Historytelling: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The House of Seven Gables"

This is a brief bit about “The House of Seven Gables”, published 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second major novel, a follow-up to his stupendous “Scarlet Letter” (1850), which was, in many ways, a complex and troubling novel. “The House of Seven Gables” is a smooth read, by comparison. It is, by all accounts, a straight Gothic novel, combining a pleasurable amount of horror, melodrama and romance in a book that combines many of Hawthorne’s favorite concerns. After finishing “The Scarlet Letter”, which famously gave Mrs. Hawthorne a headache, he managed to streamline his concerns into one focused well-paced novel. Among the central issues is the one that dwarfs them all: genealogy. Hawthorne is almost obsessively concerned with continuance and discontinuance in American culture. His central image is the eponymous House, built by a Puritan called Colonel Pyncheon (yes, related) upon a plot of land stolen from a simple farmer called Matthew Maule in the 1600s.

In order to get his hands on the property, Colonel Pyncheon accused Maule of witchcraft and had him hung. A few years later he had a mansion built on that property. There is a powerful line of thought in Hawthorne’s work about disenfranchisement and related issues. He is often reproached for ‘whitening’ his characters, thereby blanking out one of the most pressing issues of his day: the Fugitive Slave Law. As I have argued in my most recent (botched?) exams, this line of attack is based on poor reading skills. Hawthorne’s two major novels are almost claustrophobically dense constructs that develop their own points of reference; Hawthorne is a writer who is surprisingly close to Melville in that regard. Although most books will tell you how to read them, the two novels I speak of seem, at times, to develop a language of their own. As an aside, I think this is a reason why both Melville and Hawthorne often sound like awkward writers. I think that, at times, both are writers who, sometimes, do not have a literary tradition to fall back on because what they have to say has not been said before. This is, however, not as much the case for “The House of the Seven Gables”.

So this novel, unlike “The Scarlet Letter”, smooths its ideas into a clear narrative, grounded in one of the dominant genres of English literature. Thus, the disenfranchised are afforded their revenge and everyone accepts that in a matter-of-fact way: after the Colonel died when the house was finished, it was generally understood that the house and the hereditary line of the Pyncheons (i.e. the House in the literal and figurative sense!) were cursed; from then on, several Pyncheons dying an unexplained and sudden death, as people foretold:

[T]hey . . . hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. . . . The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

We are never told who or what killed them, but what we are left with is the suspicion that their deaths were neither accidental nor natural, but results of that curse. This suspended explanation, very much in line with the Gothic genre, accounts for much of the suspense and intrigue that made this novel so popular in its day and that ensures its readability today.

Since we are never apprised of what, exactly, is killing the Pyncheons, we are left to our own devices and turn to the two houses for guidance. The blood line of the family is cursed, but that curse is, in a way, bound to the seven-gabled edifice. As we learn further on in the novel, the house itself has been built by Thomas Maule, the grandson of the swindled and murdered Matthew Maule. The book is pervaded by a suspicion: has Maule, the grandson, constructed this house in a way that could and would harm the Pyncheons? An even later descendant of the Maule line, Matthew Maule (the younger), opts for a more overt way of harming the house: he mesmerizes Alice, the daughter of Gervayse Pyncheon, who was then heading both the literal and figurative house, and, accidentally, kills her. So what we have are two blood lines, which are inimical to each other. The Maule family is an invisible enemy, flitting in and out of the Pyncheon family history like a ghost, sometimes surfacing to wreak damage, only to disappear again.

The ghostliness of the Maules is due to the fact that we see history, naturally, only through the eyes of the Pyncheons. They represent the dominant powers in America: they own land, have houses built there and they, most importantly, wield political power. Owning land, and controlling what’s built upon that land and being in control of the judiciary, to wit: of the means of punishment and discipline, does not, however, ensure complete dominance. The Maule family represents a force of resistance; their power derives from their control of knowledge. We have the paradoxical situation that the mighty Pyncheons are crippled by the fact that this small element eludes them. That the dominance of the Pyncheon family comes to an end at the time the story takes place, which we can safely assume to be roughly contemporary to Hawthorne’s publication of the novel, is salient, as we witness a shift in the power balances in the world at large.

