The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
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October 14, 2011

Time, and a house: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

There is a certain house within my familiar recollection — one of those peaked-gable, (there are seven of them), projecting-storied edifices, such as you occasionally see, in our elder towns — a rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, damp-rotted, dingy, dark, and miserable old dungeon, with an arched window over the porch, and a little shop-door on one side, and a great melancholy elm before it.

I had two wonderful professors in college who helped me fall in love with a long span of American literature, and to enjoy it in its cultural (not just literary) contexts. I know we read The Scarlet Letter, and The Blithedale Romance, and some of the short stories, and I can distantly remember a little of what they taught me about Hawthorne, and about what made his writing distinctive, and great, but I never fell for him the way I did for Henry James or Edith Wharton. In any event, I haven’t read Hawthorne since then, and I’m reading The House of the Seven Gables, now, for the first time.

There’s so much in it that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s one of those books that you might know, or think you know, something about, without ever having read it, and I chose it for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VI because I think of it as having something to do with a curse and a creepy old house. {Then — lucky me! — Frances offered to read it with me, and brought together a wonderful group of readers to join us. We’re planning to post our thoughts on the book today, and visit each other over the weekend to see what everyone else thinks.}

The House of the Seven Gables, antique as it now looks, was not the first habitation, erected by civilized man, on precisely the same spot of ground. … A natural spring of soft and pleasant water — a rare treasure on the sea-girt peninsula, where the Puritan settlement was made — had early induced Matthew Maule to build a hut, shaggy with thatch, at this point, although somewhat too remote from what was then the centre of the village. In the growth of the town, however, after some thirty or forty years, the site covered by this rude hovel had become exceedingly desirable in the eyes of a prominent and powerful personage, who asserted plausible claims to the proprietorship of this, and a large adjacent tract of land, on the strength of a grant from the legislature. Colonel Pyncheon, the claimant, as we gather from whatever traits of him are preserved, was characterized by an iron energy of purpose. … No written record of this dispute is known to be in existence. Our acquaintance with the whole subject is derived chiefly from tradition.
This is significant, because the dispute is only resolved when Matthew Maule is executed for witchcraft, with Colonel Pyncheon remembered, ‘in after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided, for ‘the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation.’ When Maule is brought to the gallows, he curses Colonel Pyncheon {‘God will give him blood to drink!’ — I remembered that part, too!}, and when the Colonel builds his new house on the same spot, and invites the whole town to a festive consecration, he comes to a ‘sudden and mysterious end.’ The Pyncheon family becomes embroiled in another dispute over land and wealth and, generations later, there is an almost forgotten murder that sends a young man, Clifford Pyncheon, to prison.

The second chapter begins 160 years later, in Hawthorne’s present. Hepzibah Pyncheon, an ‘antiquated, poverty-stricken, old maiden lady,’ the current resident of the house, is forcing herself to abandon her claims to gentility and open a shop in a long-unused room of the house. Hepzibah is a wonderful character (and one that Hawthorne seems to like, even while he exposes her foibles), and the scenes in the shop, almost funny ones, changed my expectations for the book. Hepzibah is also preparing for another significant event: the return of Clifford, her brother, after 30 years of imprisonment. In between, she gets an unexpected visit from her young cousin Phoebe, a beautiful, young country girl who helps in the shop and brings light and air into the dark and crumbling house (with symbolism gone wild).

It seems like the whole first half of the book (or a little more than half) is taken up with setting the scene {both the setting and the tone} for what happens later. Two other significant characters are introduced: Holgrave, a young daguerrotypist and social reformer who lodges in one of the seven gables, and Judge Pyncheon, another cousin, the current owner of the house and a person of stature and wealth. There’s a sudden shift in the story in Chapter 13, as Holgrave tells Phoebe that he is also a writer, and reads her the story of a meeting, 70 years earlier, also wrapped in wizardry and greed, between another Matthew Maule, the grandson of the first one, and Alice Pyncheon, ‘the beautiful daughter, the gentle, yet too haughty’ daughter of an earlier Pyncheon. Holgrave is mortified when Phoebe falls asleep, though she insists that she has ‘had an impression of a vast deal of trouble and calamity,’ and that his story will sell very well. There’s more of the haunting/ghostly story-telling here, and you have to read this chapter closely to understand what happens to them. Is it more scene-setting, or a possible explanation for the ghostly music and flowers attributed to Alice later, or another parallel to what happened earlier and will happen next, or a comment by Hawthorne on his own writing? Or all four?  There's ambiguity in what happens here, and later (remembering that from my college lectures, and a memorable final exam involving cupcakes, as a trait in Hawthorne's writing).

Hepzibah and Clifford are imprisoned in the house, caught by the past and their literal inability to engage with the present. There is a very moving scene where they decide to go to church, and find themselves incapable of walking out the front door, and another where Clifford stands in a high, arched window, looking out at the busy street, and is almost pushed or pulled ‘into the surging stream of human sympathies’ below him.

