Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Gothic

 dead pilgrim

The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851

If you trudged through The Scarlet Letter in high school and never read another work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you probably aren’t aware of his status as the premiere American writer of Gothic fiction. While his most famous novel doesn’t feature the paranormal, he sprinkled plenty of ghosts, ghouls, witches and curses into his other writing, including The House of the Seven Gables. In true Gothic fashion, Hawthorne never openly declares that magic exists in the world of his novel. Gothic is not Fantasy, because the ghosties turn out to be fake. Or do they?

As a Victorian New Englander, Hawthorne was fascinated with his Puritan ancestry, which makes sense to me. The ethos of the Victorian Era seems to channel some of that rigid, buttoned up, Puritan sense of moral righteousness. The story of The House of the Seven Gables starts with a rich and powerful Puritan, Colonel Pyncheon, who wants to build a house on land that belongs to a lowly farmer. That farmer, Matthew Maule, doesn’t want to give up the land, so the Colonel accuses him of being a witch. How else would you dispose of an enemy in colonial Massachusets? (Well, a musket would have worked.) Hawthorne laments Pyncheon’s corrupt use of his power and influence, implying that poor Matthew Maule was not a witch. However, this is a Gothic novel, so the Colonel mysteriously dies pretty much as soon as he finishes building his spooky mansion. . .and  Maule’s curse haunts his family for generations. (Anyone else thinking about that Velvet Underground song, Ocean? Love that song.)

Hawthorne dwells on that time honored “sins of the fathers” theme for the rest of the book. He touches on the intervening generations, but the story mostly concerns the relationship between Judge Pyncheon—the spitting image of his ancestor the Colonel—and his cousins. Elderly cousin Hepzibah lives in the titular house, but she’s impoverished and struggles to look after her feeble-minded brother, Clifford. But wait, this is a Gothic novel; it can’t just be about old folks! We need a handsome hero who is bold and brave and a pretty heroine who is pure and sweet. Not to worry, not to worry. Holgrave, the first daguerreotypist character in my list, plays our hero. Young Phoebe, a cousin from the country (you know, where everybody is as innocent and pure of heart as an eensy fresh little daisy) comes to town to be our heroine.

Guess what finally overcomes the curse. Guess. Did you say True Love? Yep, it’s True Love.

This isn’t my favorite novel ever. I found it a bit dull. But, if anyone can get some edification and enjoyment out of a boring book, it’s me! Here’s what I liked:

  1. It was kind of interesting reading Hawthorne equivocate about whether the troubles of the Pyncheon family were caused by witchcraft or Providence or coincidence. He sure can sit on a fence.
  2. Best names ever! Hepzibah! Phoebe! Jaffrey! Clifford! Hooray!
  3. You know me, I like wizards, witches and ghosts, even if they’re only maybe real.
  4. Daguerreotypists are great.
  5. Hawthorne seems a bit tortured and confused by the witch-burning antics of his ancestors. His tone is all over the place in this novel as he tries to reconcile his current moral sensibilities and his veneration for the past, which is interesting.

Here’s a Quote:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.

Truth!

However, Hawthorne later refers to Maule as “the wizard.” Fence sitter.

You might like The House of Seven Gables if:

  • You like Gothic fiction

You might not like The House of the Seven Gables if:

  • You didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. (Btw, you should rethink that opinion, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Final Thoughts:

Meh. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This novel is short, but still too wordy. The word/idea ratio is too high for my liking. Also, I might change my name to Hepzibah. Will you call me Hepzibah?

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