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The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1851



refered to by:
Old People and the Things that Pass
Louis Couperus

Beloved
Toni Morrison


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Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables begins with what amounts to a prologue tracing the history of the house and the Pyncheon family, who own it. The first Colonel Pyncheon, in the time of the Salem witch trials, had coveted a property owned by another man, named Maule. He engineered an accusation of witchcraft against Maule, then confiscated Maule's land and built a house on it. Subsequently, Colonel Pyncheon died, fulfilling the curse Maule had laid upon him prior to being executed.

At the time of the narrative, the Pyncheon family is represented by two branches - the one that lives frugally in the house, consisting of the middle-aged spinster Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, recently released from jail, and the branch that still has wealth and influence around the town, consisting of Judge Pyncheon. The way the novel is structured foreshadows the 200-year-old curse upon the family and the property and that justice will finally be done. The agent of this retribution/- redemption is a distant cousin, Phoebe ("light"), who comes from the country to help Hepzibah in the tiny shop she establishes to support herself and Clifford. Eventually a boarder moves in, Holgrave, who seems to be the perfect new American man - enterprising, energetic, and interested in new technology (he is a dageurreotypist) - and he turns out to be a descendent of the Maule family. He and Phoebe come together at the end.
The House of the Seven Gables is not especially appealing. It bears comparison with Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor because it makes use of similar materials - old curses, fated outcomes and family histories. But whereas Scott is careful to make the psychology of the characters and their interactions mesh with the omens and predictions, so that by acting within character the characters seem to work out their destinies as predicted, Hawthorne is less of a psychologist and more of a moralist. His few characters are not so much agents of the plot as objects of the narrator's observations and victims of circumstances.

It is, in particular, the manner in which Hawthorne toys with ideas of spirits and ghosts that robs the novel of both supernatural operations and realistic motivation. Rather, each character seems to be a manifestation of a certain type of atmosphere. What prevails instead of logic and action is aesthetic. Phoebe and Holgrave are attractive - she represents forgiveness and innocence, he represents reason. Judge Pyncheon is unattractive - he represents hypocrisy and is motivated principally by greed. Each character rather mech-anically acts out what he or she represents, and eventually, through the agency of the ancient curse (and the author), Judge Pyncheon dies suddenly and is held up by the narrator as an example of the suddenness of death in the midst of life (and egomania). At the same time, the family curse is revealed as not a curse but a natural process - Holgrave theorises that the judge has died of natural causes (perhaps a heart attack or a stroke, the reader thinks) and that predisposition to such a death is inherited and also accounts for the earlier sudden death of Colonel Pyncheon. At the climax, the author does not take the opportunity to intensify his drama but rather to ratchet up his eloquence - The House of the Seven Gables turns out to be a sermon. The contrast with The Bride of Lammermoor is apparent in terms of style, too. Whereas Scott uses a clear, more or less
objective style that naturally weighs the curses and superstitions against the more mundane forces shaping the lives of his characters, Hawthorne uses a highly charged and floridly ironic style that continuously reminds the reader what to think of the characters and the events.

All Hawthorne's characters have psychological possibilities, but the plot hardly develops them. Hepzibah, a loving but unattractive old maid, gains neither grace nor self-knowledge. The narrator repeats over and over that her brother Clifford's losses can never be redeemed and are without a larger purpose. Holgrave and Phoebe's love is barely developed, and the judge is simply an emblem. Since the characters cannot, by the author's definition, change, the pages of the novel have to be used for something other than character development, so they are used for description (my favourite is of the chickens in the yard) that is often quite lyrical and that gives the novel its romantic air. But the reader has to wonder - well, this reader has to wonder - what Hawthorne was getting at to begin with. Is there some political purpose here? If so, is the original sin that has cursed the Pyncheon family really so simple as the fact that the first Pyncheon stole a small lot from a neighbour? Or is there a larger unease?

The novel was written in 1850, when Americans were broadly conscious of both the moral compromises of slavery and of the eradication of Native Americans but had not decided how to act upon their misgivings. It is possible, I think, to read the static and heavily moralistic qualities of Hawthorne's novel as a resistance to considering larger questions of injustice and guilt in favour of contemplating minor ones. The novel is attempting to interpret history as entirely personal, through the lens of a family curse, but the characters cannot as yet imagine how to solve even their minor dilemmas - they are stuck in a state of unhappiness and moral unease until something happens that is outside their control, and miraculously, that thing brings prosperity.

Hawthorne pays very little attention to the social context of the family - the history of the town, for example, or what the town is like at the time of the novel; as a result, the family can be redeemed solely through the original terms of the curse, which makes the plot (for example, that Holgrave turns out to be a Maule) too predictable. This sort of talelike wishful thinking works in some novels, but Hawthorne doesn't deliver on the promise of the tale - that the story will be entertaining. The novel turns out to be sober but not realistic, mysterious but not entertaining, and so doesn't succeed as either a romance or a realistic novel.

The Bride of Lammermoor, by contrast, does face up to history and acknowledge its moral complexities; characters act and react to the consequences of their actions, but Scott also makes canny use of folkloric elements, so the novel gives the pleasures of both realism and romance. Scott has a political philosophy that encompasses injustice, hatred, revenge, and the passage of time that leads to reconciliation. Hawthorne (in my opinion as a reaction to the charged issues of his time) is unsure of the meaning of the history he wants to depict. The result is strange and flat - if the reader cannot respond to his style, there is little else to respond to.

- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 13 May 2006

bookweb    
BOOKS BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE:

The Scarlet Letter
1850
The tale of a passionate woman in 17th-century Boston who challenges the system of moral authority and places belief in the higher law of her own heart.
The House of the Seven Gables
1851
The curse of Mathew Maule descends on seven generations of the inhabitants of an old New England house.
The Blithedale Romance
1852
Abjuring the city for a pastoral life, a group of utopians set out to reform a dissipated America.
Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales
1998
A selection of tales written between the 1830s and 50s.
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