Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was an American novelist, one of the greatest this country has produced. His work is quintessentially American and so it is easy for me to agree with Evert Augustus Duyckinck when he said of American writers up to his time that Hawthorne was “the one least indebted to foreign models or literary precedents of any kind.” His work was influenced by Puritan morality and Romantic sensibility, yet contains deep, often dark, psychological underpinnings. Sometimes referred to as dark romanticism, Hawthorne’s works often portray humanity as sinful and evil, often with emphasis on one generation suffering from the sins of the previous. Hawthorne wrote many novels and short stories, the best known of which include The Scarlet Letter (published in 1850 and arguably one of the top few American novels of all time), Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), in addition to the book the reviewed here, The House of the Seven Gables (1851).
The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic novel which explores the concept and impact of the guilt of one generation passing down through subsequent generations. As Hawthorne states in his preface, “the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones and… becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” Hawthorne has the third-person omniscient narrator tell the reader that “the act of the passing generation is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit, in a far distant time.” The narrator also tells us later in the story as Phoebe thinks about the Judge and the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon (both of whom described below) that:
It implied that the weaknesses and defects, the bad passions, the mean tendencies, and the moral diseases, which lead to crime, are handed down from one generation to another, by a far surer process of transmission than human law has been able to establish, in respect to the riches and honors which it seeks to entail upon posterity.
While Hawthorne uses suggestions of supernatural powers and witchcraft to add suspense and themes of retribution to the tale, it is not definitive that such things actually play a part in the ills that befall the later generations in his story. The curse which seems to haunt generations of the family Pyncheon could simply be a self-fulfilling prophecy as Hawthorn is clear on the greed and overreaching ambition that surround the ills that take place.
The house referred to in the title is a well-worn, dark and gloomy New England mansion built in the late 1600’s by a Colonel Pyncheon on land he acquired by apparently nefarious means. A local farmer named Matthew Maule had owned the land until he was put to death for witchcraft (perhaps with Colonel Pyncheon behind the conviction). On the scaffold, Maule curses Colonel Pyncheon. Colonel Pyncheon builds the mansion on what was Maule’s land, then dies suddenly on the day of a party celebrating the mansion being completed. A portrait of the Colonel remains a centerpiece of the house, seemingly to watch generations of Pyncheons fall prey to the same sins that brought him down.
The story opens with and centers around Hepzibah Pyncheon, an older, unmarried descendant of Colonel Pyncheon who is the current owner of the house. Though the family is part of the local aristocracy, she is destitute and has to open a cent-shop on the first floor of the house to make money to live and to support her brother Clifford. Clifford is nearly incapable of taking care of himself, having given up on life after serving 30 years in prison for the alleged murder of his uncle (he was innocent, framed by his cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon). Clifford is broken, and his mind fragile. Hawthorne’s description of his state sadly resonates with many who has older relatives with mental decay.
Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay than this loss or suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things, and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment…We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us.
A distant relative, Phoebe, comes to visit and adds cheer and life to Hepzibah, Clifford and the house itself. It is through Phoebe that atonement and redemption become possible. The garden comes to life through the works of Phoebe, as does Clifford, who Phoebe acts as caretaker. He often enjoys Phoebe reading to him, but nothing serious, and certainly not tragedy. The narrator states, “Is not the world sad enough, in genuine earnest, without making a pastime of mock-sorrows?”
A lodger at the house, named Holgrave, is writing a history of the Pyncheon family. It turns out he is a descendant of the original Matthew Maule (unknown to the others), but he falls in love with Phoebe and bears the family no ill-will. Holgrave is young, intelligent and confident.
Man’s own youth is the world’s youth; at least, he feels as if it were, and imagines that the earth’s granite substance is something not yet hardened, and which he can mould into whatever shape he likes.
He tells Phoebe the story of Alice Pyncheon – the ghost of whom is thought to haunt the house. In life, Alice’s father had an insatiable ambition to find a lost land deed that would make him rich. A carpenter, Matthew Maule, grandson of the original Maule hanged for witchcraft, falls in love with Alice and she rejects him. Maule, tricking Alice’s father into thinking she knows where the deed is but needs to be hypnotized to recall, puts her into a deep trance subject at any time to Maule’s commands. Maule uses this power to humiliate her constantly and she dies of shame.
