On Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables

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I finished reading The House of the Seven Gables a night or so ago and have allowed myself time to crystallize some thoughts.

Hawthorne never claimed to write novels. He referred to all of his works as romances. This puzzles me, because it is hard to make The Scarlet Letter into a romance unless we view it as an ultimately failed romance. However, he was quite accurate as to the characterization in the sense that the characters in the novels never quite behave as real characters, but take on a fairy-tale like dimension in which they act some role to fulfill a purpose.

So in Seven Gables we have five main characters--Hepzibah, Phoebe, Clifford, Judge Pyncheon, and Holford (or Holworth or something like that--a Daguerreotypist). In addition there is a scattering of other characters--a young boy who patronizes Hepzibah's shop to the point nearly of terrorizing her.

Hepzibah and Clifford live in Seven Gables, a house of ill omen which is said to have brought about the deaths of several residents. Judge Pyncheon has actually inherited the vast majority of the other wealth once associated with the house and is out to get more. Phoebe is some sort of semi-detached cousin who floats in to start up a romance with the Daguerreotypist.

The novel suffers a bit from excesses. There is an entire chapter devoted to exhorting a dead man to rise from his chair and kind of looking at the ghosts that pass parade-like around him. There is a subplot involving mesmerism and of course the obligatory curse from the past that has come to roost on the present family.

What is most remarkable about the novel, despite its divergences from what we commonly consider the novelist endeavor, is how readable and how interesting it really is. I took quite a while to get through it because I read in fits and starts according to mood. This book requires a sustained reading and I am sure the atmosphere would be powerful and interesting. This is what Hawthorne excels at --atmosphere. But also, unexpectedly, he has a penchant for a dry and subtle sort of humor. Take for example this scene from very early on in the book:

IT still lacked 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 mockery to term the adornment of her person. Far from us be the indecorum of assisting, even in imagination, at a maiden lady's toilet! Our story must therefore await Miss Hepzibah at the threshold of her chamber; only presuming, meanwhile, to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint as to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody save a disembodied listener like ourself. . . .

The maiden lady's devotions are concluded. Will she now issue forth over the threshold of our story? Not yet, by many moments. First, every drawer in the tall, old-fashioned bureau is to be opened, with difficulty, and with a succession of spasmodic jerks then, all must close again, with the same fidgety reluctance. There is a rustling of stiff silks; a tread of backward and forward footsteps to and fro across the chamber. We suspect Miss Hepzibah, moreover, of taking a step upward into a chair, in order to give heedful regard to her appearance on all sides, and at full length, in the oval, dingy-framed toilet-glass, that hangs above her table. Truly! well, indeed! who would have thought it! Is all this precious time to be lavished on the matutinal repair and beautifying of an elderly person, who never goes abroad, whom nobody ever visits, and from whom, when she shall have done her utmost, it were the best charity to turn one's eyes another way?

There is a sly current under this, an amusing undertone that sets certain expectations for the book that certainly are fulfilled.

Everyone should spend some time with the old books. For every modern piece read C.S. Lewis suggested that one of some vintage should be consumed to counterbalance our chronological chauvinism. If you are in the market for such an adventure--you could do much worse than to spend some time in The House of the Seven Gables

Next Report likely to be Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather's masterpiece of the Southwest.

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A wonderful excerpt, Mr. Riddle. Thank you. And you're quite right that Hawthorne's gift for conveying atmosphere is one of his principal strengths.

I remember visiting The House in Salem when in my 'teens and being disappointed that it wasn't hemmed in by shrubs and overhung by creaking limbs in the way that I'd imagined it. I wonder now, though, whether that image owed as much to the novel as to the Vincent Price vehicle.

Grace and peace.

I will put this on my reading list. I have never read any of his works but was intrigued by the fact that his daughter, Rose Hawthorne, started the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.


I'm not sure whether you're punning. As Hawthorne implied in the preface to Seven Gables, he didn't mean "romance" as we think of the term now (romantic love), but rather the atmosphere and the fancy... almost fantasy... of the thing.

Anyway, if you like Hawthorne's "amusing undertone," I highly recommend his complete short stories. They really are great (and I've often said that priests could derive a career's worth of homilies from them). I'm biased, but I like his other two novels, as well, although perhaps The Marble Faun a little more than The Blithesdale Romance.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 5, 2003 8:10 AM.

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