Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance depicts the formation of a small agrarian society called Blithedale. Meant to be a utopian society, Blithedale is founded on the principles of equality, simplicity, hard work, nature, and community. The narrator of the book, Miles Coverdale, begins his adventure in Blithedale with the best intentions (namely to prove to the world that there is a better way to live and to hopefully effect a social revolution), but his dedication to the cause is soon eclipsed by his interest in three other founding members: the bewitching social reformer Zenobia, the single-minded philanthropist Hollingsworth, and a mysterious young girl named Priscilla. As the three become ever more entangled in a web of passion and secrets, Coverdale soon realizes that their motives in forming Blithedale, his own included, are actually rooted in self-interest. Before a year is out, all four characters become disillusioned with their early dreams and beliefs about Blithedale and abandon the community. Inspired by his own experiences at the utopian community Brook Farm (which only ran from 1841 to 1846), Hawthorne suggests that people are generally too consumed by their own selfish desires to create a successful utopian society.
When Blithedale is established, its founding members truly believe that they are doing something for the betterment of humanity. Coverdale and several other intellectuals—both men and women—decide on a model in which everyone chips in time and labor to run a farm, believing that not only will the products of their labors be a good source of income, but also that the physical labor will stimulate their intellectual and creative growth. They want to “show mankind the example of a life governed by other than false and cruel principles,” meaning a wholesome life devoted to communal work and creativity rather than ambition and social class. Furthermore, the people at Blithedale embrace “theories of equal brotherhood and sisterhood.” They believe that women are equal to men, not inferior, which was a radical belief for the mid-19th century. Despite the plan not working out (which is implied in the opening pages of the book), Coverdale praises himself for having “had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny.” In other words, in the beginning he genuinely believed his work would benefit the rest of the world.
Despite such a promising start to their community, it doesn’t take long for Coverdale to start questioning whether their initial beliefs were correct. In the beginning, Coverdale and the others believed that physical labor would stimulate intellectual activity that would benefit their artistic endeavors. However, he realizes that their “thoughts […] were fast becoming cloddish,” meaning their thoughts actually began losing some of their originality and creativity as they devoted more and more time to working the farm. Although Coverdale never expresses regret over helping create Blithedale because the group had such a peaceful and largely happy summer there, he ultimately discovers that “Intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.” In Coverdale’s opinion, wearing out one’s body takes a toll on the mind as well, and it actually hinders creativity rather than benefits it.
Coverdale ultimately realizes that not only were their initial beliefs about the relationship between physical labor and intellectual development incorrect, but also that the founding members’ motives in establishing the community were self-interested instead of selfless. In the early weeks of their time at Blithedale, Coverdale realizes that Hollingsworth is consumed by his idea of creating a large facility in which he and his followers can reform criminals. By the end, Coverdale realizes why Hollingsworth really wanted to join the project: “Our beginnings might readily be adapted to his great end.” This means Hollingsworth wanted to join the community so that later he could use them to create and maintain the facility he envisioned, not because he genuinely believed in their cause. Coverdale also learns from Moodie (Priscilla’s father) that Priscilla had been obsessed with the idea of Zenobia since her early childhood, culminating in Priscilla’s decision to “follow her to Blithedale.” Priscilla, then, joins the Blithedale community to get closer to Zenobia, not because she wants to be a part of the project. Thinking of himself, Coverdale is surprised by “how unreservedly [he] had given up [his] heart and soul to interests that were not [his].” This implies that, although Coverdale really thought he was going to do something meaningful at Blithedale, it was not his primary interest when he joined—he simply wanted to be a part of something.
Blithedale was supposed to set an example for the whole world of how good and fulfilling life can be when it’s lived authentically, rather than for social ambition or monetary gains. However, some of the core founders only got involved for selfish or ambitious reasons, and this leads to tragedy for all involved. In fact, as Coverdale explains in the end, after Zenobia’s suicide the project failed and all the founders abandoned it.
Self-Interest and Utopian Societies ThemeTracker
Self-Interest and Utopian Societies Quotes in The Blithedale Romance
Yet, after all, let us acknowledge it wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s day-dream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure. And what of that! Its airiest fragments, impalpable as they may be, will possess a value that lurks not in the most ponderous realities of any practicable scheme. They are not the rubbish of the mind. Whatever else I may repent of, therefore, let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies, that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny—yes!—and to do what in me lay for their accomplishment; even to the extent of quitting a warm fireside, flinging away a freshly lighted cigar, and travelling far beyond the strike of city-clocks, through a drifting snow-storm.
Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening. Intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise. The yeoman and the scholar—the yeoman and the man of finest moral culture, though not the man of sturdiest sense and integrity—are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance.
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.
“For, little as we know of our life to come, we may be very sure, for one thing, that the good we aim at will not be attained. People never do get just the good they seek. If it come at all, it is something else, which they never dreamed of, and did not particularly want. Then, again, we may rest certain that our friends of to-day will not be our friends of a few years hence; but, if we keep one of them, it will be at the expense of the others—and, most probably, we shall keep none.”
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.
“But I am weary of this place, and sick to death of playing at philanthropy and progress. Of all the varieties of mock-life, we have surely blundered into the very emptiest mockery, in our effort to establish the one true system. I have done with it […]. It was, indeed, a foolish dream! Yet it gave us some pleasant summer days and bright hopes, while they lasted. It can do no more; nor will it avail us to shed tears over a broken bubble.”