Holgrave makes many wise or seemingly wise statements throughout the book, including telling Phoebe:
Our first youth is of no value; for we are never conscious of it, until after it is gone. But sometimes—always, I suspect, unless one is exceedingly unfortunate–there comes a sense of a second youth, gushing out of the heart’s joy at being in love; or, possibly, it may come to crown some other grand festival in life, if any such other there be. This bemoaning of one’s self (as you do now) over the first, careless, shallow gayety of youth departed, and this profound happiness at youth regained,– so much deeper and richer than that we lost,–are essential to the soul’s development.
Another statement of Holgrave’s that I find very true is:
I find nothing so singular in life, as that everything appears to lose its substance, the instantly one actually grapples with it.
Holgrave often philosophizes, this one striking me as a deeply conservative statement of human progress:
…all human progress is a circle…While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we know find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future.
Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, a successful, powerful and wealthy judge, cousin of Clifford, is the bane of Hepzibah and Clifford.
It is very queer, but not the less true, that people are generally quite as vain, or even more so, of their deficiencies, than of their available gifts…
He is in appearance and character a near replica of the “original” Colonel Pyncheon. Hawthorne describes him in a manner familiar with anyone who follows politicians come election season:
As is customary with the rich, when they aim at the honors of the republic, he apologized, as it were, to the people, for his wealth, prosperity, and the elevated station, by a free and hearty manner towards those who knew him; putting off the more of his dignity, in due proportion with the humbleness of the man whom he saluted, and thereby proving a haughty consciousness of his advantages as irrefragably as if he had marched forth preceded by a troop of lackeys to clear the way.
Judge Pyncheon is unrelenting in his ambition to find the same lost land deed mentioned earlier, one that would bring a huge new source of wealth to him. He is convinced that Clifford holds the secret as to its whereabouts. Judge Pyncheon is about to threaten to have Clifford committed to an insane asylum if he does not disclose its whereabouts, but Hepzibah and Clifford escape on a train, and the judge mysteriously dies in the same chair as that which Colonel Pyncheon died in.
We, that are alive, may rise betimes tomorrow. As for him that has died today, his morrow will be the resurrection morn.
Throughout the story, the house referred to in the title The House of the Seven Gables stands as a character in itself, symbolizing the spiritual and moral decay that the Pyncheon family suffers. As Holgrave would say, the Pyncheon’s “planted” themselves in tainted soil and, as such, were prisoners of their own making.
For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailor so inexorable as one’s self!
The house stands as a reminder that becoming too embedded in the past is dangerous and foolhardy. Holgrave states his belief that each successive generation should tear down old structures and replace them with new. The family finally leaves the house for a better life, free of the curse of the past.
One aside. I find Hawthorne’s writing marvelous, the book littered with witticisms. The following seems straight out of Shakespeare, and is worth thinking about.
Possibly some cynic, at once merry and bitter, had desired to signify, in this pantomimic scene that we mortals, whatever our business or amusement,–however serious, however trifling, –all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass.
The 1935 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition of The House of Seven Gables is classic LEC in form and substance, though I think it had to be a slight design disappointment. While I am a huge fan of illustrator Valenti Angelo, his work in this edition is only marginally good, in my opinion. Stylistically it is much different from his more famous LEC works, though it is not that which I complain about. Though somewhat ghostly in appearance, I find his illustrations in this edition somewhat lacking in depth and soul (if you will), not quite reflecting the darkness of sin nor the light of absolution. Having said that, they are attractively done and a nice match for the type and scale of the book. The half-calfskin binding with marbled paper sides makes a very nice binding (albeit mine as shown below has lost some of its luster). Worth mentioning, the introduction by noted literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks is excellent.
About the Edition
- Designed and printed by Edmund B. Thompson at Hawthorn House, Windham, Connecticut
- Illustrated with linoleum cuts in color by Valenti Angelo
- Introduction by Van Wyck Brooks
- Hand-set in Bulmer type
- Worthy special paper
- Bound by George McKibbin & Son, New York, in half-polished black calfskin, stamped with genuine palladium, marbled paper sides
- 432 pages, 6″ x 9 3/8″
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Valenti Angelo
Pictures of the Edition
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