Saturday, August 8, 2009

167. The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne

December 2008
History: Written in 1851. The Pyncheon family actually existed and were ancestors of American novelist Thomas Pynchon. The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts - today a museum accompanying a settlement house - was at one time owned by Hawthorne's cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, and she entertained him there often. Its seven-gabled state was known only to Hawthorne through childhood stories from his cousin and, at the time of his visits, he would have only seen three gables due to architectural renovations. Reportedly, Ingersoll inspired Hawthorne to write the novel, though Hawthorne also stated that the book was a work of complete fiction, based on no particular house.
Plot: The novel is set mainly in the mid-19th century, with glimpses into the history of the house, which was built in the late 17th century. The primary interest of this book is in the subtle and involved descriptions of character and motive.
The house of the title is a gloomy New England mansion, haunted from its foundation by fraudulent dealings, accusations of witchcraft, and sudden death. The current resident, the dignified but desperately poor Hepzibah Pyncheon, opens a shop in a side room to support her brother Clifford, who is about to leave prison after serving thirty years for murder. She refuses all assistance from her unpleasant wealthy cousin Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. A distant relative, the lively and pretty young Phoebe, turns up and quickly becomes invaluable, charming customers and rousing Clifford from depression. A delicate romance grows between Phoebe and the mysterious lodger Holgrave, who is writing a history of the Pyncheon family.
An organ grinder's visit disturbs the ex-convict's fragile grasp on reality. Judge Pyncheon threatens to have Clifford committed, but his true purpose is to gain access to the house to search for a lost land deed. Hepzibah and Clifford escape on a train (then a very modern form of transport) after the judge dies unexpectedly in the house. However, they soon return, to Phoebe's relief. Events from past and present throw light on the circumstances which sent Clifford to prison, proving his innocence. The novel ends with the characters leaving the old house to start a new life, free of the burdens of the past.
Review: The characters seem to be symbols for Hawthorne's theme more than full-bodied characters in their own right. The work is a somber study in hereditary sin based on the legend of a curse pronounced on Hawthorne's own family by a woman condemned to death during the infamous Salem witchcraft trials. The greed and arrogant pride of the novel's Pyncheon family through the generations is mirrored in the gloomy decay of their seven-gabled mansion, in which the family's enfeebled and impoverished relations live.
Opening Line: “Halfway down a by-street 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.”
Closing Line: “The Pyncheon-elm, moreover, with what foliage the September gale had spared to it, whispered unintelligible prophecies. And wise Uncle Venner, passing slowly from the ruinous porch, seemed to hear a strain of music, and fancied that sweet Alice Pyncheon -- after witnessing these deeds, this by-gone woe and this present happiness, of her kindred mortals -- had given one farewell touch of a spirit's joy upon her harpsichord, as she floated heavenward from the House of the Seven Gables.”
Quotes: “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. And, beneath the show of a marble palace, that pool of stagnant water, foul with many impurities, and perhaps tinged with blood-that secret abomination, above which, possibly, he may say his prayers, without remembering it-is this man's miserable soul!”
Rating: Very Good

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