Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Showing like an Illusion": The Failure of Sympathy in the Blithedale Romance

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Showing like an Illusion": The Failure of Sympathy in the Blithedale Romance

Article excerpt

In September 1821, shortly before leaving to study at Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne saw an adaptation of King Lear, with English actor Edmund Kean in the title role. Soon after, Hawthorne described the event in a letter to his mother: "I have been to Boston and seen Mr. Kean in King Lear. It was enough to have drawn tears from millstones" (qtd. in Eisen 255). It should be noted that Hawthorne saw Kean perform Nahum Tate's 1681 highly melodramatic adaptation of Shakespeare's play, which Kurt Eisen calls "an archetype" of the dramatic genre favored most by Americans in the 1820s, the melodrama (Eisen 255). One of the theater's greatest assets is its emotional immediacy, and melodrama, specifically, is designed to elicit the strongest and most singular emotional response possible. This monopathic response has a deindividualizing and unifying effect on the audience. (1) Even at this early point in his life, Hawthorne understood the melodramatic rule-of-thumb: the stronger the emotional impact, the more emotionally unified audiences become.

Melodramas of the first quarter of the century tended to be either jingoistic frontier romances or Gothic tales in the vein of Monk Lewis and Ann Radcliffe. But by 1850, a "minor revolution" in the theatrical business model saw "moral reform plays" replacing heroic melodrama (McConachie, Melodramatic 158). While theater historian David Grimstead argues that playwrights had always, on some level, viewed melodrama as socially enriching, it was not until the 1840s that the genre took an explicitly reform-minded turn. (2) Reformers saw the value in eliciting sympathy, an emotion they believed to be critical to reform movements against alcohol abuse or slavery. Regardless of a specific play's social goal, the message that "'there is an instinct in the heart which will not be deceived' was repeated in melodramas," and audiences believed following one's heart was synonymous with doing good (Grimstead 212). For some stage managers, the idea that "the performance is 'good for you'" was logically extended to the idea that melodrama could "enable critical and ethical engagement, [thereby] awaken [ing] a sense of social responsibility" in the audience (Freshwater 55). Melodramatic plays, such as William Smith's The Drunkard (1844), became "texts of personal reform (diet, sexual conduct, exercise, manners, and the like)" (Bank 139). As Grimstead notes, melodramas depicted the world not as "what is" but "what ought to be," while still containing an element of unrelenting hope that the world will improve. The explicit argument in social melodramas, however, makes that improvement contingent upon audiences' taking action upon the evoked sympathy by enacting reforms. Social melodramas explicitly desired a specific communal action and triggered that action by eliciting an overwhelming amount of sympathy.

The rise of the social melodrama or reform play coincided with the popularity of the American sentimental or domestic novel. This is unsurprising, considering both social melodramas and sentimental novels "make continual and obvious appeals to the [audience's] emotions" (Tompkins 125). In addition to the reliance on emotion, the genres share a number of other characteristics, such as overt moralizing, characters who overcome intense physical or emotional suffering, and stereotypical or stock character types. Yet while "the sentimental novel is an act of persuasion aimed at defining social reality" in regard to women (Tompkins 140), the social melodramas of the stage focused more squarely on men. More specifically, Bruce McConachie argues that melodramas utilized emotion to forge a sympathetic connection to the audience, while portraying the male hero's rational triumph over social maladies. In other words, melodramas demonstrated a rationality--the arena, according to McConachie, of the male melodramatic hero--that allowed for the characters' salvation, while feminine emotion was confined in such stage productions to virginal victims or comic objects of scorn. …

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