To provide a brief overview on the plot: an old, nearsighted woman named Hepzibah, who lives in the Pyncheon residence and who is wearing a perpetual scowl, is forced to open a small store in the venerable “House of the Seven Gables”, to keep from starving. She even has to turn front windows into shop windows. The implications such a transformation has, are innumerable. As a true Pyncheon spawn, Hepzibah considers this change a source of great shame; she is able to go through with it because of the support of some neighbors and of Holgrave, Hepzibah’s rebellious young lodger, who is by profession a daguerrotypist. Although Hepzibah tries her best, her scowling face frightens customers and makes for bad business. On the day that she opens her shop, Hepzibah receives a visit from Phoebe, a young cousin from an extended branch of the Pyncheons. At first, Hepzibah worries that Phoebe will upset Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, who is returning home from prison. Through her charm and her success with the customers, Phoebe convinces Hepzibah to let her stay.

Clifford is one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. He returns from prison where he has been imprisoned on false charges. He is severely disturbed, so much he seems almost imbecilic at times. His jail time has completely broken him, but meeting Phoebe calms him. Clifford may have reached rock bottom, but his first concern upon returning is complaining about the transformation of the Pyncheon estate. Clifford and Hepzibah are marginalized in their family yet being part of that house comes with certain estimations and concerns. The current head of the family, however, is Judge Pyncheon, who bears uncanny resemblance to Colonel Pyncheon, whose picture is still hanging prominently in the mansion. Judge Pyncheon inspires a wave of blind fear in Clifford, who flees his relative in terror, hiding in a back room. The Judge is very amenable, very charismatic, he greets Hepzibah with warmth and offers her financial support. But, as with the house, which rots invisibly from the deed of their ancestor, the Judge’s facade hides a moral rot. He is, as they say, a bad apple.

Hawthorne explores the house/character parallel extensively:

[A]n individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man’s character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!… [I]n some low and obscure nook . . . may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it; for it has long been his daily breath! . . . Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses, to his life. The novel suggests that this corpse, in Judge Pyncheon’s character, is part of the inheritance.

By coupling it with the house, which is representative of a certain power constellation, as outlined before, he goes beyond simple genealogical concerns and turns to what Nietzsche would later term the genealogical method, by which we don’t look at the way ideas and things change in time but at the circumstances, structures and institutions which have induced that change. Hawthorne’s novel is not a realistic novel, it’s characters and incidents down to every single mentioned object are injected into the book to display exactly these circumstances, structures and institutions. Hawthorne may not be a subtle writer, but the way he manages to make use of everything in his books, is impressive beyond words. Reading a book like “The Scarlet Letter” is more like having someone take a swing to you than appreciating a fine portrait, but the power Hawthorne’s swings carry is rare.

As the novel heads towards catastrophe and resolution, we find out that a descendant of the Maule family has been hiding among us all a long and we find that to end the curse is to abandon the house, to turn to new structures. Although Hawthorne himself was never a strong supporter and later even resented it (despite having been a founding member), it’s hard not to think of Brook Farm here and the philosophy of Charles Fourier. However, rereading “The House of Seven Gables”, I also found that the failure of projects like that has also been written into the novel. We hear Holgrave’s entreaty to start anew

“[I]t will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word! . . . We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!”

but new things do not just materialize, they develop from old things, through new circumstances. So how much has changed? As the good guys walk off into the sunset, we find that things have but been rearranged. Those who have held knowledge still hold it and the financial imbalance between the figurative houses has not changed either. The literal house has been abandoned and the Judge, representative of the culture belonging to the house. The new culture, in other words, may look different, and be more fluid in the way that it works, it is no longer rooted in the same earth, but the power structure is still the same, basically. It’s what we all notice when we step outside and ask ourselves what decades of thought and rebellion have changed. Is there something rotting in us? Doesn’t make you suffocate sometimes?

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