The Extremities Die First: Sympathy and the Sublime in The Blithedale Romance

The Extremities Die First:
Sympathy and the Sublime in The Blithedale Romance

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance dramatizes a self-conscious narrator’s failure to withstand the rigors of an encounter with the “sympathetic sublime”. Miles Coverdale is a poet of solipsistic tendencies whose interest in social experimentation derives more from his desire to forge genuine human relationships than from any great hope of “reclaiming the world” (although he does tend to conflate the two). His account begins on the night before his departure for the country, at which time he expresses an eagerness to meet Zenobia, a prominent local figure about whom he has heard much, but never seen; and when the meeting occurs, he is not disappointed—in fact, he is overwhelmed. However, Coverdale’s case is not destined to be a simple one of abject submission to a stronger personality, for, still reeling from Zenobia’s first impact, he witnesses her absorption into a complicated relationship with the egotistical Hollingsworth and the self-abnegating Priscilla. On the threshold of his “awakening” to the world, Coverdale collapses into a feverish state, requiring two weeks’ convalescence, during which time the “knot of dreamers”, formed before his eyes, tightens into an impenetrable object of fascination. The drive to demystify this trinity energizes the sluggish Coverdale, although each revelation leaves him equidistant from the noumenal “core” of the relationship, whilst moving the prying narrator into a closer alignment with his “enemy”—the impresario Westervelt. Finally, Zenobia’s suicide does Coverdale’s work for him, untying the “knot” and bringing him face to face with the initial destabilizing force in isolation (though certainly not “in itself”). However, the poet’s reason fails to reassert itself in this extremity, and Coverdale plunges into the vortex of attachments that have transfixed him for so long. He “turns the affair into a ballad”, which ends in a ghostly “tableau vivant”—from which he is permanently excluded.

After the worst of his illness, the bedridden Coverdale shares a particularly intimate moment with Zenobia. Perplexed by the strange intensity of his gaze, she asks him:

“What are you seeking to discover in me?” “The mystery of your life,” answered I (Coverdale), surprised into the truth by the unexpectedness of her attack. “And you will never tell me.” She bent her head towards me, and let me look into her eyes, as if challenging me to drop a plummet-line down into the depths of her consciousness. “I see nothing now,” said I, closing my own eyes, “unless it be the face of a sprite, laughing at me from the bottom of a well” (Norton Critical Blithedale Romance, 44).

In fact, the incident eulogizes what it evokes—the latent possibilities of the Coverdale-Zenobia relationship. After all, Hollingsworth and Priscilla have arrived on the scene, and the narrator has already begun to think of his interlocutor as a component in a more sublime mystery than she herself represents as an individual. As if to drive the point home, he chooses to tell us, at this juncture, that his interest in Zenobia “was purely speculative; for I should not, under any circumstances, have fallen in love with Zenobia” (45).

Miles Coverdale’s unreliability as a narrator is legendary, and certainly, as an objective reporter on the events at Blithedale, he is ludicrous; but he is considerably more successful in communicating a sense of his inner life during the same period. He holds nothing back in his account of Zenobia’s first appearance, and her impact upon his psyche. In fact, he describes her in terms that call to mind an encounter with the dynamic sublime:

[she had] a combination of features which it is safe to call remarkably beautiful, even if some fastidious persons might pronounce them a little deficient in softness and delicacy. But we find enough of those attributes, everywhere. Preferable—by way of variety, at least—was Zenobia’s bloom, health, and vigor, which she possessed in such overflow…(15)(italics mine)

Coverdale wears a dazed grin throughout this chapter and blushes whenever she addresses him. Perhaps most telling is his remark that “the presence of Zenobia caused our heroic enterprise to show like an illusion, a masquerade, a pastoral, a counterfeit Arcadia, in which we grown-up men and women were making a playday of the years that were given us to live in” (21).