What does happen next (plot-wise) is that Judge Pyncheon calls on Clifford to insist that he tell the Judge what he knows about some missing papers that will settle the long-running questions over land ownership and wealth, and to threaten him if he doesn’t. There is a late summer storm, and Clifford and Hepzibah are seen leaving the house. But in another strange chapter, with another wild shift of perspective, the author questions why Judge Pyncheon, who has places to go and people to see, is still sitting in his ancestor’s heavy oaken chair.

The end of the book reads almost (to my modern eyes, and probably not to readers of the time) like a contemporary mystery: a hidden identity is revealed, strange events are explained as ordinary and understandable, and a murder is solved (in one of the many ways a murder can be solved). 

It almost goes without saying that the grip of the past, and the grip of the house, are the two most important things in the book. I remember reading that Hawthorne had an ancestor who was a judge at the Salem witch trials, and that he changed his name {from Hathorne} to distance himself from what had happened.  With the exception of the long walk and the train ride that Hepzibah and Clifford take at the end of the book, everything that happens in The House of the Seven Gables happens in The House of the Seven Gables, and {this isn't an original observation, not at all) the building becomes a character in the book. We look at it on almost every page, in the interiors or from the outside, through the windows, in the garden, in different light and in different weather, in different centuries, with sounds and shadows and food and domestic details. That's a very appealing part of the book for me. I brought home a couple of Hawthorne biographies from the library to choose one to read, and (maybe because I'm interested in antique needlework} I liked this note in one of them:

Nearsighted, old, her fingers and her voice 'tremulous,' Hepzibah Pyncheon...looks one day at her fifty-year-old sampler with 'some of the most recondite specimens of ornamental needlework.' She sighs one of her endless sighs, almost the only sound ever heard inside the walls of the ancient house where for thirty years she has lived alone.
      If The Scarlet Letter is a majestic, stately structured tapestry worthy of Hester's skills and vision, The House of the Seven Gables resembles that charming product of a domestic art, the sampler which glorified home, family and simple virtues and their custodians., the American women, embroidered in a 'peaceable kingdom; in which, as in Hawthorne's romance, there are robins in a pear tree, a chanticleer with two scrawny hens, roses, and a house with seven asymmetrical gables.
from Salem Is My Dwelling Place:  A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne,
by Edwin Haviland Miller

As a reader, I loved many parts of the book, but not all of it. Hawthorne told his publisher that he was bewildered at times, as he was writing, about what to do next, and there’s almost the sense that he is experimenting with styles and effects, as he works his way forward.

I still want to know more about Hawthorne as a person {I think he's fascinating}, and to remember more about him as a writer. I'm looking forward to seeing what our readers fellow readers thought of the book. I've been collecting links to their posts here.


Frances said...

Really like your observation about the ending being almost a reveal or mystery of sorts. What I really enjoy about the work, like with all great mysteries, is that most of the answers were there all along and the errors or misconceptions were based upon skewed perceptions - internal, individualized perceptions. Thanks so much for suggesting this! I am going to hang back a little to see what everyone else has to say as the day goes on.

Julia said...

About the ending: When I closed the book, the first thought that came to mind was that Hawthorne had deconstructed his own novel-- er, romance! I almost wrote my review on this aspect, but I have too little understanding of deconstruction. Hawthorne did seem to be revealing contradictions. For example, Holgrave says: "I represent the old wizard, and am probably as much a wizard as he was." Thanks for the invitation to revisit this wonderful book.

FleurFisher said...

I'm still reeling, as there was so much more than I expected in what seemed like a simple, little book. I've written a little, to get it out of my system, but I expect to ponder it for some time and maybe come back to it again one day.

Lisa said...

You did a great job of summarizing the plot, especially the role of the house - and the later chapters, which you manage without spoilers! which was beyond me.

JoAnn said...

Wharton and James are much more my style, too. The book seemed to read like a mystery that took forever to set up. The house as character aspect was fun, but Hepzibah and Clifford were my favorites. Many enjoyable moments, but overall The House of the Seven Gables didn't do much for me. Glad I finally read this one - thanks for hosting!

Lisa said...

I forgot to say that my edition didn't have any information about the author, an editor's introduction, or any notes - so I didn't know about his Hathorne ancestor involved in the witch trials. His own Puirtan heritage is an interesting context for both this and The Scarlet Letter.

Richard said...

After reading your post, Audrey, I have to confess that I liked the descriptions of the house better than the descriptions of the characters in the novel. Didn't care for the characterization at all. For me, the ending was like a modern mystery as you suggest but it was also an example of Hawthorne trying to have it both ways as an author: to present a fantastic tale with rational explanations possible (even if some of them involved mesmerism). It wasn't quite a happy blend for me, but in high school and college The Scarlet Letter was a big fave of mine--so I have to thank you and Frances for motivating me to get reacquainted with the guy. Thanks for cohosting the group read!

Anonymous said...

I did not quite finish the book in time to take part in the weekend event, but on finishing I was not very pleased with it overall. Your point about the long, long set-up says it well.

Kailana said...

I have been meaning to read this for YEARS! Still haven't. It is really too bad... I have only read The Scarlet Letter, which I really enjoyed.

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