The Liminality of Illness in The Blithedale Romance

I’m pretty sure this is my first time reading Hawthorne. Two summers ago I picked up The Scarlet Letter, folded the corner of the third page down into a triangle and abandoned it on my bookshelf back home by accident. What I find most fascinating about The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s constant reference to illness and health.

The reader’s first encounter with issues surrounding health is Coverdale’s recounting of his own illness. As soon as Coverdale arrives in Blithedale, utopia rejects him: “the wintry blast of the preceding day, together with the general chill of our airy old farm-house, had got fairly into my heart and the marrow of my bones” (40). Utopia is not a sunny paradise, but a place of frost and chilly winds. Coverdale has to be reborn before he is accepted by this new community. The setting itself seems like one of Hawthorne’s characters, quietly residing in the background, a stagnant, but impressive and potentially destructive force.

Coverdale describes not only the physical chambers he resides in while ill, but also the chambers of his mind. Illness becomes a liminal place between health and death. For Coverdale his sensitivity to the characters of the people around him is sharpened: “but there is a species of intuition–either a spiritual lie, or the subtle recognition of fact–which comes to us in a reduced state of the corporeal system” (46). Through a breakdown of his physical bodily systems, he seems to reach various states of revelation, particularly about the nature of Hollingsworth and Zenobia. I wonder if this description of systems breaking down and being rebuilt again is connected to utopics and systems of oppression. Is it ever possible to reside in a world of neutrals, void of any sort of system? Is system breakdown the neutral Marin is referring to in Utopics?

Coverdale’s various states of heightened perception are defined as deleria by Hollingsworth and Zenobia, two of the giants in this small community. By this point it seems clear that Hawthorn is satirizing human desire to live in a utopia. These particular scenes regarding Coverdale’s illness also seem to point to a sense of productivity of the mind attached to being ill, as well as a sharpened sense of self-awareness. He reminisces “my fit of illness had been an avenue between two existences; the low-arched and darksome doorway, through which I crept out of a life of old conventionalisms, and gained admittance into the freer region thay lay beyond” (61). Illness in this utopia is a rite of passage, a necessary transformation of being in the world.

Coverdale describes in a very technical fashion the way a healthy constitution influences one’s perception. He explains “the spheres of our companions have, at such periods, a vastly greater influence upon our own, than when robust health gives us a repellent and self-defensive energy” (46). This image of spheres and spheres of influence is reminiscent of our class discussions about moods functioning the way clouds do. In good health it is easier to deflect outside spheres of influence, but in doing so it is also easier to deflect “truths” about the people those spheres of influence surround. Is Hawthorne making a connection between illness as a liminal space and illness as a space of “truth”?

Then there is Coverdale’s description of Priscilla, who evolves from a sickly girl into a young outdoorsy, albeit clumsy, girl. She seems to bloom with the onset of spring in Blithedale. He doesn’t quite describe her as a woman, especially in relation to Zenobia. But Coverdale’s fascination with the sudden “robustness” of Priscilla’s health seems significant and even takes on an erotic tone: “after she had been a month or two at Blithedale, her animal spirits waxed high, and kepther pretty constantly in a state of bubble and germent, impelling her to far more bodily activity than she had yet strength to endure” (73). Coverdale seems at once bewitched and concerned about Priscilla’s wild, yet weak nature.


About nuancednadia

I write. I read. I gyaff. Occasionally, I travel.
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