Monday, September 29, 2014

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

As part of my R.I.P. activity this autumn season, I signed up for the House of the Seven Gables readalong being hosted by Michelle at Castle Macabre.  I approached the project with fear and trembling because, although I have enjoyed almost everything of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work that I have ever read, I knew that he is never a quick read.  And with everything that I customarily have going on in the fall, plus having signed on for the reading of four other books during the R.I.P. season – well, I knew this was going to be a challenge all by itself.  It was, but I paced myself and typically read a chapter a day, beginning on the second day of September.  The result?  I’ve finished it!  And I am glad I read it, but it’s by no means my favorite of Hawthorne’s works.
I am probably the last person in this or any other universe to have read The House of the Seven Gables, plus this is undoubtedly a book that many people have been forced to read, either as part of their high school or college studies.  Plus, Wikipedia (link).  So you don’t need me to say much if anything about the plot.
However, just in case you DO, here’s the Cliff Notes version of the Cliff Notes:
The Pyncheon family are the owners and builders of the massive, brooding house known as the House of the Seven Gables.  However, the house sits on land that originally belonged to a man named Matthew Maule, who was swindled out of the land by old Colonel Pyncheon, the stern and possibly evil progenitor of the family.  In a prefatory chapter, Hawthorne relates the events that set everything in motion in the novel.  Pyncheon wanted Maule’s land but Maule wouldn't consider any offer.  This went on for way longer than Pyncheon would have liked, so he finally accused Maule of being a witch and had him executed, which cleared the way for his landgrab.  However, before he died, Maule cursed the family with a curse that God would give them blood to drink, and as the novel develops, this curse is borne out in a variety of ways.
The story then fast forwards to the “present” (Hawthorne’s time, I suppose) and focuses on two Pyncheon descendants, Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, as well as a cousin, Phoebe, who comes to live with them in the house.  Hepzibah and Clifford are typical gloomy Pyncheons, with plenty of skeletons in their closets, but Phoebe is a breath of fresh air and gradually transforms the house, or at least its occupants.  There’s a dark cloud on the horizon, however, in the form of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, another cousin who has malevolent designs on the family members and does his best to be nasty to them, all in the guise of being concerned about his cousins.  He gets his in the end, thankfully for the reader’s sense of justice, and the chapter in which Hawthorne dwells on Jaffrey’s end and its aftermath struck me as a real tour de force.

There’s another inhabitant of the house, a lodger named Holgrave, who is typically referred to as "the Daguerreotypist," a reference to his trade.  He, with Phoebe, seems to be a force for good in the house, but the reader soon suspects that there is more to him and his identity than meets the eye.  In case you have not read the book, I certainly am not going to spoil it for you, but I’ll just say that Holgrave is part of a very satisfying climax and denouement of the story.

This is a picture of the house that belonged to Hawthorne’s cousin Susannah Ingersoll, which apparently gave him the idea for the title of the novel.  It does resemble Hawthorne’s descriptions of the old Pyncheon place.

As I mentioned earlier, I am glad I read this book, even though it was rough going for me at times.  Hawthorne makes too many diversions into episodes that don’t have much to do with pushing the story along, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, he never uses one word when he can use 10.  Or 20.  Or 100.  And it’s kind of a weird story, after all, although perfectly suited to the season of gradually lengthening nights and strange, spooky things around every corner.  BUT.  After all is said and done, it's unique, and I think it definitely deserves its place in the pantheon of great American literature.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading this a very long time ago. About all that I remember though is the chapter in which Jaffrey gets what's coming to him. I recall it was a rather long chapter. Or at least a lengthy description.