Oblique Angles in Nathaniel #Hawthorne’s BLITHEDALE ROMANCE and Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”

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Why does Nathaniel Hawthorne’s BLITHEDALE ROMANCE, (1852), ostensibly about a socialist utopian community, visit and revisit the social phenomena of spiritualist “veiled ladies”? Compare this fume of gossamer, psychology and humbug to the quantity and price chart of hardware and seeds in Thoreau’s “Economy”, the longest chapter in Walden (1854), his solitary attempt at intentional living.

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Hawthorne’s preface to THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES (1851) claims a definition of Romance as a veiled form of literature. It’s an artistic legend where the author asserts a “latitude” away from realism, but is wise to “mingle the marvelous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor.” Mid-novel, BLITHEDALE’s character Zenobia tells the tale of the Veiled Lady using similar words:  “the silvery veil covering her from head to foot; so impalpable, so ethereal, so without substance, as the texture seemed, yet hiding her every outline in an impenetrability…”

There’s textual evidence in BLITHEDALE to support Hawthorne’s awareness of spiritualism as pseudoscience, and that a woman’s veil has resonances with women’s rights. However, Hawthorne is more interested in the veil than any map toward progress. There is little if any reference to the plan of the Blithedale community, other than acknowledgment that it requires agrarian and domestic work. Indeed, the labor required is the easiest secured part of the dream. Miles Coverdale, the first person narrator, thrives under the regime of manual labor, as do the other men. In terms of work, the community is readily ideal. The communities’ problems lie elsewhere, within the faces behind the veil…

Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” (1533) is a double portrait with still-life objects of worldly accomplishments. And yet… it includes a troubling, strange shape. which may be hard for an uninitiated viewer to understand.


Hawthorne’s “Custom House” introduction to THE SCARLET LETTER (1850) describes:

Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us.

As Hawthorne’s self-defined genre of Romance thrums the liminal barriers between actual and imaginary, Holbein’s strange shape in “The Ambassadors” suggests another realm of understanding to the realistic portrait. The shape is a distorted projection perspective of a skull. The skull undermines everything that the painting seems to celebrate. I don’t know if everyone agrees that this disturbing element lifts it in interest and meaning, but it unquestionably adds a moral and spiritual dimension.


The Brook Farm experiment which inspired BLITHDALE lasted from 1844-1847. If the Blithedale phalanx is where the Actual and Imaginary met, the novel does not reveals an authorial definition of progress. What Hawthorne does instead is lift the secret of the Veiled Lady. This has its effect on the course of the novel, but what about progress? At the end of the novel, the narrator Coverdale muses years later…


As regards human progress (in spite of my irrepressible yearnings over the Blithedale reminiscences), let them believe in it who can, and aid in it who choose. If I could earnestly do either, it might be all the better for my comfort. As Hollingsworth once told me, I lack a purpose. How strange! He was ruined, morally, by an overplus of the very same ingredient, the want of which, I occasionally suspect, has rendered my own life all an emptiness.


There is a shape hidden at the foot of the Blithedale urge toward progress, a distorted projection of emptiness that lurks, skull-like. What is it that veiled lady mediums do? They speak with the dead…


I by no means wish to die. Yet, were there any cause, in this whole chaos of human struggle, worth a sane man’s dying for, and which my death would benefit, then—provided, however, the effort did not involve an unreasonable amount of trouble—methinks I might be bold to offer up my life. If Kossuth, for example, would pitch the battlefield of Hungarian rights within an easy ride of my abode, and choose a mild, sunny morning, after breakfast, for the conflict, Miles Coverdale would gladly be his man, for one brave rush upon the levelled bayonets. Further than that, I should be loath to pledge myself.


Does a veil guarantee a substance beneath it? Probably Hawthorne intends more than one meaning when Coverdale admits, “Further than that, I should be loath to pledge myself.” It is not only a wise statement, but also self-condemnation, for he had just admitted the emptiness of his life. It is only in the last sentence of the novel that Coverdale unveils a secret about himself–an effort he did not make perhaps because of “unreasonable amount of trouble”–that suggests another perspective on his departure from Blithedale and the dire events that followed. The narration itself is a distorted projection.

You can read BLITHEDALE ROMANCE here for free.

You can listen to BLITHEDALE ROMANCE here for free.


Published in: on January 4, 2018 at 9:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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