In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, all the characters seem to be concealing something: their real motives for wanting to be a part of Blithedale, their pasts, their true identities, their relationships, or their feelings. The story’s narrator, Miles Coverdale, is particularly obsessed with these deceptions; he spends much of the novel trying to uncover the mysterious pasts, motivations, and desires of his closest friends at Blithedale, which sometimes makes him a poor friend and generally distracts him from the collective project of building a utopian society. Deception and secrecy are not just destructive to Coverdale’s morality and work ethic, though. The characters’ various deceptions and self-deceptions lead them inadvertently to destroy themselves and others, which incites the story’s tragic ending in which Zenobia takes her own life. By showing the corrosive effects of secret-keeping, Hawthorne suggests that deception and self-deception—even when well-intentioned—undermine the foundations of society, leading unintentionally to ruin.
Coverdale’s obsession with uncovering secrets shows how secrecy breeds an atmosphere of mistrust, which can undermine a society’s shared goals. At Blithedale, all the members are working towards creating an egalitarian utopia, which should make for a harmonious society. However, when Coverdale gets a sense that his co-founders have mysterious pasts, his thoughts quickly shift from his lofty social vision to petty concern with what the people around him are hiding. This is a physical distraction to him, as he begins to spend more time in his hermitage (a concealed spot high in a tree where he can observe Blithedale without being seen himself) rather than working in the fields. But his obsession with secrecy is also, more significantly, a moral distraction. Rather than thinking about how to make Blithedale better, for example, he spends an inordinate amount of time speculating about whether or not Zenobia has been married (and, therefore, whether she is a virgin), a question that is not only irrelevant to their life at Blithedale, but which is also profoundly inappropriate and intrusive. In addition, Coverdale’s obsession with prying into people’s pasts often makes him a poor friend. He is so consumed with learning about Zenobia’s secret past, for example, that he completely fails to recognize her distress in the present. Had he been more interested in listening and less interested in spying, he might have understood that her despair was so great as to be dangerous, which could have enabled him to save her life. Clearly, then, a culture of secrecy—and particularly an obsession with uncovering secrets—leads to an atmosphere of mistrust and alienation that shreds the social fabric.
In addition to secrecy creating a toxic atmosphere, Hawthorne shows how self-deception leads characters to act immorally—sometimes to a degree that is lethal. This is most evident in Hollingsworth’s character arc. At the story’s opening, Hollingsworth seems to be a friendly and devoted community member whose primary ambition is to open a center for criminal reform. While his philanthropic interests make him believe that he is a good person, he becomes so single-mindedly devoted to criminal reform that his ethics become monstrous; he is willing to manipulate and discard others as long as it benefits his goal. Notably, he does this with Zenobia when he takes advantage of her love for him to gain access to her money (funds for his criminal reform center), and then discards her because he loves Priscilla instead. Hollingsworth’s self-deception is so extreme that he believes that his inhumane actions are justified until Zenobia, heartbroken, tells him who he truly is: he’s a “cold, heartless, self-beginning and self-ending piece of mechanism,” and a “masquerader” whose “disguise is self-deception.” While he takes Zenobia’s words seriously, his reckoning with self-deception comes too late; he has caused Zenobia so much harm that—after telling Coverdale that Hollingsworth killed her—she drowns herself. In this case, Hollingsworth’s relentless self-deception not only leads to the dissolution of the community and its goal, but also to the death of his friend.
The story’s most powerful illustration of the destructive power of secrecy is perhaps the story of the Veiled Lady, a mysterious woman whom the sinister magician Westervelt exploits during his theatrical performances of mesmerism. Because the Lady’s identity is concealed behind a veil, she becomes a public sensation. The secrecy surrounding her draws huge, fascinated crowds, but the underbelly of this success is a pervasive desire among lecherous young men to be the one to unmask her. For these men, the Lady’s value is her mystery, and if that mystery were solved, she would lose all her allure—nonetheless, they can’t help but want to know who she is. Zenobia tells a story about the Veiled Lady in which a man hides in her dressing room and then removes her veil by force—an act that violates the Veiled Lady and also ruins the young man’s life, as he is forever haunted by what he has done. The alluring secrecy of the veil, then, is doubly destructive: it makes the Veiled Lady vulnerable to violence and predation, and it leads to the man’s life-ruining quest to uncover the mystery. Through the Veiled Lady, Hawthorne makes his clearest case that secrecy—even well-intentioned secrecy—is naturally and inevitably destructive to everyone involved.
Secrecy and Self-deception ThemeTracker
Secrecy and Self-deception Quotes in The Blithedale Romance
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.
Thus, as my conscience has often whispered me, I did Hollingsworth a great wrong by prying into his character, and am perhaps doing him as great a one, at this moment, by putting faith in the discoveries which I seemed to make. But I could not help it. Had I loved him less, I might have used him better. He—and Zenobia and Priscilla, both for their own sakes and as connected with him—were separated from the rest of the Community, to my imagination, and stood forth as the indices of a problem which it was my business to solve.
This hermitage was my one exclusive possession, while I counted myself a brother of the socialists. It symbolized my individuality, and aided me in keeping it inviolate.
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 appeared, unless he over-estimated his own means, that Hollingsworth held it at his choice (and he did so choose) to obtain possession of the very ground on which we had planted our Community, and which had not yet been made irrevocably ours, by purchase. It was just the foundation that he desired. Our beginnings might readily be adapted to his great end.
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!”
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.
“It is all self!” answered Zenobia, with still intenser bitterness. “Nothing else; nothing but self, self, self! The fiend, I doubt not, has made his choicest mirth of you, these seven years past, and especially in the mad summer which we have spent together. I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! Self, self, self! You have embodied yourself in a project. You are a better masquerader than the witches and gipsies yonder; for your disguise is a self-deception.”