Critics have approached this passage from a variety of perspectives. Often, it has been wasted as a pretext for a banal remark, such as that “not only are the characters cloaked in their names, they are also screened by the roles they assume in the ‘counterfeit Arcadia’. No one is what he appears to be”(Donohue, 103). Even those who have taken note of Zenobia’s special role in triggering Coverdale’s impression have disagreed as to what her presence signifies. Frangcon Lewis discusses her as showing the way to an enlightened nihilism through her inspired performances. Minaz Jooma’s reading also depends upon Zenobia’s theatricality:

The text of the Blithedale Romance allows Zenobia to figure herself, as it were, in a manner which, while it acknowledges her position as a spectacle, problematizes an oppositional logic in Coverdale’s narrative . . . [which discloses] the rather arbitrary boundary between observer and observed (322). Nina Baym sees her rather as an absolutely authentic human being, at war with “society, whose necessary goals are permanence and control” and, most importantly, “the reality that Coverdale is seeking”(Norton BR, 353).

Baym’s interpretation, filled with allusions to Zenobia as “the creative energy both of nature and the self”(353) and “the natural and eternal woman” (361), is rather more romantic than Hawthorne ever thought of being (but perhaps this is to be expected in an essay entitled “A Radical Reading”). She does convey a sense of the power the text invests in the characterization of Zenobia, but the simplicity of her argument forces Baym into awkward assertions. For example, she falls back upon an interpretation of the narrator as a one-note character who “cannot overcome his attachment to genteel poetry and the genteel way of life to serve the romantic muse” (366).

Of course, Coverdale’s prudishness (or his impotence) has drawn a great deal of critical attention, but in most such cases it has been yoked to a fetishistic sexuality that at least complicates his role as narrator (see, for example, Dolis, Hutner). Baym does not even bother to do so. In fact, she writes as if she would like to forget Coverdale altogether—but this is unthinkable. Zenobia (within the context of The Blithedale Romance) is incomprehensible as a “romantic muse” and “symbol of the life principle”—no one falls in love with her, and no one dedicates any poetry to her (although Baym insists that Coverdale should (353)). However, as a sublime object, she comes into focus.

Hawthorne’s only work to deal directly with a conventional figure of the sublime is “My Visit To Niagara” (in Hawthorne, CW, 42-50). In that piece, the narrator struggles to escape his own literary preconceptions and the demystifying presence of other tourists, in order to experience the true sublimity of the falls. Eventually, he claims to have succeeded, proclaiming: “it soothes, while it awes the mind”(47). This romantic echo, coming in the midst of a generally ironic sketch, undercuts the exultant finale: “My enjoyment became the more rapturous, because no poet shared it, nor wretch devoid of poetry profaned it: but the spot so famous through all the world was all my own” (50). Rather, the impression conveyed is that no “famous spot” can really deliver the surprise that is consubstantial with the sublime.

Hawthorne’s concerns are usually more intimate than his contemporaries’ are. Thomas Mitchell argues that

For Hawthorne, unlike Melville, the mystery that bedeviled him into obsession was not what lay behind the ‘mask’ concealing God, but the less cosmic, more immediate mysteries veiled behind the complexities of human relationships (“In the Whale’s Wake”, 67-68).

In a way, The Blithedale Romance reverses the pattern of “My Visit to Niagara”–employing a type of the sublime more congenial to the author’s mind–moving from a “true” impression to a dulled, poeticized one. The narrative certainly depicts a more genuinely awed mind, albeit one that never experiences the soothing influence of reason. Coverdale is utterly unprepared for his meeting with Zenobia, and even less so for the ever-shifting vortex of relationships that his contemplation of her discloses to him. This shift from the dynamic to the mathematical sublime (via Coverdale’s morbidly sympathetic nature) occurs early in the novel. Even before Hollingsworth’s arrival, Zenobia (who is familiar with him only as an “auditress”) makes him the chief topic of conversation, and expresses admiration for him–describing the philanthropist as “a great heart; at least he moved me more deeply than I think myself capable of being moved, except by the stroke of a true, strong heart against my own”(21). When Hollingsworth blusters in out of the cold, with Priscilla in tow, the Coverdale-Zenobia dynamic practically evaporates.

Of the pair, the pale young girl makes the first claim upon Zenobia’s (and thus Coverdale’s) attention:

She stood near the door, fixing a pair large, brown, melancholy eyes upon Zenobia—only upon Zenobia!—she evidently saw nothing else in the room save that bright, fair, rosy, beautiful woman. It was the strangest look I ever witnessed; long a mystery to me, and forever a memory(26).

Hollingsworth’s first impact, prompted by Zenobia’s chilly response to the child’s entreaty for protection, follows quickly on its heels:

He looked stern and reproachful; and it was with that inauspicious meaning in his glance, that Hollingsworth first met Zenobia’s eyes, and began his influence upon her life.

