Goodreads: The Blithedale Romance
Abjuring the city for a pastoral life, a group of utopians set out to reform a dissipated America. But the group is a powerful mix of competing ambitions and its idealism finds little satisfaction in farmwork. Instead, of changing the world, the members of the Blithedale community individually pursue egotistical paths that ultimately lead to tragedy. Hawthorne’s tale both mourns and satirizes a rural idyll not unlike that of nineteenth-century America at large.
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The Blithedale Romance, ostensibly a story about a group of people who come together to form a utopian community, is really the story of how the lives of four of those people intersect and how the narrator judges their worth and the struggles that keep them connected to the outside world.
I was initially put off by the idea The Blithedale Romance includes an attempt at a utopian community because I assumed the book would tend towards the philosophical and perhaps some lengthy explanations of what such a utopia would be. In reality, I was surprised to find the community so vaguely described, a quaint setting for the personal dramas of the characters rather than a fully fleshed out concept. The general gist seems to be that the members will live communally as brothers and sisters and give up their outside professions to take up farming and hard labor to become somewhat self-sustaining. After some reflections from the narrator that farming is difficult and tiring and leaves no time for the more intellectual pursuits that many of the participants are used to, however, little mention of the actual work of the society is mentioned. Ultimately, however, the main characters can’t hack it and return back to their normal lives, perhaps a commentary on the fact that an agrarian society of hard labor isn’t quite as utopian as it sounds. (Though the narrator remains somewhat dismissive of farmers and their lack of intellect, even after realizing he can’t do the work they do.)
So the real focus of the book is the narrator and the three people he gravitates towards as his closest friends at the community: an intellectual man who seems not to have bought into the utopian idea in the first place, a woman of some celebrity and social status, and a young mysterious girl who shows up out of nowhere in need of protection. All, even the meek young lady, have strong personalities that drive the plot: What are people who don’t believe in the mission of the community even doing there? What is the young lady hiding from? Who are the people from the outside world who come asking for her?
I admit that many of these questions did not have quite as much tension and urgency as I would have liked. I had my guesses at several of the answers, and I wasn’t exactly dying of suspense, but it was still interesting to see everything unfold and how it all might be related to the ideals of the time. And to the ideals of the narrator, who, frankly, seems pretty judgmental and ready to analyze everyone else without being particularly self-aware.
The Blithedale Romance isn’t exactly the best or the most exciting or even the most thought-provoking classic I’ve read, but I am glad I gave it a chance. If you like early American literature this, of course, is worth looking into.
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