viernes, 14 de octubre de 2011

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables (The Modern Library, 2001)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
USA, 1851

If we can agree that the short story's like the equivalent of a 45 RPM single, the novella's the equivalent of a 12" EP, and the novel's the equivalent of an album, CD, or whatever large data storage file the kids of today are listening to their tinny, overproduced, uninteresting dance music on, then Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables is very much like that mediocre second album put out by a once-great band that wowed you with their debut LP.  What happened?  While I can't blame Hawthorne for electing not to come out with The Scarlet Letter II as the follow-up release to his smash hit, I'm not sure that this wildly uneven "ghost story"/"romance" of his was really the right medium for the morality tale about the Pyncheon family curse he chose to deliver.  For starters, even in his preface he's rather heavyhanded about his didactic aims: "Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works.  Not to be deficient in this particular, the Author has provided himself with a moral;--the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief;--and he would feel it a singular gratification if this romance might effectively convince mankind (or, indeed, any one man) of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms" (4).  Whatever you make of an author telling you what his story's about before you even get to the story, to my disappointment I found much of the narrative that follows just as clunky and programmatic in tone.  Maybe I don't get the guy's alleged sense of humor anymore, but his exposition-heavy passages made me grit my teeth with frequency.  Oftentimes striking descriptions shared the stage with awkward, clumsy and flat out mystifying ones like this one: "The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of society) as are always prone to root themselves about human dwellings" (76).  Finally, the cardboard cutout characters were a joke, especially in light of the fact that 1851 was also the same year that New England's other newest hit maker gave us the unforgettable trio of Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab.  Despite almost giving up on the book about halfway through, though, I'm basically glad I didn't because there's an absolutely fantastic chapter near the end where Hawthorne departs from his mostly boring storytelling style with a night-long vigil at the side of a key character who has just died under mysterious circumstances.  The mocking way "the Author" chides and admonishes the deceased character for over a dozen pages is a sight to behold, and for one unbelievably compelling chapter at least I felt like I was in the presence of something electric and special and "classic."  Too bad then, with apologies to our dear Hawthorne-loving friend Frances, that so much of the rest of The House of the Seven Gables is as tame and as cloying as any major label power ballad act from the 1980s only without the big hair! (

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The House of the Seven Gables was read as part of a group read for R.I.P. VI.
Posts by hosts Frances of Nonsuch Book and Audrey of books as food can be found here (F) and here (A).

17 comentarios:

  1. That Preface gave me pause as well. I thought he must lack confidence in his writing, if he had to lay out his moral in such detail. And it certainly wasn't subtly presented in the book itself.

  2. I don't think I ever read this one, and am happy now to have made the right decision. This story in particular would annoy me, because the idea of a "murder gene" (now characterized thanks to modern science as a defective overproduction of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A) is far too appealing, in my view, to those who are eager to embrace biological determinism. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by Hawthorne mostly because of his relationship with Melville, which sounds quite poetically passionate if you read their letters to one another - which, good grief! somebody should have burned to preserve their privacy! but since they didn't, we can be fascinated by the literary means by which they couched their titillating feelings for one another. (Although, sadly, Melville was way more into Hawthorne than the reverse, resulting in Melville exulting over what a genius was Hawthorne, in spite of, as you point out, the obvious superiority of such characters as Queequeg et all.) However, all this is to say that I'm glad you joined Frances's readalong rather than me.

  3. Do not disagree with your major complaints but still enjoyed the book. Thought that the imagery and angel in the house type themes of domesticity might rub you the wrong way. Despite the flaws, that he appears to be writing this one quickly and perhaps for popular appeal, I think that the fact that he is conscious of this, the wink in various places, the humor, made me appreciate the work. His writing, the near poetic prose would send me back again despite the looseness, the expositions you protest about. Those lengthy character explorations can be tedious here and there but they are also vivid and observant. This is not the best Hawthorne. But it still has great merit. Always love to disagree with you friend. :)

  4. First, I'm with Richard fundamentally - hits plus filler. But that hit may be Hawthorne's best song.

    Why,, though, is everyone but Frances taking that Preface so seriously? "Lacks confidence"? It's a persona, a pose, an obfuscation, perhaps even a joke.

