In 19th-century New England in the heart of the Transcendentalist Movement, loner Gideon Birdsall is a student, a seeker who yearns to “build his own world from the pure idea of paradise in his mind.” Drawn to ancient alphabets, he is compelled to go “beyond the scrim of print” to breach the wall that separates him from truth. Perhaps he will suffer the fate of other Utopians, but Gideon’s dream is alive when he approaches the home of the Rev. Samuel Hedge to assist in the pastor’s sacred studies. Hedge is inspired by his student, gratified to find an audience for research into the meaning of the ancient Hebrew of the Bible. Studying with Hedge, Gideon is embraced by the family, even encouraged to marry Hedge’s daughter, Sophie, with the promise of eventually take over the Reverend’s parish.
Not surprisingly, Gideon’s interests cannot be tethered to parish needs. Though he and Sophy are enthralled with one another--she regards Gideon as an angel come to earth--Gideon finally meets the man who will complete his urgency to achieve the imagined paradise of his imagination. Like Rasputin, schoolmaster Leander Solloway seduces Gideon into a shared vision of Utopia, one that requires him to sacrifice wife and son to the fulfillment of their ideas. After Hedge’s death, they move to an abandoned house owned by Hedge’s son, Sophy and her soon-to-be-born infant to become experiments in a communal lifestyle where the child will be left to discover language without the taint of spoken words, “raising this fallen garden by the same means it was created: word by word.”
Cajoled into cooperation, artist Sophy finds refuge in her paintings, increasingly aware that she is living in a gilded cage,
but a cage nevertheless. She considers an escape from increasingly uncomfortable circumstances, the obsession of her husband and the friend he seems to court in preference to his wife. While Gideon and Leander grow more fanatical in their experimental restrictions, Sophy needs to protect her child at any cost despite any danger to herself. It is this struggle that both fascinates and repels, the force of the men’s ambitions eviscerating any original nobility in their endeavors, Leander usurping Gideon’s affections and dominating the already fragile union of husband and wife. United against an outraged and already suspicious community, there will be a terrible reckoning for the Utopians.
For all the good will Gideon builds up in courting Sophy, his once-charming ineptitude as a husband is undermined by his willing accommodation of Leander’s perspective, both in the treatment of his wife (and achieving impregnation) and the decision to use his son for an experiment. Gideon’s investment in matters of the mind, specifically the study of ancient Hebrew, makes him an easy target for domination, first by Rev. Hedge then by schoolmaster Solloway. Gideon’s natural inclinations are easily manipulated by men with larger personalities, though it is woman, after all, who drives her family towards the light.
Sophy is bullied by these men, father, husband and schoolmaster, chattel to their overweening philosophies and demands. In an age when religion plays a dominant role, Gideon’s Utopian theories are cultivated by the crafty Solloway, who feeds on the younger man’s naiveté to impose his will on the others. In contrast, Sophy’s inner strength is reflected in her burgeoning talent, easily dismissed by her family of origin but a valuable conduit for her inner turmoil, first in grappling with her love for Gideon and her place in the Hedge family, later when her actions are dictated not only by Gideon’s restrictions but
by those of the man who has cannibalized her family to achieve his own ends. She
nearly leaves the battle too late, her enemy formidable and powerful, fallen
angel to Gideon’s ethereal glow: “Paradise is a word that eats the brain.” The
author’s faithful rendering of language and custom creates a sense of the
stifling paternal mentality that defines women’s behavior as Sophy is forced to break with a lifetime of concession and obedience to save her family from an unnatural fate born of the conceits of men.