This afternoon I got to Ch. XIII of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance. Titled “Zenobia’s Legend,” most of the chapter is given over to the titular heroine’s tale “The Silvery Veil,” a wonderfully pre-postmodern moment in Hawthorne’s novel.
Let’s look lookingly at the layers: The Blithdale Romance is Hawthorne’s ironic-but-sincere dark-romantic semi-autobiographical account of his time at Brook Farm, a failed utopian community of Transcendentalists who maybe didn’t quite, uh, transcend. Zenobia is based partially on the great American feminist Margaret Fuller (who also did time on Brook Farm). Taking center stage here in (the aptly-numbered) thirteenth chapter of Blithedale, Zenobia extemporizes a story about The Veiled Lady. This Veiled Lady is a local celebrity, a clairvoyant of some renown who (we learn in the opening chapter of the novel) has recently disappeared. Zenobia’s yarn is a leisure-time amusement, one she contends that she’ll spin to get out of an apparent rut:
“I am getting weary of this,” said she, after a moment’s thought. “Our own features, and our own figures and airs, show a little too intrusively through all the characters we assume. We have so much familiarity with one another’s realities, that we cannot remove ourselves, at pleasure, into an imaginary sphere. Let us have no more pictures to-night; but, to make you what poor amends I can, how would you like to have me trump up a wild, spectral legend, on the spur of the moment?”
Ironically however, Zenobia clearly relies on her “own features” as well as the features of Blithedale’s spectral ingenue Priscilla to inform her performance. Despite her declaration to “remove” herself and her auditors “into an imaginary sphere,” Zenobia essentially recasts poor Priscilla’s waifery into a supernatural ultraromantic mode. The story’s basic conceit is thus: There is a famous veiled lady who may be extraordinarily beautiful or who may be extraordinarily ugly. No one knows what she looks like because like the the veil obviously hides her face, preventing any viewer’s agency to interpret for himself.
Zenobia’s legend is a tale within a tale within a tale—a performance that each member of the small Blithedale community will recode into their own readings. However, Zenobia guides her audience toward a certain conclusion, all but declaring that meek Priscilla is in fact the Veiled Lady—hell, Zenobia even throws a bit of gauze she’d been vamping with over the poor dear’s head at the climax of her tale.
“The Silvery Veil,” in another pre-postmodern layer, is a thin but clear echo of Hawthorne’s famous allegory “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which was published 15 years before The Blithedale Romance, and would clearly have been known to Hawthorne’s intended audience of Transcendentalites. (There’s perhaps a more clear connection between “The Silvery Veil” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” : Hawthorne likely based the titular minister on the real-life preacher Joseph Moody, who wore a handkerchief over his face. Blithedale features a character named “Old Moodie” who we eventually learn is Pricilla’s secret father).
So Hawthorne overloads the allegory with meaning and misdirection—is Zenobia’s legend “The Silvery Veil” the secret key to Priscilla’s identity? A clue to Blithedale’s destiny? A watery paraphrase of Hawthorne’s own stronger story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”? Simply a Saturday night’s entertainment?
The trick of the tale I think rests in the undecidability of what’s under the veil, in the not knowing, which is neatly summed up in a paragraph:
Some upheld that the veil covered the most beautiful countenance in the world; others,—and certainly with more reason, considering the sex of the Veiled Lady,—that the face was the most hideous and horrible, and that this was her sole motive for hiding it. It was the face of a corpse; it was the head of a skeleton; it was a monstrous visage, with snaky locks, like Medusa’s, and one great red eye in the centre of the forehead. Again, it was affirmed that there was no single and unchangeable set of features beneath the veil; but that whosoever should be bold enough to lift it would behold the features of that person, in all the world, who was destined to be his fate; perhaps he would be greeted by the tender smile of the woman whom he loved, or, quite as probably, the deadly scowl of his bitterest enemy would throw a blight over his life.
Hawthorne’s description here immediately reminded me of Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the P.G.O.A.T., a character in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest who wears a veil either because she’s too beautiful to behold and/or because she bears a physical deformity to abject to bear. I can’t actually remember if it’s the “and” or the “or” in that previous sentence that’s correct, even though I’ve read IJ a few times (and even not that long ago). Which is like, maybe the point of this literary veiling—what I mean is that we read faces, we read expressions, and the veil covers over what we would read directly, giving us a blank space to interpret through the lens of our wild (or not so wild) imaginations. Hawthorne’s veils (and maybe Wallace’s veils) require an inward reading, asking us to interpret a signifier that does not bear a clear signified—a most puzzling sign.