  5. I really enjoyed The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne but I have never read anything else by him... I really need to remedy that at some point. Or even reread The Scarlet Letter because it has been years!

  6. This is the second review of this book I am reading today and both aren't painting any beautiful picture. Perhaps if I come across it, I'll pass.

  7. Oh yes, that ONE chapter was marvelous. Although I enjoyed the characters, my overall assessment is less positive than most of the other readers. I had a hard time pinpointing exactly what I disliked, but since The Scarlet Letter wasn't for me either, I'm calling it quits with Hawthorne.

  8. Half-way through, I am struggling. H. needs to give Little Miss Sunbeam, the Phoebe character, a rest. Her voice like a babbling brook. Yick.

    Enjoying the descriptive passages, though. This year I read and loved _Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny_, a short excerpt from Hawthorne's _American Notebooks_. Wife goes traveling, leaving Dad in charge of the tiny boy. Pure pleasure reading.

  9. Richard, you're inspiring me now to go back and read The Scarlet Letter again, for fun. It was such an academic slog for me - both in high school and college - that I was never inclined to read it again, and I'm sure I'm missing much! Thank you for reading along with us.

  10. *Lisa May: I'm not sure about the lack of confidence part, but I did think it was unusual for Hawthorne to frame his story the way he did in the preface given the lack of subtlety in much of what follows. Maybe preface-writing was just a convention at the time. Anyway, thanks for the visit!

    *Jill: Frances is going to kill me for saying this, but I found Hawthorne's narrative voice (and in particular his "Author" persona here) to be just as tiresome as Sigrid Undset's only without the repetitiveness, hand-wringing moralizing, and with much better writing of course. Hawthorne and Melville is a relationship I'd certainly like to learn more about, so I can understand your fascination even though I'm not familiar with those juicy letters you refer to. "Juicy," would that be the right word? :D

    *Frances: To be fair to old Nat (and to freely concede a well-earned point in my disagreement with you!), I did like his language and imagery in places although I didn't make that clear in my post. Was really annoyed by his narrative voice here, though, which could mean that I missed some of the authorial winks you mention and could mean that Hawthorne was just a grating, annoying narrator this time out--much like Woolf in Orlando, ha ha! I loved the "Governor Pyncheon" chapter, though, which was as arresting/exciting/memorable/reckless a storytelling experience as I've probably read all year. Anyway, will be reading more Hawthorne again soon and I owe some thanks to you for playing a part in that. Cheers!

    *Tom: Hawthorne's best song? I could see that. In any event, the "Governor Pyncheon" chapter's so far beyond the rest of the material here in scope and execution that it took me back to my record-buying days where I'd often want to sell a dud album to a used record store but couldn't bear to part with it because there was such a fantastic single song (or two) on it. For the sake of discussion, why should we treat Hawthorne's preface as any more or less serious in intent than the novel proper, though? It may be the work of a persona but an obfuscation or a joke--in what ways?

    *Kailana: The Scarlet Letter was a huge fave of mine at one point in time, and I'd like to reread it myself sometime fairly soon. I also remember enjoying a few of Hawthorne's short stories as well. The moral of the story? Do read more by Hawthorne but maybe just don't start with The House of the Seven Gables! By the way, for you and anybody else interested, Tom/Amateur Reader did a Hawthorne project where nearly 5,000 pages of Hawthorne got turned into 27 blog posts. If you'd like some snazzy blog criticism and some more Hawthorne reading recs, check out "Reducing Hawthorne--A Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne" at for a very useful roadmap.

    *Nana: It's not usually considered Hawthorne's best even by those, like Frances, who enjoyed the work much more than I did. However, see my answer to Kailana for a place to find a lot of useful suggestions for different Hawthorne reading and check out Frances' and Audrey's blogs for other opinions on The House of the Seven Gables itself. Many people do love the work.

