This novel is based on Hawthorne's own experience at Brook Farm, which was short-lived and disappointing to him. He found that the yeoman and the intellectual cannot be combined, which is also manifest in this work as well. However, there are other reasons why this utopia fails: its participants are selfish, and more concerned with their own plans and desires and dreams than with Blithedale itself. Coverdale barely even mentions the spirit in which it was founded as his narrative moves past the midline; he is more consumed with his observations of his friends. Hawthorne does not believe that individuals can put aside their social class, intellectual proclivities, and individual wants and needs in order to form a community. Blithedale is set to fail from the journey's outset.
Coverdale occupies an interesting middle ground when it comes to gender. On the one hand, he counts himself as a sympathizer with women's rights, encouraging Zenobia, praising Margaret Fuller, and proclaiming he'd like to be ruled by a woman and women should be in the Church. Yet he views women in traditional ways that are connected to their sexuality, their affiliation with Eve, their wildness and irrationality, etc. He judges Zenobia for her "inappropriate" sexuality, much in the same way Hester Prynne is judged in The Scarlet Letter. Although Blithedale claims to be a utopia, it is still a place where men rule and women are subject to their expectations, whims, and power.
Masks and Theater
The characters in Blithedale love to act, don masks, play in tableaux vivants, and generally surrender their true nature to artifice and theater. Furthermore, the Veiled Lady is a repeating motif in the work, with Priscilla-as-Veiled-Lady and Zenobia's "Silvery Veil" tale occupying large sections of the text. Masks are both liberating and concealing: on the one hand, masks allow the characters to act out their secret desires and wishes; on the other hand, characters are wearing masks and using the artifice of theater to cover up their secrets. Priscilla is hiding under her veil, Zenobia is considered a good actress because she is a mistress of affect, of histrionics, of drama. In regards to Zenobia, though, her "acting" is actually a manifestation of her deep sorrows and afflictions. Hawthorne's use of theater is complex, and one of the text's most pervasive elements.
Sex and Desire
The very language Coverdale uses is erotic, and the subject matter is equally so. There are strong hints at Zenobia's sexual past, Priscilla's possible sexual past, Hollingsworth and Zenobia's relations, and Coverdale's sexual obsession with Zenobia. The characters are enmeshed in these fraught relationships, whose difficulty is determined by the society in which they live, the religion they may practice, the patriarchal system of the day, and the competing theories as to the proper sort of sexual behavior when it comes to residing in a community such as Blithedale. One of the failures of the entire experiment is that these frustrated and unfulfilled sexual desires complicate the nobility and harmony of the community's purpose.
Country vs. City
Hawthorne contrasts the city with the country in Blithedale. The city is considered dirty, stultifying, unhealthy, and a place in which immoral, depraved, dangerous, and mysterious things happen. The country, by contrast, is supposed to be a place of refuge - a place that is sustaining, invigorating, and pure. Hawthorne was living in an age in which the agrarian was giving way to the industrial, and his novel explores those tensions. Coverdale is a man between those two worlds; Zenobia is of nature, Priscilla is of the city. The wilderness is perhaps more fraught than Coverdale would like to admit, though: it is the site of betrayal, of sexual frustration, of suicide (or murder?), of failure, and of despair. Human beings bring their vices and their sins to the country; their Eden is corrupted by sin.
Selfishness and Self-Interest
Each of the Blithedale characters demonstrates a selfishness that ultimately contributes to either their own downfall, that of others, or that of the community. They are unable to truly put aside their individuality, their own hopes and dreams and desires and obsessions, for the sake of the community. This is a general critique of these sorts of communities and utopias that were popping up throughout America in the early-to-mid 19th century; Hawthorne was very skeptical of their claims, having seen firsthand how difficult it was to unite the farmer and the philosopher into one being.
Memory and Narrative
Coverdale is one of the most fascinating 19th century literary narrators. He is telling his tale many years after the events within it took place, which already makes it rather suspicious in terms of the veracity of his recollections, but it is also fraught with other problems. Coverdale refers to his dreams many times, and the entire second half of the text resembles an extended dream sequence, or an interior monologue. Some critics posit that he is lying to us, or to himself (e.g. did he kill Zenobia? Does he 'remember'? Is he trying to deliberately conceal it?). Some say he does not know himself very well, and that his narrative is thereby flawed. He is constantly hypothesizing, extrapolating, and concluding based on flimsy or nonexistent information. We are led along with his assumptions until we realize that they may very well be false. It is due to this that critics laud the work as a precursor to the postmodern novel, with its fragmented narration and problematic narrator.
The Blithedale Romance Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Blithedale Romance is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.