Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. -Vladimir Nabokov Lectures on Literature (3)
Few books seem better designed to test the accuracy of Nabokov's assertion than does that most modern and elusive of Nathaniel Hawthorne novels, The Blithedale Romance (1852). Indeed, judging by the lack of consensus the book continues to elicit regarding what, if anything, may be said to account of Miles Coverdale's decision to select the Blithedale community as the subject for his narrative, it is clear that the narrator's revelation about himself at the story's end--"I--I myself--was in love--with--PRISCILLA!" (247)--marks the first, and too often last, moment when most readers even consider the possibility that this may have been the chief animating impulse behind that decision all along. Of course, this is not to be entirely wondered at, given that the work has been composed in such a way as to produce the sort of disequilibrium among first-time readers that might be imagined if an orchestra were asked to perform a symphony, the very key signatures of which were withheld by the composer until the work's final measure. Yet even then, and in spite of the narrator's specific admonition that this confession "will throw a gleam of light over [his] behavior throughout the foregoing incidents, and is, indeed, essential to the full understanding of [his] story" (247), readers remain reluctant to test the certainty of this confession by the simple act of rereading the piece in light of it. At the very least, I think it must be admitted, the remarkable skepticism with which so many critics continue to dismiss, or at best grudgingly concede, the veracity of Coverdale's confession becomes the most convincing proof of the novel's potential ability to transform itself dramatically on the basis of the addition of this single hitherto undisclosed fact. It would be illuminating, therefore, to demonstrate just how thoroughly transformative that fact proves to be; producing a change so thorough it amounts to nothing less than a transposition of the mode of the piece itself, turning what had at first appeared as a romance involving the doings of a small band of self-styled social reformers, as told by its most detached and insignificant performer, into a highly personal account of the narrator's singularly futile struggle against Fate, and a tragedy of unrequited love of the utmost poignance and originality.
Ultimately, of course, it is only by a careful reexamination of the text that we shall be able to establish the truth or falsity of Coverdale's confession; however, it may be useful to begin by indulging in a little historical speculation on the matter. The surviving evidence concerning the completion of Hawthorne's manuscript provides the basis for that speculation, as summarized by Annette Kolodny:
The manuscript that he sent on May 2, 1852, to his friend, the literary critic Edwin Percy Whipple (later his most astute reviewer), had "Hollingsworth: a Romance" on the title page. In the covering letter to Whipple, Hawthorne suggested other tides, none of which pleased him, and he hoped that "just the thing" would "pop into [Whipple's] mind." Whipple's reply no longer exists, so we cannot know whether his remarks influenced the choice of title. And we cannot know whether Whipple's response to the manuscript prompted Hawthorne's subsequent decision, as he put it in his notebook, to "modif[y] the conclusion," thereby lengthening the text by two handwritten pages. (The modification was probably the addition of the final chapter, "Miles Coverdale's Confession.") (xiv-xv)
At first glance, such facts might seem to concur with the idea that there is indeed something dishonest, perhaps altogether belatedly manufactured, about the essence of Coverdale's confession. However, let us consider these facts a little more closely. Hawthorne sent the original manuscript to Whipple and subsequently altered the conclusion, probably by the addition of the narrator's confession of love for Priscilla--an alteration Hawthorne describes as a modification, rather than a change. If this was not the modification in question, then the confession of love had been Hawthorne's intended conclusion from the start; if it was the modification, then we are left with two major possibilities: either 1) the author was persuaded for some reason that he could, and ought, tack on a knowingly false claim for the story which could not be borne out by it; or 2) Hawthorne discovered by a simple test of the matter on an unsuspecting reader whose acumen he had little reason to doubt that what he had hoped would have become self-evident by the novel's end, and which might only serve to insult by its blunt and belated affirmation, had not proved nearly so obvious as the author had intended. Certainly it was an extraordinary step for Hawthorne to have sought the reaction of any reader other than his wife before submitting the manuscript of one of his novels to his publisher. Yet, whatever the explanation for his unusual behavior, one thing is for sure: the key to any such artistic stratagem as Hawthorne has ultimately employed here must necessarily be a transformation of the text, which does not gainsay the original reading experience so much as it dramatically illuminates for the first time that which had been nestled in it all the while.
One of the first ways in which we may test this transformative effect of Coverdale's confession is by looking at the events of the opening chapter in the wake of it; for these events will form a kind of blueprint for the entire work. In fact, one need only consider--or, I should say, reconsider-the chapter's prophetic first line ("The evening before my departure for Blithedale, I was returning to my bachelor-apartments, after attending the wonderful exhibition of the Veiled Lady, etc.") to see just how consciously the novel makes immediate reference to someone we now know was Priscilla. This, in turn, provides the narrator with a convenient excuse to further discourse upon the subject: "As I have casually alluded to the Veiled Lady, it may not be amiss to mention, etc." (5). Given that The Blithedale Romance represents what was Hawthorne's most modern literary creation, it is interesting to note how in many ways it specifically seems to anticipate the highly sophisticated and demanding aesthetics of Nabokov's own Lolita, a novel that also begins (albeit after a fictional Foreword) with its narrator, Humbert Humbert, using the idea of the alternate appellation as the means of musing straightaway on the object of his romantic obsession. (1) Discussing the overall effect of those aesthetics on Nabokov's novel, Alfred Appel Jr. observes how "the uniquely exhilarating experience of rereading it on its own terms derives from the discovery of a totally new book in place of the old" (lxxi), an effect that itself may in no small part be said to derive from that aspect of the book (to wit, the mysterious presence of Clare Quilty throughout) which has been so deliberately placed by the author just beyond the reach of even the most skillful and observant first-time reader. Considering Hawthorne's novel in this sense, we can already begin to discern the even more boldly original terms in which he has framed his story: for here it is the very idea of the narrator's romantic obsession, rather than simply the identity of the rival for that object of obsession's romantic attention, whose discovery forms the basis of the totally new, because originally dissembled, focus of dramatic interest. Moreover, the highly transformative effect of this newly-exposed focus of interest may already be seen in that, whether we choose to continue to view the book as, say, the simple record of the Blithedale "experiment," or rather as the quasi-artistic and far more compelling account of the defining events of the narrator's personal life, there can be little argument now that from Coverdale's point of view that story begins and ends with the existence of Priscilla. (2)
At all events, while returning from the exhibition at which he first encounters the Veiled Lady--ironically, the last time he shall ever return so self-satisfiedly to the idea of his "bachelor-apartments"--Coverdale is accosted by an acquaintance named Moodie, who is on the verge of asking him to accompany his daughter to Blithedale. Still unaware of Priscilla's existence, let alone that Moodie is her father, Coverdale proceeds to intimate blithely that he would really rather not be bothered granting any "very great favor" (7), and as a consequence, Terence Martin points out, "passes up the opportunity to take Priscilla in his charge" (152). This, then, sets up what Martin later describes as "the controlling irony of the romance," namely, that by so doing "Coverdale has already declined what he is most looking for" (157). The dramatic irony of this scene is made further poignant by two important facts: first, that by withdrawing his request, old Moodie in effect rejects Coverdale as the proper companion for his daughter, thus foreshadowing what will be Priscilla's own judgement (a fact made doubly ironic by Moodie's decision to "apply to some older gentleman" (7), i.e., one more trustworthy and less likely to neglect his responsibility towards Priscilla); and second, the identity of the older and more trustworthy companion whom …