems to give up her beliefs in favor of his values, which are very traditional—namely, that women exist to marry and comfort hard-working men. Ultimately, their relationship falls apart and Hollingsworth falls for another woman, one who is genuinely more in line with his ideals. After this betrayal, Zenobia seems to scorn Hollingsworth’s notion of ideal womanhood, returning to her belief that women should be strong-willed, intellectual, and independent. However, Hollingsworth choosing a more docile woman seems to have broken Zenobia, and she dies by suicide after bitterly remarking on how the world harms women while protecting men. Through Zenobia’s tragic romance with Hollingsworth, Hawthorne suggests that women who don’t fulfill the gender roles assigned to them will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to experience real happiness in the world because so few people are willing to accept them as they are.
Zenobia has a reputation as an advocate for women’s rights and her rhetoric on women’s issues is initially quite progressive and strident. In reference to Zenobia, Coverdale says, “The sphere of ordinary womanhood was felt to be narrower than her development required.” This means that Zenobia is too assertive, strong-willed, independent, and proud for her to play the part of submissive housewife and mother, which is what most women were expected to do in that time. Even before helping form Blithedale, Zenobia was well-known for her writings and lectures on feminism; Zenobia, then, is one of the increasing number of 19th-century American women who wrote articles and small pamphlets that circulated throughout the country advocating for gender equality. Among the numerous injustices women faced, Zenobia particularly disliked how few options women had for their futures: “How can [a woman] be happy, after discovering that fate has assigned her but one single event, which she must contrive to make the substance of her whole life?” This rhetorical question that Zenobia poses emphasizes her personal anger at society for only encouraging young girls to look forward to “one single event” in their whole lives: marriage.
However, when Zenobia falls in love with Hollingsworth and learns what his vision of an ideal wife is, she immediately changes her beliefs to accommodate him. Hollingsworth believes that women were made to complement men and he explains that “Man is a wretch without woman; but woman is a monster […] without man, as her acknowledged principal.” This means that not only are women without men actually inhuman, but women must also recognize men as superior leaders. In fact, Hollingsworth asserts that, if the women’s equality movement gains more ground, he would like to get his male friends together to force women back into the domestic sphere. Coverdale is disgusted by what Hollingsworth says, calling it “masculine egotism” that “centred everything in itself, and deprived woman of her very soul […] to make it a mere incident in the great sum of man.” Coverdale, then, believes that women don’t merely exist to be used by men, but instead have something real and meaningful to contribute to the world. Given Zenobia’s long history as an advocate of women’s rights, Coverdale confidently believes that she will be disgusted with Hollingsworth, too. However, Zenobia replies, with tears in her eyes, that if “man be but manly and godlike, […] woman is only too ready to become to him what you say!” It seems that because Zenobia is in love with Hollingsworth, she’s willing to openly adopt his beliefs even though they go against her principles.
When Zenobia and Hollingsworth’s relationship ends and he begins a romance with Priscilla, Zenobia derides his traditional beliefs about gender roles. She believes that Hollingsworth is mistaken and that he’d actually be happier with a woman who defies traditional gender roles. Zenobia asks Hollingsworth if he loves Priscilla and when he says he does, she is enraged and exclaims, “At least, I am a woman—with every fault, it may be […] but still a woman!” This reveals some of Zenobia’s own prejudices against women who would naturally be happier in a domestic sphere (like Priscilla) than a public one (like Zenobia herself). When Hollingsworth leaves with Priscilla, Zenobia says that “he has flung away what would have served him better than the poor, pale flower he kept.” Zenobia thinks she would be a better wife for Hollingsworth than Priscilla because Priscilla is too similar to Hollingsworth’s definition of an ideal woman—as an intellectual, Hollingsworth needs intellectual stimulation, and Zenobia doesn’t think Priscilla can give him that. When Coverdale asks Zenobia what she thinks the moral of the situation is, she says it’s that there’s a “common cause against the woman who swerves one hair’s breadth out of the beaten track.” Because Zenobia doesn’t adhere to the traditional gender roles that 19th-century American prescribes for women, she has little chance of finding a fulfilling relationship, especially with a man like Hollingsworth who truly values traditional gender roles.
Progressive vs. Traditional Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Progressive vs. Traditional Gender Roles Quotes in The Blithedale Romance
The most curious part of the matter was, that, long after my slight delirium had passed away—as long, indeed, as I continued to know this remarkable woman—her daily flower affected my imagination, though more slightly, yet in very much the same way. The reason must have been, that, whether intentionally on her part, or not, this favorite ornament was actually a subtile expression of Zenobia’s character.
Then, also, as anybody could observe, the freedom of her deportment (though, to some tastes, it might commend itself as the utmost perfection of manner, in a youthful widow, or a blooming matron) was not exactly maidenlike. What girl had ever laughed as Zenobia did! What girl had ever spoken in her mellow tones! Her unconstrained and inevitable manifestation, I said often to myself, was that of a woman to whom wedlock had thrown wide the gates of mystery. Yet, sometimes, I strove to be ashamed of these conjectures. I acknowledged it as a masculine grossness—a sin of wicked interpretation, of which man is often guilty towards the other sex—thus to mistake the sweet, liberal, but womanly frankness of a noble and generous disposition. Still, it was of no avail to reason with myself, nor to upbraid myself. Pertinaciously the thought—‘Zenobia is a wife! Zenobia has lived, and loved! There is no folded petal, no latent dew-drop, in this perfectly developed rose!’—irresistibly that thought drove out all other conclusions, as often as my mind reverted to the subject.
