The Christmas Banquet, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Who is this impassive man? We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is credible and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!

 

xmasbanquetThis is one of the oddest Christmas stories I’ve come across. There is nothing warm and fuzzy, or “feel good” to lend this story any kind of familiarity of tales typical of the season. While I will say the body of the short story involves some philosophic contemplation the ending is confusing enough to leave one with the question, “what just happened?”

The premise involves a wealthy man and his last will and testament. He has bequeathed a yearly Christmas dinner at his home and has charged two stewards with care of the guests. Their task is to find the ten most miserable people in the city and invite them to spend Christmas together; their misery is proof that even on this holiest day of hope sadness, bad luck, emotional, financial and physical pain still exists.

That the pitiful group assembles in a dining room looking more fit for a funeral than a Christmas dinner is not by accident. This dinner is the deceased’s protest against those religions that find “sunshine in the world.” As such, the dining room is lit by torches and hung with dusky purple curtains and wreaths of artificial flowers like those strewn over the dead.

The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards…forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head.

Was the skeleton at skeletonthe head of this table shrouded in a black mantle the benefactor of the dinner? The narrator tells us that one of the stipulations of the testator is that he be present and permitted to sit with his guests. And if the banqueters want to lift the veil in hopes of some answer to the age old question regarding life after death, his open and staring eye sockets would make the answer clear.

Included in the decorations is a wreath. The stewards say it is designed to crown the guest with the “wofullest” story. The conversations and introductions begin and we see representatives of all those who will appear at the dinners to come. The invitees suffer from depression, chronic diseases of the heart and other organs of the body; there are hypochondriacs, and those whose disappointments in life have created obsessions of murder and treachery against their neighbor; one lamentable soul feels he was born with a message for humanity, but doesn’t have the confidence to say it; a woman with the slightest defect in her eye which so affronts her ideal of perfection that she feels compelled to hide herself away in solitude.

The last guest walks in and whatever malady he is suffering from is not apparent causing suspicion and consternation among the others. He is young, healthy, successful and looking more suited to a merrier holiday table. Some of the guests want to know why the dead founder doesn’t shake his skeleton finger at Gervayse Hastings and point him the way out. The stewards assure them of his right to be there saying only, “not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”

As the years pass the Christmas dinners continue without a repeating guest–there is that much misery in the world. There is sometimes an instant after each tells their story that a momentary gleam of inner light descends upon the speaker and the physical or emotional malady ceases in some kind of understanding. But the moment is lost when one of the more cynical of the group breaks the spell in laughter or rude comment.

It is not quite true there were no repeat guests. Gervayse Hastings was invited every year. And as the decades passed and he aged physically his vitality was retained and he was still met with same response. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?” It is true he is prosperous and in robust health with financial and personal success. But they notice a distance, a coldness that feels physical and makes them shrink from him, makes them draw back their hand extended in greeting.

Hastings is aware of this coldness of heart and how people respond. He tells them he feels nothing, that his heart is but a vapor and though from the outside people think he has everything, on the inside he is hollow. He feels no human emotion, not even toward those he should love. “Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow….” At the moment of this admission the ligaments of the skeleton come apart and the bones fall away. And as the guests take their eyes from the skeleton and back to Hastings, he has ceased to live. If only he could have “imbibed one human grief” he might have been saved.

Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.

And so ends this very Gothic Christmas story that feels straight out of Edgar Alan Poe!

 

My Thoughts

Last year I read Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol for the first time. This year I looked around my shelves for a Christmas story that wasn’t obvious or well-known and found this title in a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories and decided to take a look at it. I know from reading several of his novels he creates characters in turmoil, whose lives are dark and somber, though I didn’t expect those sensibilities in a Christmas story. But this one is classic dark and somber Hawthorne and I have to say it worked for me.

While the story itself is a little extreme, I do like the aspect of the story that describes the pain and suffering many people struggle with at this time of the year. They may seem like they have it all together, but in reality they are hurting as much as someone who is physically wounded. Hawthorne may have exaggerated the story to get this message across, but after close to 200 years his point is still relatable.

victorianxmas

Wishing everyone a merrier Christmas than what was experienced above!