To my surprise, Zenobia—of whose haughty spirit I had been told so many examples—absolutely changed color, and seemed mortified and confused (27).

Working in tandem, Priscilla and Hollingsworth bring out the widest range of emotional possibilities in Zenobia, which Coverdale seems to see all once—as if she were a cubist painting.

Coverdale takes particularly to Priscilla. He moves quickly from a forensic examination of the girl’s probable origins to something like an appropriation of her subjectivity:

She had been bred up, no doubt, in some close nook, some inauspiciously sheltered court of the city, where the uttermost rage of a tempest, though it might scatter down the slates of the roof into the bricked area, could not shake the casement of her little room. The sense of vast, undefined space, pressing from the outside against the black panes of our uncurtained windows, was fearful to the poor girl, heretofore accustomed to the narrowness of human limits . . . the house probably seemed to her adrift on the great ocean of the night . . . (33)

This virtuoso performance owes a great deal to the narrator’s sense of kinship between himself and Priscilla—they have both led cloistered lives in the city (no matter their class differences) and each is unmoored by the destabilizing force of the same overwhelming personality. Priscilla slides neatly into the awestruck role that Coverdale had been preparing to play vis-à-vis Zenobia. Echoes of this empathy recur throughout the novel, particularly in an expressionistic dream sequence, where Coverdale finds “the sadness of [Priscilla’s] expression in [his] heart” (142) and, more immediately, in the illness that overtakes him on the very night of her arrival.

Coverdale spends a couple of weeks on the sidelines, as the community gets up and running, and when he rejoins the living, he finds the possibilities unleashed on the first night hardened into reality. The chapter entitled “Hollingsworth, Zenobia, Priscilla” is in many ways the key to the book. It is here that Coverdale first spells out his fascination with the eponymous characters as a trinity:

Other associates had a portion of my time; other matters amused me; passing occurrences carried me along with them, while they lasted. But here was the vortex of my meditations around which they revolved, and witherward they too continuously tended. In the midst of cheerful society, I had often a feeling of loneliness. For it was impossible not to be sensible that, while these three characters figured so largely on my private theatre, I—though probably reckoned as a friend by all—was at best a secondary or tertiary personage with either of them (65).

It is this sublime knot of affections, rather than any one personality, that will transfix Coverdale for the remainder of the novel. It is a critical commonplace to analyze Coverdale’s behaviour as determined by his fear of succumbing to the influence of either Zenobia (Baym, Hutner, Phillip Rahv’s “The Dark Lady of Salem”, in Norton BR, 337-40) or Hollingsworth (see James Justus, “Hawthorne’s Coverdale”, in Norton BR, 395-407); but these readings seem to me fundamentally flawed.

The Blithedale Romance is not Moby-Dick, in which one man’s sublime rhetoric hijacks the narrative and absorbs even the narrator into his quest for duration of the novel. The analogous figure to Ahab in Blithedale is Hollingsworth, who arrives amongst a motley crew of “isolatoes” with a secret purpose, and prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone upon the altar of his “one idea”. Unlike Ishmael, Coverdale is never in any danger of joining with his book’s monomaniac; his fascination with Hollingsworth is rooted solely in the older man’s ability to “[engross] all the thoughts of all the women” (114). Later on, back in the city, the narrator marvels that

[Hollingsworth’s] influence was no less potent with this beautiful woman [Zenobia], here, in the midst of artificial life, than it had been, at the foot of the gray rock, and among the wild birch-trees of the wood path, when she so passionately pressed his hand against her heart (154).

The infinite variety of tableaux vivants that these three are capable of generating is what captivates Coverdale’s imagination. Repeatedly, he admits to being in thrall to the hidden logic of their various relationships. John Dolis argues that

It is by converting the past into a dream-like “story” that Coverdale confers upon himself an inextricable reality, the illusion of continuity as a continuous part of the “knot” (of dreamers). He is its thread. Yet to the degree that Coverdale uncovers his speaking voice by means of allusion, the thread of this dream-like story is never his own. Rather, it structures the trans-figuration of his characters to legendary and mythical figures amid a world no less grand in its unbounded scope and scale (128-9).

