Mr. Coverdale heads back to his apartment after seeing an exhibition of the Veiled Lady, “a phenomenon in the mesmeric line” (5) who is rumored to be a beautiful young woman, when he is met by a reserved older man named Mr. Moodie who asks if may have a word. He asks if Coverdale is going to Blithedale tomorrow, to which Coverdale assents. Moodie asks if he may beg a favor, but then demurs. Coverdale finds him “both freakish and obstinate” (7), as all Moodie asks is if he knows the lady Zenobia. Coverdale says he knows she will be one of their numbers at Blithedale but does not know her yet.
Moodie grows a bit distressed and excuses himself, leaving Coverdale to wonder at his behavior. He only sees later what the man wanted. He has a drink of sherry and goes to bed.
It is an April afternoon, full of swirling snow and cold wind. Coverdale leaves his warm hearth to set out for his better life. He reflects how it is nobler to follow a dream to its logical conclusion even if it does not pan out. He may have things to repent of, but no one could accuse him of not having faith and “form enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny” (11).
Four set off together, as Hollingsworth is delayed. The city air feels stale and close but once they emerge into the countryside Coverdale marvels at the freshness of it. They ride through small towns, occasionally encountering people of a churlish nature who have little time for their grandiose ideas. Coverdale wonders if he isn’t getting a cold.
Finally they arrive and sit before their roaring fire in the farmhouse, already feeling worlds away from their shackling society. Two young women greet them. Everyone shakes hands.
Suddenly Zenobia enters, her bearing and manner like that of a queen.
Zenobia warmly greets everyone, telling Coverdale how she has read and enjoys his poetry very much. He is charmed by her praise, blushing with pleasure. He describes her: dressed simply; dark and glossy hair with one single ornamental flower of exotic and fresh plumage; an “admirable figure” (15); remarkably beautiful.
She says she will play hostess tonight, though tomorrow they will all be brothers and sisters. Someone asks how parts are assigned, and she laughs that women will do women’s work, but over time that may change.
Coverdale wonders aloud that the lot of women is that which “chiefly distinguishes artificial life –the life of degenerate mortals –from the life of Paradise” (16). He privately sees her as an Eve of sorts, almost actually beholding her in Eve’s earliest garment. He is impressed by her openness and lack of restraint that women usually have, seeing her as warm and rich in a way other women are not.
The women begin to cook and the others talk. Silas Foster enters, shaking off snow. He is heavy, uncouth, and bearded.
The storm grows stronger outside, but their courage does not flag. They are sure of their vision, not caring for other men’s scorn. They are no longer at the pulpit, at the ledger, using their pen; they are no longer indolent but ready to embrace a life of principle that human society has shunned. They will replace pride with love.
Foster mingles only a little, annoying Coverdale by talking about practical matters like buying pigs. He begins to realize, though, that in terms of society, they stand in a position of hostility, not brotherhood.
When Zenobia comes in, he is slightly surprised to find that her presence makes their experiment seem like an illusion or a masquerade.
Later she tells him that she finds it piquing that Hollingsworth is late. They both discuss how strange and lamentable it is that the man is so concerned with his philanthropic endeavor of reforming criminals. Zenobia comments that he ought to spend time working on people who can be saved, not those past help.
Coverdale laughs that to please him they ought to commit a crime, and Zenobia gives him a look he cannot quite parse.
Coverdale continues to wax poetic about the fire. It makes the men look hale and hearty and the women beautiful. All sit and look at each awkwardly in their first attempt at enacting brotherhood and sisterhood. Coverdale wonders if they would really enjoy each other if they had not chosen to be here, and how when he was “secretly putting weight on some imaginary social advantage, it must have been while I was striving to prove myself ostentatiously his equal, and no more” (25).
A knock sounds on the door and no one moves. It comes again and Hollingsworth enters. He brings with him a slight young woman, saying he does not know who she is but assumes she was expected. The girl is sickly and wan, depressed and sad in appearance. She fixes her eyes on Zenobia, though, and brightens immensely. Coverdale finds this one of the strangest looks he has ever seen. He does not know why Zenobia is hostile towards her in return.
Hollingsworth, for his part, is large, dark, with an abundant beard and a muscular frame. He is a blacksmith by trade, but is tender and kind and appealing to men and women.
To Coverdale’s surprise, when Hollingsworth chides Zenobia, she quails under his words and gaze. The girl, named Priscilla, declares she must always be near Zenobia. Zenobia laughs and says she is fine with that. Hollingsworth says not to pry into her secrets, just to make her one of them.
Silas is eating all the while, and although coarse, sensibly says to give her tea and let her eat with them.
Silas does a bit of shoemaking while the rest of the party sits in the parlor. Mrs. Foster knits and then falls asleep. Priscilla sits by Zenobia, delighting in her new friend’s pulchritude and grace. Coverdale is bemused, wondering if she came here to be the woman’s slave.
Zenobia teases him that he ought to turn her story into a ballad. She then tells him she suspects Priscilla is a seamstress because of the marks on her fingers, and that she lives a dark and dismal life in the city. Priscilla hears her and tears up. Zenobia scoffs and claims she is not ill natured, and will be kind to the girl from now on. She caresses Priscilla’s hair, which has an immediate positive effect.