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Title: The Christmas Banquet
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penquin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1844
Pages: 20

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Reading New England Challenge Wrap-Up

One of the highlights of my 2016 blogging year was participating in the Reading New England Challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review. I read 12 books from specified categories, including one from each New England state.

I only started book blogging the previous September and was still getting the lay of book-blogging land when I saw the announcement for the challenge. I thought it would be a good way to read some classics I’d missed along the way.

I could not have chosen a better first challenge. Not only did I finally read Little Women and The House of the Seven Gables, I forced myself to read a horror novel and a book by someone I’d never heard about. I even bought a map of New England to track where the books were set!

One of the benefits of doing a challenge like this is being introduced to writers with whom you are unfamiliar.  If you were to tell me when I started one of my favorite experiences would be reading the aforementioned horror story, I would have called you daft. Or, that The Country of the Pointed Firs, a book by an author I’d never heard of would end up my favorite book of the challenge, I’d have been stunned. But both are true. I will be reading more of H.P. Lovecraft next year (during daylight hours, of course 🙂 ) and I have already read a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) that was beautiful.

Other highlights for me: “Our Town,” Little Women, getting to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, discovering one of my favorite films “The Haunting” was based on a book, The Haunting of Hill House and enjoying it as much as the film, and while I had mixed feelings about A Separate Peace I now know why a close co-worker finds it to be his favorite book.

 

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Thank you, Lory, for all the work you put into this. It was a great experience with lasting effects!

Here is what I read:

January: New Hampshire
A Separate Peace John Knowles

February: Fiction
The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

March: Maine
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett

April: Poetry and Drama
Our Town Thornton Wilder Thornton Wilder

May: Vermont
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

June: Nonfiction
Hawthorne Henry James

July: Massachusetts
Little Women Louisa May Alcott

August: Children’s Books
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare

September: Rhode Island
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HP Lovecraft

October: Speculative Fiction and Mystery
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy

November: Connecticut
The Three Weissmanns of Westport Cathleen Schine

December: Readalong or free choice
Summer Edith Wharton

Hawthorne, Henry James (1879)

My Edition:hawthorne
Title: Hawthorne
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Device: Paperback
Year: Originally published, 1879. Published by Cornell U Press, 1997.
Pages: 145
For a plot summary

This is such an odd little book.

Like many people I enjoy reading comments and critiques from one writer about another. I relish the mention of a title or recitations of a sentence or two; when one well-known writer cites another and gives a passage some meaning in the context of a story. So when I saw this critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work by Henry James I was excited and intrigued.

James (1843-1916) wrote this as a contribution to the English Men of Letters series. He was the only American contributor and Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the only American subject. James wrote this in his mid thirties and had yet to publish much of his own great novels.

I have read several of Hawthorne’s novels—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and some short stories, but I have not read any Henry James. I have become particularly interested in Hawthorne and hope to read more of his work as well as those about him. So, while I came to this book a bit biased, I was not prepared for a James who was so patronizing, cutting, passive aggressive and snobby, and who seemed to be writing more about the provincialism of American culture and its inferiority to that of Europe using Hawthorne as an example, than of critiquing Hawthorne himself.

“…the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion. American civilization has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about.”(p. 2)

According to James it was a shame that Hawthorne wasn’t English, as his saunters and walks through a European wood and meeting men of a higher civilization would have “been a very different affair” in terms of his talent. America was missing all the points of reference that make for culture. In a famous list, James states the deficiencies of America that make it impossible to create culture. It has

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! (p. 34)

And on and on like this for most of the first half of the book. Realism, the technique James is known for is absent from Hawthorne’s work he states and chides him for, yet also admitting Hawthorne probably did not know what it was. I found myself thinking this book is more about James, who is critical of a life that is missing something, the deficiencies, rather than what is.