“Did you ever see a happy woman in your life? Of course, I do not mean a girl—like Priscilla, and a thousand others, for they are all alike, while on the sunny side of experience—but a grown woman. How can she be happy, after discovering that fate has assigned her but one single event, which she must contrive to make the substance of her whole life? A man has his choice of innumerable events.”
Now, as I looked down from my upper region at this man and woman—outwardly so fair a sight, and wandering like two lovers in the wood—I imagined that Zenobia, at an earlier period of youth, might have fallen into the misfortune above indicated. And when her passionate womanhood, as was inevitable, had discovered its mistake, there had ensued the character of eccentricity and defiance, which distinguished the more public portion of her life.
“It is my belief—yes, and my prophecy, should I die before it happens—that, when my sex shall achieve its rights, there will be ten eloquent women, where there is now one eloquent man. Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind. The mistrust and disapproval of the vast bulk of society throttles us, as with two gigantic hands at our throats! We mumble a few weak words, and leave a thousand better ones unsaid. You let us write a little, it is true, on a limited range of subjects. But the pen is not for woman. Her power is too natural and immediate. It is with the living voice, alone, that she can compel the world to recognize the light of her intellect and the depth of her heart!”
“I hate to be ruled by my own sex; it excites my jealousy and wounds my pride. It is the iron sway of bodily force, which abases us, in our compelled submission. But, how sweet the free, generous courtesy, with which I would kneel before a woman-ruler!”
“Yes, if she were young and beautiful,” said Zenobia, laughing. “But how if she were sixty, and a fright?”
“She is the most admirable handiwork of God, in her true place and character. Her place is at man’s side. […] All the separate action of woman is, and ever has been, and always shall be, false, foolish, vain, destructive of her own best and holiest qualities, void of every good effect, and productive of intolerable mischiefs! Man is a wretch without woman; but woman is a monster—and, thank Heaven, an almost impossible and hitherto imaginary monster—without man, as her acknowledged principal! As true as I had once a mother, whom I loved, were there any possible prospect of woman’s taking the social stand which some of them—poor, miserable, abortive creatures, who only dream of such thinks because they have missed woman’s particular happiness […]—if there were a chance of their attaining the end which these petticoated monstrosities have in view, I would call upon my own sex to use its physical force, that unmistakable evidence of sovereignty, to scourge them back within their proper bounds! The heart of true womanhood knows where its own sphere is, and never seeks to stray beyond it!”
Even her characteristic flower, though it seemed to be still there, had undergone a cold and bright transfiguration; it was a flower exquisitely imitated in jeweller’s work, and imparting the last touch that transformed Zenobia into a work of art.
“Oh, this stale excuse of duty!” said Zenobia, in a whisper so full of scorn that it penetrated me like the hiss of a serpent. “I have often heard it before, from those who sought to interfere with me, and I know precisely what it signifies. Bigotry; self-conceit; an insolent curiosity; a meddlesome temper; a cold-blooded criticism, founded on a shallow interpretation of half-perceptions; a monstrous scepticism in regard to any conscience or any wisdom, except one’s own; a most irreverent propensity to thrust Providence aside, and substitute one’s self in its awful place—out of these, and other motives as miserable as these, comes your idea of duty!”
Nor was her reputation seriously affected by the report. In fact, so great was her native power and influence, and such seemed the careless purity of her nature, that whatever Zenobia did was generally acknowledged as right for her to do. The world never criticised her so harshly as it does most women who transcend its rules. It almost yielded its assent when it beheld her stepping out of the common path, and asserting the more extensive privileges of her sex, both theoretically and by her practice. The sphere of ordinary womanhood was felt to be narrower than her development required.
How strangely she had been betrayed! Blazoned abroad as a wonder of the world, and performing what were adjudged as miracles—in the faith of many, a seeress and a prophetess—in the harsher judgment of others, a mountebank—she had kept, as I religiously believe, her virgin reserve and sanctity of soul, throughout it all. Within that encircling veil, though an evil hand had flung it over her, there was as deep a seclusion as if this forsaken girl had, all the while, been sitting under the shadow of Eliot’s pulpit, in the Blithedale woods, at the feet of him who now summoned her to the shelter of his arms. And the true heart-throb of a woman’s affection was too powerful for the jugglery that had hitherto environed her.
“Ah, this is very good!” said Zenobia, with a smile. “What strange beings you men are, Mr. Coverdale!—is it not so? It is the simplest thing in the world, with you, to bring a woman before your secret tribunals, and judge and condemn her, unheard, and then tell her to go free without a sentence. The misfortune is, that this same secret tribunal chances to be the only judgment-seat that a true woman stands in awe of, and that any verdict short of acquittal is equivalent to a death-sentence!”
“A moral? Why, this:--that, in the battlefield of life, the downright stroke, that would fall only on a man’s steel head-piece, is sure to light on a woman’s heart, over which she wears no breastplate, and whose wisdom it is, therefore, to keep out of the conflict. Or this:--that the whole universe, her own sex and yours, and Providence, or Destiny, to boot, make common cause against the woman who swerves one hair’s breadth out of the beaten track.”
It was a woful thought, that a woman of Zenobia’s diversified capacity should have fancied herself irretrievably defeated on the broad battle-field of life, and with no refuge, save to fall on her own sword, merely because Love had gone against her. It is nonsense, and a miserable wrong—the result, like so many others, of masculine egotism—that the success or failure of woman’s existence should be made to depend wholly on the affections, and on one species of affection; while man has such a multitude of other chances, that this seems but an incident.