On the contrary, I do not see how Coverdale can be responsible for the “knot”. He is not its thread. He does not “structure” the relationships between the three characters. These form a sublime fact which is entirely extraneous to him, and in that sense I concur that the story is never his own. However, it is not the story that is “dream-like”, but Coverdale himself. Throughout the course of the novel, his imagination perpetually taxes “itself to the uttermost” in an effort to “[comprehend] a given object” and “betrays its limits and its inadequacy”, without, however, “presenting itself to the idea reason” (Kant, 501).

Coverdale’s incessant grasping for the ungraspable generates a “mood that rob[s] the world of its solidity” (135) that becomes habitual with him. He even learns to take a certain Buddhistic pleasure in the feeling which “involved a charm, on which—a devoted epicure of my own emotions—I resolved to pause, and enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away” (135). Nevertheless, the sweetness does dissolve, unlike Coverdale’s three figures, which continually “array themselves before me . . . presenting their old problem in a shape that made it more insoluble than ever” (145).

The proof of this is that no matter what the narrator learns—and he learns a great deal, by plying Old Moodie, the dissolute father of the two women, full of liquor and adopting the cold skepticism of the “evil” Westervelt (whose comments often echo Coverdale’s analyses word for word)—he never comes any closer in spirit to his objects. In fact, as he learns the biographical details of Zenobia and Priscilla’s lives, he forces his way into the precise position occupied by the Professor vis-à-vis Zenobia, in an earlier stage of the novel:

There was a sort of familiarity between these two companions . . . [but] as they passed among the trees, reckless as her movement was, she took good heed that even the hem of her garment should not brush against the stranger’s person. I wondered if there had always been a chasm, guarded so religiously, betwixt these two (95).

In Westervelt’s case, the answer may be uncertain; but it is clear that no amount of phenomenal knowledge will serve Coverdale as a bridge over the noumenal abyss.

Yet the “knot” is real, and goes on tightening, regardless of Coverdale. He is continually arriving too late to make use of the information that is vouchsafed him—not that it is clear he would act, if he could. He plays no more part in the denouement than he did in the tying. Zenobia arrogates that privilege to herself, after the “trial” at Eliot’s Pulpit, the climax of which Coverdale has missed.

Once Hollingsworth and Priscilla have left her alone, Zenobia turns with renewed interest upon the narrator, who, for once, is convinced of his “right to be there”(204). It seems the narrative has come full circle, leaving these two to work out the dynamic of the relationship generated by their first meeting; but this is not to be the case. Coverdale is at his most lucid in this scene, however, Zenobia is now clearly playing a part–that of tragedy queen. True to her nature, she has trouble staying in character, and mixes in a few welcome quips, but her performance convinces Coverdale. When he boldly kisses her hand, and exclaims that it is cold, she replies: “the extremities die first” (209). She asks Coverdale to tell Hollingsworth “I’ll haunt him” (208), makes a few melodramatic pronouncements about the fate of women who swerve “one hair’s breadth off the beaten track” (206), and repeatedly suggests that the poet “turn this whole affair into a ballad”(205-6)–which of course he begins to do, even before she departs.

Thus it comes to pass that Coverdale finds himself in the midst of one the most sublime scenes in all of American literature—the midnight quest for Zenobia’s corpse—accompanied by two “wretches devoid of poetry” (Hollingsworth and Silas Foster, the pragmatic farmer) and with his own senses dulled by the ballad (of Zenobia’s contrivance) which has taken root in his brain. Still, the reader, who can reasonably dispense with this ballad as Zenobia’s final laughing revenge, is free to register “the perfect horror of the spectacle”(216) (assuming he or she is unburdened by the company of wretches). Even Coverdale seems suitably affected, writing, twelve years after the fact: “Ah! That rigidity. It is impossible to bear the terror of it”(216), but the use of the present tense implies that the narrator remains in thrall to the emotions he experienced that night, and that his reason has failed to reassert itself.

If the narrative ended here, this last would be merely conjecture, but Coverdale obligingly appends a chapter in which he visits his two surviving friends and reties the “knot”, creating a melodramatic final tableau vivant, by projecting the “vindictive shadow” of Zenobia on the side of the shuffling Hollingsworth “where Priscilla was not” (224)—and this time it is most assuredly the product of a diseased imagination, confined to the margins of the world.

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