Next on the list of books I had to read for one of my classes was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Now, many of us had to read The Scarlet Letter during their high school career, and to this day I would refer to it as one of the worst books I’ve ever had to read. When I was going through it over the summer, I had to read the sparknotes after every chapter I read simply because I couldn’t understand what I had just read. Granted, Hawthorne’s writing is the better part of two centuries old at this point, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but I can’t tell how much good it could possibly do to read something they can’t comprehend.
But that’s a tangent we won’t get into. You can tell how much I was loath to pick this book up, having hated his supposedly “best” work already. If I had already experience the best thing he had to offer and hated it, how could I possibly enjoy this one, specially since The Scarlet Letter was published first?
But as it so happens, The Blithedale Romance actually wasn’t that bad. Perhaps it could be attributed to how different the teachers are in both classes (the one I have now is a blast to listen to), but I really think the book is actually a decent read in today’s culture, at least as far as old literature goes. I wouldn’t recommend it over any of today’s writings as far as reading for pleasure goes, but if you had to pick any book written in the nineteenth century, I’d say you should pick this one up (if you haven’t read Frankenstein). (*Also I haven’t read Count of Monte Cristo, which was written at the time, but the movie is phenomenal.)
As far as the novel itself, it is, at it’s heart, a philosophy book. Hawthorne (and a great many authors during this time) brought about the period of romanticism and, more specifically, Transcendentalism (though he often viewed this particular movement in a negative light).
Such is the case with The Blithedale Romance. The main character, Miles Coverdale, and a few dozen other people, get together and form a utopian society outside of conventional, capitalist American life. They do it to break away from the flaws that the rest of society seems to have grown around, and seek to build something that will last forever and be heralded throughout the ages. But as the novel progresses, we see that none of the characters have the righteous convictions their ideals require of them.
As Coverdale states (bear with me here), “if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure… It’s airiest fragments, impalpable as they may be, will possess a value that lurks not in the ponderous realities of any practicable scheme” (10-11). What the narrator here states is, essentially, that anything worth wishing for is impossible. All of our highest hopes for how the world ought to be are dreams that can never be realized in it. Thus, the perfect community of Blithedale is doomed to fail, and this is a state most readily attributed to the fact that we humans are flawed. Be it our core nature or the reality that is brought about by the societies we have all stemmed from, there is no perfection to be had.
Now, I don’t recommend this book merely because it is disheartening. No, the masterpiece in this book lies in the complexities written into each page. There is so much going on in this book, that (I’m told) every time you read it, you perceive it in a new light. In an initial reading of the book, the protagonist seems to be a cynic that joins a community to watch it burn. But a second time, we see that this character wants to believe that this ideal is achievable. In a third, perhaps we can see that all of his cynical comments are also a way to contrast the character into the world in which he is placed, further emphasizing how our wishes are unattainable? But the genius in it lies in the fact that this book was written with every layer in mind. In many scenes, we can’t rightly place whether a character is throwing out witty sarcasm, nihilistic perspectives, careful considerations (to see what how their friend will react), or if the character is simply going mad. This, my friend, is the beauty of an unreliable narrator done well.
So, no, this isn’t the best book ever. It’s hard to read, and anyone that wouldn’t consider themselves a well-educated individual would have a tough time chewing through it, but it raises quite a few questions about human nature and what we as humans can aspire to do and be. If nothing else, you can’t finish the book without having become a more learned (and obviously well-read) person, so that’s at least some encouragement. Can’t we seek knowledge for its own sake some of the time?