Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Angel of the House, Ghost of the Commune: Zenobia as Sentimental Woman in the Blithedale Romance

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Angel of the House, Ghost of the Commune: Zenobia as Sentimental Woman in the Blithedale Romance

Article excerpt

You seem to intend a eulogy, yet leave out whatever was noblest in her, and blacken, while you mean to praise. (CE 3:240)

The Blithedale Romance (1852) introduces us to one of American literature's earliest love triangles: Hawthorne's three unforgettable characters, Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla, vie for one another's affections with varying degrees of failure as they pursue "the reformation of the world" in a "blessed state of brotherhood and sisterhood" (12, 13). (1) With Hollingsworth as the brawny, brooding philosopher, Priscilla as the waif fleeing a villainous charlatan, and Zenobia as the theatrical brunette with a secret, the amorous dealings of these three lovers end in the apparent ruin of Blithedale. Theirs is a dangerous love triangle: Zenobia loves Hollingsworth, who seems to return the favor, until, that is, he becomes involved with Priscilla. Then Priscilla falls in love with Hollingsworth, even though she practically idolizes Zenobia, who turns out to be her half sister. After Zenobia drowns herself and the survivors disband, what is left of Blithedale is for Miles Coverdale to tell. And he keeps us waiting until the book's very last line for the story's final resolution. Suspected to be an unreliable narrator by many readers, Miles nevertheless finishes the story with an admission of genuine sentiment. And so the love triangle turns into a slightly more awkward square when Miles confesses that he, too, has been in love with Priscilla the whole time.

"'I--I myself--was in love--with--Priscilla!'" adds a nice tenor to the din of scribbling sopranos Hawthorne would later scorn so famously. (2) But Miles's confession can obscure the fact that in essence the novel reads like a tribute to Zenobia, who gets almost all of the best lines and whose figure occupies Coverdale's narrative more than any of the others. Even so, many critics interpret Zenobia as either scheming, pathetic, or both; as a result, they often omit a discussion of what Miles sees as her attractive sentimental qualities. The omission of Zenobia's sentimental traits from critical discussions of the novel is a glaring one that perhaps reveals a need to separate Hawthorne from that "damned mob" of sentimental authors, to keep clear about whose novels belong on the top shelf of the bookcase. Yet recognizing Zenobia's more sentimental qualities enables us to continue the critical trend that is expanding definitions of American sentimentalism. (3) Miles may love Priscilla enough to say so with four dashes and an exclamation point, but he admires Zenobia enough to explain why for three hundred pages or so. This is not to suggest, as some have done, that Miles is really in love with Zenobia. Rather, the novel becomes in some ways a sentimental homage to her from the "frosty bachelor" who still clearly mourns the loss of Zenobia (9). He also characterizes Zenobia as (among other things) a sentimental figure. (4) Ultimately, I hope to show that for Miles, Zenobia represents a martyr to Blithedale, when the philanthropist Hollingsworth lacked the heart, and the gentleman Miles lacked the valor, to fight for Blithedale themselves.

The Problem of Zenobia

Many of the critical discussions about Zenobia that leave out a discussion of her conventionally sentimental qualities portray her as either a selfish contestant for the affections of a man, or a madwoman driven to suicide. She is branded as either the "Medusan harlot" (Greven 138) or the "love-crazed Ophelia" (Miller 15) of Blithedale. Even in critical readings of Zenobia as a feminist, scholars often conclude that she is a figure of defeat. Her sentimentalism thus never emerges as a source of power or virtue--most deny her any sentimental traits at all. (5) And while there may be room for both the monster and the madwoman under the rubric of sentimentalism, the critical conversation does not often make that room.

The Medusa camp accuses her of being an antagonistic figure with a "threateningly vivid, voracious sexuality" (Greven 138): she is not feminine enough, but too much of a woman, all the same. …

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