excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne
In this excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa
McFarland Pennell, she describes Hawthorne’s treatment of the theme of identity and the secret self through the characters of The Blithedale Romance.
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
“[Hawthorne] is especially concerned with the ways in which a person presents a self to the world
that is only a partial portrait. In developing his characters, Hawthorne poses the question, Who are
these people? The stories that Coverdale relates about them and their experiences are all attempts
to provide answers. Ultimately, however, Hawthorne suggests that the question is unanswerable,
that it is impossible to now the true nature of others. They will always have secret selves that
cannot be discovered or understood, even through spying and eavesdropping on them.
All of the central characters in The Blithedale Romance have adopted masks and persona that hide
their real identities. That they all do this to some degree suggests a need to avoid vulnerability and
self-exposure in the exploitative culture in which they live. It also suggests a desire for privacy, a
need to keep some aspect of the self a sheltered reserve. When Hollingsworth pierces Zenobia’s
body in his attempt to recover it, this sexually charged gesture also symbolizes his earlier penetration
of her mask. He has exposed her willingness to abandon her publicly held principles to win love and
approval. Once her self-constructed armor is breached, she becomes vulnerable, especially to
emotional loss. Her surrender to despair indicates that some core part of her being has been
affected and not just her constructed persona, as Westervelt suggests” (122-123).