    *JoAnn: Two strikes and you're out is a reasonable enough policy when it comes to novelists, I guess, but as I think I might have mentioned over on your blog, I'm actually still interested in a Scarlet Letter reread at some point. Like Hawthorne's language but was not captivated by the story itself this time around. Cheers!

  11. *Readramble: First, sorry for the delay in getting back to you and Audrey--I had to delete my original responses to you to make space after learning that my comments had exceeded the number of characters permissible by HTML in these comments boxes. Secondly, thanks for the visit and in particular the laugh about Little Miss Sunbeam! She wasn't the most persuasively written character ever, was she? In any event, glad to hear you've had better experiences with other Hawthorne writings lately. I tend to trust the judgements of my Hawthorne-reading friends, but The House of the Seven Gables was a major, major letdown for me. Yikes!

    *Audrey: Thanks for cohosting the group read with Frances; the experience was a good time even if the book wasn't exactly, ha ha. Anyway, I hope you have better luck with The Scarlet Letter the next time around... and I certainly hope it's as good for me as I remember it to have been a long, long time ago. Cheers!

  12. I'm prejudiced when it comes to Hawthorne and a few of the things you describe are precisely what I'm afraid he would be like, still, I got The Scarlett Letter here and will read it one day.
    Funny enough I saw this book mentioned a few times on blogs lately and almost everyone liked it a lot...
    I'm convinced this isn't for me.

  13. Reading your comparison of The Scarlet Letter to The House of the Seven Gables, I suddenly find myself mystified as to why I finished the latter but never the former. (Shh--don't tell my high school English teacher!) This is further heightened by the fact that I do remember what I read of TSL but the only part of THSG is that chapter towards the end that you mentioned. I think I even like THSG better at the time... Now I feel compelled to revist them to see just what I was reading!

  14. Now that I reread the preface, I see that Hawthorne actually denies that the story has any serious moral meaning. "Many writers" say he needs one, so he includes one, but he "is not sufficiently imaginative" to think that his moral will be of any value. The moral is necessary as a component to a Romance, not because it does anything. He suggests that the reader "disregard" the "legendary mist."

    The difficulty, of course, is that the tone is so thoroughly ironic, as it was with the long preface to The Scarlet Letter, that any attempt to separate the serious from the less so becomes a real interpretive problem.

    As for the "sins of the fathers" business, the evidence that H. does not take it seriously is that he routinely violates it. Is non-Governor Pyncheon punished for the sins of his ancestors, or for his own sins? "We are tempted to make a little sport with the idea. Ghost-stories are hardly to be treated seriously any longer."

    Or, what does the enormous amount of space devoted to the selling of gingerbread cookies have to do with the ostensible theme?

  15. *Caroline: I've loved some Hawthorne but definitely didn't love this one. Think The Scarlet Letter is the right place for you to start with him, especially if you have reservations ahead of time. Like Frances mentions above, though, he can be near poetic with his prose at times. Good luck!

    *Amanda: I seem to remember a lot of people hating The Scarlet Letter in high school, so your reaction might not be as mystifying as it seems! In any event, it's been a long time since I read that puppy--so now I'm a little nervous to see if my opinion of it will have dropped. Let me know if you want company rereading the book--maybe we could synchronize our schedules if the timing's right.

    *Tom: I don't have that preface in front of me right now, but let's accept your reading of it. What does the reader get out of an ironic admonition to disregard the moral--a moral, in the two sentences I quoted in my post at least, that in this case provides a perfectly adequate explanation for how to read the novel that follows? For me, "a real interpretive problem" is what we're stuck with but in a novel that doesn't seem to have all that much depth to begin with (point taken about the sins of the father themes, but all that gingerbread cookie description/riffing doesn't encourage me to take the book seriously at all). Help!

  16. Oh, I agree. It is quite possible that the author does not take the book seriously. That it is more of a series of riffs, to stick with the music theme.

  17. Thanks for the offer, Richard, although I have no idea when I'll actually get to The Scarlet Letter. You'll probably reread it way before I do!