From "The Meaning of Hawthorne's Women"
In this excerpt from his lecture on “The Meanings of Hawthorne’s Women,” Richard Millington discusses Nina Baym’s argument in her essay "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist” that Hawthorne creates subversive women, of which Zenobia is one, and argues that it is a misreading to conflate Hawthorne’s own views with those of his male characters.
Baym argues that this pattern of cowardly or sadistic male refusal of the richer possibilities of life represented by women continues, in fuller and more complex form, in the novels. What had perhaps seemed a set of psychological flaws in the stories emerges as a fully social phenomenon in the novels, a kind of cultural symptom. As he creates female characters who are not simply containers for positive values but exemplars of a full and subversive alternative life-Zenobia, Miriam, pre-eminently Hester-Hawthorne, via his implicit repudiation of male flight from such women, indicts the thinness and rigidity of a society that seems at once to induce and endorse such poisonous evasiveness.
I find this a powerfully convincing analysis, admirable especially for its freedom from the mistake of identifying Hawthorne's perspective with that of the male characters his fiction is engaged in analyzing. In recommending it as a description of what's at stake in much of Hawthorne's most powerful work-in celebrating it, really-I might nevertheless propose a few differences in emphasis. If we think about the stories in particular, we might notice that what's especially at issue (given the relative thinness of the female characters) is a consistent critique of a version of masculinity, in which male ambition seems to drive the treatment of the women and the repudiation of the values, typically associated with domestic life, they represent. Here we might observe that what Baym is calling "feminism" is essentially an account of masculinity, in which the version of manhood attacked is associated with the marketplace values troubling many cultural observers during Hawthorne's time. This distinction seems potentially significant as we consider the nature of Hawthorne's investment in these tales, because, while a critique of masculinity may be a crucial element of feminist analysis, it is not necessarily identical with it. That is, one might, as a man, be profoundly critical of a prevailing or emerging form of male identity without questioning supposedly "natural" female roles. Indeed, in these stories, female characters seem to exemplify values linked to women in middle-class domestic ideology. Still, Baym is certainly right to argue that the thwarting of talented female lives is crucially at issue as Hawthorne invents Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam.