Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Pages: 225
Published: 1851

This is a tale of a house cursed through the centuries by a man who was hanged for witchcraft--a house haunted by the ghosts of its dead and the terror of its living inhabitants.  The blighted house controls the fates of four Pyncheons: Hepzibah, an elderly recluse; Clifford, her delicate brother; Phoebe, their young country cousin; and Jaffrey, a devil incarnate whose greedy quest for secret wealth is marked by murder and terrible vengeance from a restless grave.

I always intend to read more American literature.  This week I have done pretty well, having read both a book of poems by Emily Dickinson and The House of the Seven Gables.  The Dickinson poems were sublime; a gushing review of those is in the works.  As for The House of the Seven Gables...

  I loved Hawthorne's lovely way of writing, his skill in telling stories about the past inhabitants of the titular house and weaving them into the present story.  I found the stories about the presumed witch Matthew Maule who cursed the Pyncheon family before his execution and the young, doomed Miss Alice Pyncheon to be mesmerizing, among the best parts of the book.  I appreciated Hawthorne's great attention to detail in painting the images and personalities of the characters, who are few but memorable.  I could just see Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon swinging his cane and smiling benevolently at Phoebe while malice lurks in his eyes, see Hepzibah fluttering nervously around her shop as she prepares to open her new business, a penny shop that the old gentlewoman is forced to start up in a desperate attempt to escape her impending poverty.

I loved the characters, loved the setting of the decrepit old house, loved the ancestral curse, and the connection with Hawthorne's own family history.  (Hawthorne's ancestor Judge Hathorne was one of those who condemned "witches" during the Salem Witch Trials, just as Colonel Pyncheon does in this book.  Hawthorne was so disturbed by his familial legacy that he changed the spelling of his name a little, adding a "w.")

The House of the Seven Gables is Gothic in that it deals with a decaying house, reclusive aristocrats, an ancestral curse passed down through the generations--in terms of themes alone, it closely resembles more straightforward Gothic tales like The Fall of the House of Usher.  However, there are no ghosts in the traditional sense, no dead maidens buried alive.  The horror in The House of the Seven Gables is more subtle, more delicate, and ultimately much less overpowering.  The characters of Phoebe, Hepzibah's teenage cousin who comes to stay with her and her brother Clifford, and Holgrave, an idealistic young daguerreotypist and lodger in the house, provide some contrast for the doom and gloom atmosphere of the House of the Seven Gables.  I liked Holgrave in particular; he is certainly my favorite character in the book.  Unlike Hepzibah, Clifford, and Judge Pyncheon, all of whom dwell incessantly on the past and their ancestral woes and money troubles, Holgrave supports social change and progress.  He resents the grip that the dead still have on the living, the chains of old customs.  He complains to Phoebe, "Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" and goes on a bit of a rant:

"A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions.  We read in dead men's books!  We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos!  We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients!...Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us!...we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!" 

Later in the book, Holgrave declares that he has become positively conservative almost overnight, but I preferred the original Holgrave, an angry radical who believed that the world must and will change for the better.  It is easy to see that he scorns the aristocratic Hepzibah and Clifford somewhat for their helplessness and fear of the outside world, when after all Holgrave has worked in various eccentric occupations since he was very young.  He says that he only lives in the House of the Seven Gables so that he may better learn to hate it and all that it stands for.  On the other hand, he also shows compassion towards Hepzibah in particular and is more than a little mysterious.  I also am fascinated by daguerreotypes and liked the role that the daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon played in the story.

The House of the Seven Gables has a "flaw" in common with The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's best-known book and the bane of millions of high school students.  I write "flaw" in quotation marks because I think that this is mostly a deficiency ascribed onto Hawthorne's style of writing by those who read his work today.  In the era of James Patterson and, more importantly, films, readers expect books to tell their story rapidly, to include lots of dialogue and cliffhangers at the end of most chapters.  Meanwhile Hawthorne invested pages and pages in creating a very particular sense of place and describing the daily habits of his characters.  And he went too far, at times.  He did!  I read a lot of nineteenth-century prose without suffering much boredom or annoyance; in fact, I enjoy the fruits of earlier authors' labors in creating mood, complex characters, and setting--I love a strong sense of place in a book.  However, at one point Hawthorne actually felt the need to write

"The author needs great faith in his reader's sympathy; else he must hesitate to give details so minute, and incidents apparently so trifling, as are essential to make up the idea of this garden life." 

When the author refers to the incidents he is describing as "trifling," that is a sure sign that they are less than riveting!  That chapter which describes the Pyncheon family's garden and Clifford's fondness for flowers is indeed the most wearisome part of the book; I struggled to hold my eyes open.  The beginning is also slow, but the last few chapters are positively fast-paced in comparison.

 Though I don't want to give anything away to those who haven't read the book, I will say that I was really struck by chapter eighteen, "Governor Pyncheon."  I never expected that plot twist and loved Hawthorne's uncanny style of narration in that chapter.  All in all, I feel I profited a good deal from reading The House of the Seven Gables.  Reading it was not always enjoyable, but since then I have thought about the story and the characters many times--always the mark of a good book!

Another favorite quotation:

"But these transparent natures are often deceptive in their depth; those pebbles at the bottom of the fountain are farther from us than we think." 

This book is

eloquent                        thought-provoking                           slow-paced

P.S. This book was on my Classics Club list!


Kate Scott said...

I should really read this since I grew up near the house of seven gables! I love a good gothic tale and read The Fall of the House of Usher recently.

Kat said...

@Kate Scott-- Wow, that's so cool that you grew up near the house! I would love to visit it and New England in general--sadly, I have never been to the region. Thanks for visiting! :)

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