Over the last few weeks I reread a book by an American writer I have admired for many years, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his novel The House of the Seven Gables. But I also read a lengthy biography of Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple. I have provided a threefold approach to the novel and the biography using the following format: Summary, Analysis, Assessment. If you are a reader of serious literature and/or of its masters, I hope you benefit from what follows. I hope you will read (and or reread) Hawthorne’s works yourself. I recommend reading his short stories first, then moving on to The Scarlet Letter and other novels. There is much more to Hawthorne’s works than Hester Prynne’s scarlet A.
The House of the Seven Gables:
At the risk of oversimplification, the novel explores the power of the past, and some people’s attempts to preserve it, pervert it, yield to it, and/or manipulate it. The “house” of the novel’s title is a house with seven gables, yes, but also a symbol for creation itself—once beautiful but now decaying due to the fall of the universe and all mankind. Does beauty exist anymore? If so, by what standard is beauty to be understood? Is love possible? What worldview best explains the way the world is—chaos or Christianity?
A few quotes from the novel may help to reveal what the novel centers upon:
Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay, than this loss of suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us. (141)
Intellectual honesty requires readers know up front that this novel is not light fare. Hawthorne was a serious thinker and writer; his canon of literature attests to that. In the above passage, the issue is how to capture the fleeting nature of human experience. How can the artist arrest motion and present his art to a world swept up in the quick, fast, and silly? Artists labor to speak to the deep things of life, but the trivial things invariably occupy most people’s time. More accurately stated, most people fill their free time with silliness and distraction.
A second quote from the novel may further illustrate Hawthorne’s concerns:
It seemed to Holgrave—as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam’s grandchildren—that in this age, more that ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.
As to the main point—may we never live to doubt it!—as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for it or against it. (157-58)
Summary: As you can tell from the above quotes, the novel is concerned with the past. (Notice how Hawthorne capitalized it.) How we view the past is crucial. What are the standards we should bring to bear when thinking about the past? What should we preserve and what should we erase and/or deemphasize? (I’m thinking in terms of architecture here.) And what about literature? Should we preserve the Classics by Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy, for example? Or should we consign these thinkers to “the past” written by those “oppressive white males,” and instead only read today’s writers, many of whom focus on race, class, sexual proclivities, and gender and neglect what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself”? Hawthorne’s novel explores these underlying issues.
Analysis: How does Hawthorne demonstrate the questions posed above? In short, he explores them via Hepzibah, Holgrave, Clifford, and Phoebe, four of the major characters in the novel. In my view, these four characters embody an angle from which Hawthorne explores how to view the past. Does it cripple us via family and generational curses? That is, are we helpless to overcome the power of the past? Should we seek to carve out a present by neglecting the past and the so-called lessons of history? Should we tiptoe along the surfaces of life, pretending all is well? Contemporize it for a moment: In selfies, isn’t the message most often, “I’m so happy!”? Hawthorne’s characters from the 1800s would not have known the meaning of “selfies,” but some of his characters embodied their takers’ worldviews. If man is the measure of all things, in other words, what you get is, well, man. Don’t curse the heavens if you worship at the altar of man.
Assessment: It will come as no surprise that I am still reading Hawthorne’s fiction—thirty years after I discovered his fiction. Where does Hawthorne fit? He has been called a Dark Romantic, like Edgar Allan Poe. He disavowed Thoreau’s pantheism and Emerson’s paganism. Feminists celebrate Hester Prynne as a brave woman, a martyr for women’s sexuality in a man’s world. Some angry self-professing atheists see Hawthorne as an author who called out some Puritans for their hypocrisy. Where do I fall in my view of Hawthorne’s oeuvre? In sum, I would agree that he is a Dark Romantic. His view of man—his anthropology—is realistic. He sees that man is a sinner by nature, by inclination, by deed, and by choice. I do not see evidence, so far in my studies of Hawthorne, at least, that he was a Christian. He seemed to disavow biblical Christianity several times, in fact (I will explore this more in Part Two). An issue that fascinates me is this: If Hawthorne acknowledged sin, man’s fallenness, the fallenness of the universe of all of mankind, what prevented him from embracing the gospel? Hawthorne was a master, at least in my view, of exploring our sinfulness, but he was less ready to explore the Redeemer. As a result, his writing profoundly explores man’s problem but without proposing a solution, one he would have found in the gospel.
(Part Two coming soon)