The Blithedale Romance is James’s first critique of a novel, which is Hawthorne’s account of his months spent at the experiment in community living, Brook Farm. James describes the book as admirable and picturesque. Most of what James writes about,  however, are the Transcendentalists, calling Henry Thoreau, “a delightful writer” and Emerson, the only “writer in whom the world at large has interested itself.” (p.66)

He does call The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne’s masterpiece, “and will continue to be, for other generations than ours….” (p. 87) Which sounds positive until he states, “Something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received…” From anywhere else, meaning all those other countries with sovereigns and courts and castles…Talk about a left-handed compliment. (p. 88)

It is often hard to follow James in this book. As soon as he compliments Hawthorne, there is always a caveat. “It cannot be too often repeated that Hawthorne was not a realist.” (p. 98) Yet, “He had a high sense of reality—his NoteBooks superabundantly testify to it…he never attempted to render exactly or closely the actual facts of the society that surrounded him.” (p. 98) The House of the Seven Gables for James was an ‘imaginative’ work. And that is up for debate, as this book must be one of the most detailed novels of period, setting and character of all time!

I confess I have not done research on James, which might bring some of his style and reason for writing this to light, as well as how this book was received when published and what is thought of it now. One of the unintended consequences is that it gave me a very negative view of James and will probably affect my future reading of his work. The word ‘jerk’ comes to mind, yet admittedly, the reason for his jerkiness is intriguing, which means I probably will at some point read more about him, as well as his novels…

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge

The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)

My Edition:Blithedale
Title: The Blithedale Romance
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Device: paper book
Year: 1852
Pages: 251
For a plot summary

 

It was our purpose…to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based.[i]

 

The Blithedale Romance is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s not so thinly based autobiographical account of his 8 months at Brook Farm, a socialist utopian community outside of Boston. The narrator is Miles Coverdale, a writer, who approaches this experiment with the expectation that the natural country air and physical labor of farm work will aid the writing projects he expects to do at night. And while we certainly get an idea of the workings of a utopian community, Hawthorne chooses to tell this story with that on the periphery.

Instead, The Blithedale Romance turns out to be more of a mystery novel centering on three characters Coverdale meets at the farm. The philanthropy-obsessed Hollingsworth who envisions building an institution for the reform of criminals on the Blithedale property; strong maternal Zenobia, whose early groundedness belies a future of intrigue and tragedy; and the wraith-like Priscilla who might not be of this world. Her entrance one night, unannounced, with the only goal that she is to serve Zenobia stymies everyone. Zenobia, is startled, but accepts this action as another sign underscoring the mystery of the romance of Blithedale.

Three quarters of the novel is about these three and their cryptic connections to each other that manifest as they busily pursue their utopian dreams. Their secret pasts and surprising familial connections are uncovered, one sinks further into insanity and sadly another commits suicide; strangers slink around the woods to ask questions first about Zenobia, then about Priscilla only to disappear; Zenobia tells the spell-binding story of the mysterious Veiled Lady, Coverdale almost dies of the flu and the city-slicker-turned-farmers almost ruin the community’s first seed-planting. So much for the peaceful pastoral life of a utopian society.

In fact, I was disappointed that Hawthorne told of his adventures in this way. I was hoping for more daily life, success and failures, the philosophical dream versus the reality of life, in utopia. I am with Henry James who although praised the novel also commented, “[I would] have liked to see the story concern itself more with the little community.”[ii]

While the stories of Zenobia, Hollingsworth and Priscilla are gripping at times and filled with pathos at others, they could have existed in myriad other settings removed from Blithedale farm. If Coverdale is a thinly disguised Hawthorne, am I to believe these characters and their trials and tribulations were HIS main focus? Ah well, I don’t like reviews that bemoan a book for not being about something else, so I will look for other sources about Brook Farm and its community.

On the positive side, Hawthorne IS a master at drawing fully formed characters, so in that regard, this novel does not disappoint. With all the shady folks moving in and out, the tale of the Veiled Lady, suspicious motivations and coincidental happenings, The Blithedale Romance would be a perfect read during the scary month of October!

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[i] p. 46
[ii] p. 14.

 

This book qualifies for Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.

 

The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

My Edition:
Title: The House of the Seven Gableshouse7b
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1981, text of the original 1851 edition
Pages: 245
For a plot summary.

My Thoughts:

“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.


 [i] p. 139.
[ii] p. 1.
[iii] p. vii.
[iv] p. 21.
[v] p. 74.
[vi] p. 153.
[vii] p. 158.
[viii] p. 160.
[ix] p. 140.
[x] p. 200.

I suppose this isn't everyone's idea of a beach book...:)
I suppose this isn’t everyone’s idea of a beach book…:)

This book was read for the Classics Club 5-year challenge.