Title: The House of the Seven Gables
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1981, text of the original 1851 edition
For a plot summary.
“Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word!”[i]
A family curse that follows each succeeding generation. A beautiful house filled with the history of death, to which a penniless spinster barely hangs on and is finally redeemed by the presence of youth and love. I thoroughly enjoyed this book dated, thick, wordy prose and all!
Halfway down a bystreet of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon elm.[ii]
If I could sum up in one word my overall impression of The House of the Seven Gables, I would use the word dense. All the actions that make up this second of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s more well-known books are dense: the characters, the house, the individual storylines and general narrative of the novel are filled with minute, detailed, descriptions that sprawl over the page in thick paragraphs. But this is an observation, not a criticism, because I enjoyed the novel for precisely this reason. If I were to find myself transported to this little village, I think I would see, hear and smell everything!
Hawthorne introduces us to the sensibility of the book in his Preface, telling us pointedly how we are to approach the story:
The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romanic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure, may either disregard, or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect. The narrative, it may be, is woven of so humble a texture as to require this advantage, and at the same time, to render it the more difficult of attainment.[iii]
Favorite scenes, passages and quotes:
When Hepzibah is first introduced she is Romanticism as Hawthorne defined above, a symbol of this “bygone time.”
It still lacked a half an hour of sunrise, when Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon—we will not say awoke, it being doubtful whether the poor lady had so much as closed her eyes during the brief night of midsummer—but, at all events, arose from her solitary pillow, and began what it would be a mockery to term the adornment of her person….The Old Maid was alone in the old house….Inaudible, were poor Miss Hepzibah’s gusty sighs. Inaudible the creaking joints of her stiffened knees, as she knelt down by the bedside. And inaudible, too, by mortal ear, but heard with all-comprehending love and pity in the farthest heaven, that almost agony of prayer—now whispered, now a groan, now a struggling silence—wherewith she besought the Divine assistance through the day![iv]
I like this passage that describes Phoebe’s first breakfast in the house, so meticulously illustrated, that our eyes and nostrils are intimately knowledgeable about what we can expect to eat and experience.
Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly arranged and well-provisioned breakfast table….Hepzibah’s small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs, and covered with a cloth of the richest damask, looked worthy to be the scene and center of one of the cheerfulest of parties. The vapor of the broiled fish arose like incense from the shrine of a barbarian idol, while the fragrance of the Mocha might have gratified the nostrils of a tutelary Lar, or whatever power has scope over a modern breakfast table. Phoebe’s Indian cakes were the sweetest offering of all—in their hue befitting the rustic altars of the innocent and golden age…The butter must not be forgotten—butter which Phoebe herself had churned, in her own rural home—smelling of clover blossoms, and diffusing the charm of pastoral scenery through the dark-paneled parlor.[v]
One of the more curious chapters in the book was told as a story by Hargrove, the daguerreotypist and Hepzibah’s boarder, to Phoebe her young cousin who comes to live at the house. Hargrove is both an artist and a writer and as he became familiar with the history of the house and family has written an account of a missing document that would grant the present owner of the house the empty land that borders the house on the east.
In the story, young Matthew Maule, grandson of the original owner of the land who was hanged on the charge of witchcraft so that the first Pyncheon, the Old Colonel could have the land to build the seven-gabled house, is summoned by the present Pyncheon to see if he has any knowledge of this land document. Matthew is aware of its existence, but claims he doesn’t know its location. He decides to trick Pyncheon by a display of mesmerism, the rage of the day, with Pyncheon’s daughter Alice as she is “a clear, crystal medium of a pure and virgin intelligence.”[vi] In short, while Pyncheon is otherwise distracted, Maule hypnotizes her in order find the document.
It appears to have been his object to concert the mind of Alice in to a kind of telescopic medium, through which Mr. Pyncheon and himself might obtain a glimpse into the spiritual world. He succeeded, accordingly, in holding an imperfect sort of intercourse, at one remove, with the departed personages in whose custody the so much valued secret had been carried beyond the precincts of earth.[vii]
In Alice’s vision, she sees three departed souls with knowledge of the document and one turns to the front to present it, but is over-taken by the remaining men, who are so loud in their jeering and mocking of Pyncheon that he could hear them! But alas for poor Alice, Maule never completely removes the spell and she becomes his slave, at his beck and call for the rest of her short life.
Maule had but to wave his hand; and, wherever the proud lady chanced to be—whether in her chamber, or entertaining her father’s stately guests, or worshiping at church—whatever her place of occupation, her spirit passed from beneath her own control, and bowed itself to Maule, “Alice, laugh!” [he] would say;… “Alice, be sad!” and, at the instant, down would come her tears,…. “Alice, dance!” and dance she would.[viii]
This story could stand alone in a short story collection. It was really fascinating and fun to read. And I am sure it would have gone over well during Hawthorne’s times when mesmerism, spiritualism and mediums of all stripes made their entrance in parlors and seances all over New England!
The house itself is really a main character as the origin of the curse that has infected each generation living under its precisely placed gables; the symbol of all the evils of the family because it was obtained through murder and deception. Hawthorne uses Hargrove and Clifford, Hepzibah’s brother, as critics of the sins that generational wealth leaves on succeeding family members.
But we shall live to see the day, I trust, when no man shall build his house for posterity…If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices—our capitols, state houses, courthouses, city hall, and churches—ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.[ix]
It is clear to me as sunshine…that the greatest possible stumbling blocks in the path of human happiness and improvements are these heaps of bricks and stones consolidated with mortar, or hewn timber, fastened together with spike nails, which men painfully contrive for their own torment and call them house and home! The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousandfold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.[x]
Ouch. Family drama symbolized by physical inheritance as well as what comes down the genetic pike and how one can break free of the past. This seems a rather modern bit of psychological insight. Who would have thought, (not me!) that beneath a not so original story of a family curse would have within its depth a societal rallying of the corruptness of wealth and family privilege?
But this makes me want to know more about Nathaniel Hawthorne, because I think there is more here than just a good, old-fashioned story.