Priscilla calms down and begins to knit, but the storm makes her uncomfortable.
The night is mostly quiet and everyone is uncommunicative. Coverdale believes that Hollingsworth was never interested in their “socialist scheme” (36) but only his impractical plan to reform criminals.
A committee forms to find a new name, but they eventually decide to keep “Blithedale."
The first evening comes to a close. Coverdale goes to bed but struggles with feverish dreams. In retrospect, he feels that if he had recorded those dreams, he would have been able to see the incidents of this narrative and the culminating catastrophe.
The horn sounds at daybreak, and Coverdale hears people getting up. He also hears Hollingsworth praying, which affects him deeply.
Coverdale also realizes he is ill, and almost wishes he could have put off his reforming of society. He begins to wonder why he left his comfortable apartment and his life full of books and people and dinners at the Albion.
Hollingsworth comes in cheerfully, and offers to help take care of Coverdale while he is ill. This brings him a great deal of comfort. Coverdale muses on how men are not prone to tenderness, although sometimes Christianity and women can help them attain it. Hollingsworth has it, though, and is not ashamed. He is grateful to have him there, and would hope to have a friend like him at his death bed (even though he knows now that the man would not come).
When Coverdale moans of dying, Hollingsworth asks him if there is nothing left for him to fancy. Coverdale replies that he likes pretty verses like Zenobia’s. At one point Coverdale calls him tender, and Hollingsworth wonders at that, saying he sees himself as inflexible and severe in purpose.
Everyone comes to kindly visit Coverdale while he is sick. Zenobia brings him gruel, which he does not enjoy. He reflects on her mind, which he finds “full of weeds” (44) though she has a strong intellect. He thinks she is made for the stage and being a stump-oratoress; he also calls her magnificent in her appearance. The new flower in her hair every day intrigues him.
In his perturbation of mind he whispers to Hollingsworth that she is an enchantress and a relative of the Veiled Lady.
There is another thing that vexes him –whether or not she has been married. He has no clear evidence, but there is something about her that makes it seem as if she is experienced in the ways of sex. He sees her as “not exactly maidenlike” (47), but tells himself not to assume that her openness of character means that.
She sees his staring at her and says that her instinct says he is not an admirer. To this replies he wants to know the mystery of her life. She leans in close for him to look into her eyes and all he says he sees is a sprite.
He says he would have never fallen in love with her, but this whole riddle of her life makes him nervous and uncomfortable while he is ill. He wishes she would not come to his room.
Hawthorne’s third novel is rich, complex, and layered; it has dozens of symbols, metaphors, and philosophical, historical, religious, literary, and psychosexual references. Thus, it is rife with topics for discussion, but can often be difficult in terms of narrowing down areas of focus. Each chapter is utterly jam-packed with things to discuss, so, in terms of a disclaimer, this study guide cannot possibly address every facet of Hawthorne’s fascinating and at times inscrutable book.
With that in mind, the first six chapters bring us a myriad of mysteries, examples of foreshadowing, and symbols. First of all, Hawthorne sets his story in the spring –it is a cold, blustery April when Coverdale sets out for Blithedale –and ends it in the Fall, when the leaves, Blithedale’s founding spirit, and one of its own are dying. He also is keen to begin his exploration of the contrasts between city and countryside. Coverdale speaks of how fresh and revivifying the air is, contrasting it with the stifling air of the city; the invented biography for Priscilla also places the city in a negative light. The countryside is supposed to be an idyllic place where the human spirit can be renewed. It is the perfect place for this experiment of Blithedale to take place, as it is free from the constraints, hierarchies, and engrained norms of the city.
Despite the sense of exuberance that pervades Coverdale’s narrative for a couple chapters, there is already quite a bit of foreshadowing that things will not turn out well. Coverdale acknowledges that the world outside is hostile to them. He says that the group decides to ignore the land’s Indian name, and thus its history, in favor of the anodyne “Blithedale.” Silas Foster speaks of the practicalities of working on a farm, destroying some of the illusions of their great purpose, while everyone knows right away that Hollingsworth is barely committed. There are tensions regarding gender roles and duties. Coverdale also catches cold and has feverish dreams that allude to some future doom. Finally, Coverdale begins to exhibit the tendency that makes him a fascinating and complicated narrator: he is obsessively interested in those around him, watching, wondering, and judging.
The thing that Coverdale is overwhelmingly concerned with in these early chapters is Zenobia’s past. He wonders if she was married, and then wonders if she is not a virgin: “the freedom of her deportment…was not exactly maidenlike…Her constrained and inevitable manifestation, I said often to myself, was that of a woman to whom wedlock had thrown wide the gates of mystery” (47). Zenobia notices his interest in her, speculating that “I cannot reckon you as an admirer” (47). Sex is an important underlying tension throughout the novel, with Coverdale often inadvertently revealing his own fixations as well as giving us clues to those of other characters. Related to this is Zenobia’s flower, one of the most potent symbols in the text. It is absolutely identified with her sexuality, and the language Coverdale uses to describe it is rife with eroticism: “It was an exotic, of rare beauty, and as fresh as if the hot-house gardener had just clipped it…I can see and smell it, at this moment” (15).