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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Wuthering Heights, a Second and Third Opinion

Catherine Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, 1847

Welcome to a brand new type of post.  When I review classic literature for this blog, I often feel the need to write “but, that’s just my opinion.” I know that while I think Robert Burns descended from heaven and Herman Melville is duller than an anvil, other people have different and equally valid opinions. My friends Sahra and Simone talk about Wuthering Heights a lot. They’re Wuthering Heights fangirls. I wanted to include their thoughts on the book, so we sat down and chatted about it. I recorded and transcribed the conversation. Let me know if you like this type of post. We three ladies have a lot to say about literature. We could just keep on talking.

This post is very long. Click the link below to read the entire post and see all the pictures. The pictures are a collaborative effort too. Simone and her husband Ike visited the Bronte home on their honeymoon and took some amazing pictures on the romantic moors. Moors!

Sydney’s comments are bold.

Sahra’s comments are in italics.

Simone’s comments are in the regular font.

Let’s Begin

What was first about this book? Why was it so popular immediately?

It actually had a mixed critical reception. It’s much more loved now than it was during its time, because people were shocked by. . .

It was sexual.

It made a big splash. It was controversial and controversial kind of equals popular, because everyone was talking about it. I remember when we went to the house, they had displays of the reviews from that time, saying that it would corrupt young women’s minds.

Did she write under a male penname?

The Bronte’s all did. The question of whether they would all be as popular today if they hadn’t written under male pseudonyms, we can never know.

There are a lot of books by Victorians authors that were embraced by Victorians as being examples of who they wanted to be as a society. Dickens, for example, had evil characters, but overall his work is a reflection of the morality of his times. But, I think that Emily Bronte certainly was not embraced in that way. People did not want to hear about the cruel behavior and twisted psychology of her characters. That was very forbidden.

Can you think of books written before this that have anti-heroes?

(pause)

Byron. Not novels, so much.

Certainly not many, and probably not any female authors.

(Although, now I am thinking that Charlotte Temple certainly qualifies as an anti-hero.)

Byron sort of started that dark, twisted hero deal. And I can see Byronic influence in Wuthering Heights.

heathcliff grief

 

Would you consider Heathcliff to be a Byronic hero?

I think he qualifies as Byronic, because he has a dark past. I don’t know though, because the Byronic hero tries to do the right thing, but is overcome by his dark mysterious past and his psychological issues and Heathcliff is trying really hard to do the wrong thing and mess up people’s lives.

Continue reading

The First Vampire Story

Lord Ruthven, Vampyre, Polidori

Vampyre, John William Polidori, 1819

Notable for being:

  • the first vampire story in English.

As personal physician to Lord Byron, John William Polidori ran in a literary circle.  He attended Byron during the wet, gloomy summer when Percy Bysshe Shelley dared his companions to write ghost stories.  Mary Shelley produced the beginning of Frankenstein and Byron wrote a fragment that became the basis of Polidori’s short story Vampyre. No one reads Vampyre anymore, but it was quite popular in its day.  Polidori drew elements from Gothic literature, which was all the rage in the early 1800s.

Like a good horror writer, Polidori takes a monster from folklore and recasts it to typify destructive forces in contemporary society.  Unfortunately for this horror story, Regency society was pretty tame.  The scariest part of the story is Polidori’s introduction to the myth of the vampire.  This description beats any horrors contained the actual tale: “these human blood-suckers fattened—and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even the very pores of the skin.” Sick.

The villain of Vampyre is the mysterious Lord Ruthven, a sullen, dark-tempered aristocrat who gains popularity in London society as something of an oddity. All the most fashionable Regency dinner parties had a vampire on the guest list. Our hero, Lord Aubrey, is a bad judge of character, so he decides to travel through Europe with Lord Ruthven. He soon becomes suspicious of Ruthven who delights in corrupting others. Aubrey courageously foils Ruthven’s attempt to ruin the reputation of a young noblewoman. At which point I was thinking “You need to go home and get your sister! Dude, you just got between a vampire and his prey. Didn’t you say earlier that you have a plump, delicious, naïve little sister at home? Go back to London, dummy.” Does he go back to London? No. He stops by Greece so he can form an attachment with a different young girl, who Lord R can then antagonize.

Lord Ruthven, Vampyre, Polidori

The idolizing of naïve, childlike females in early English literature continues to nauseate me. Aubrey falls in love with a child. Polidori never states her exact age, but he describes her as a girl, not a woman. A light, young sylph who flits about the Grecian hills chasing butterflies. She could out-Lolita Lolita. Aubrey becomes obsessed with her, but “Ianthe was unconscious of his love, and was ever the same frank infantile being he had first known.” Infantile. He is in love with someone who resembles an infant. How infantile is she, exactly? Like, is she potty trained?

Aubrey reminds me of Victor Frankenstein. When faced with danger, both men tend to swoon or stand speechless and motionless. They would make terrible firemen. Lord Ruthven does go after Aubrey’s sister. He even becomes engaged to her. Aubrey, of course, falls into a fit. He pretty much goes catatonic. All he needs to do to save his sister is say some words. For example, “Don’t marry him. He is evil. I forbid it.” She would have obeyed him. Aubrey fails to prevent the marriage and dies of. . .melancholy?

You might like Vampyre if you are writing a thesis on :

  • gender roles in early 19th century literature.
  • the origin of the horror genre in English.
  • literary heroes who suck at heroism.

You might not like Vampyre if:

  • you aren’t writing a thesis and you just want to read something good.

Final thoughts: This is a silly story. Not humorous. Trifling.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Frankenstein's monster murdering his wife.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

I am glad Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.  Without Frankenstein the book there would be no “Frankenstein” movie, no “Bride of Frankenstein,” no “Young Frankenstein.”  I shudder to think of my childhood without “The Addams Family” in all its formats.  What I’m getting at is this: when Mary Shelley literally dreamed up Frankenstein and his monster she generated concepts that captivated the imagination of other writers.  Those writers took her ideas and transformed them into the mad scientists and their reanimated inventions that have become so ingrained in our culture.  What Mary Shelley did not do when she produced Frankenstein was write a good book.

I want to enjoy Frankenstein.  I really do, but I have so many problems with it. I will enumerate them in detail.

Style

Shelley kills herself with clauses. Her prose is no fun, because she interjects so many clauses that her meaning becomes convoluted. Her odd syntax also interrupts the flow of her sentences to the point that I sometimes got so irritated that I wanted to throw the book across the room. Take for example this abject failure of a sentence:

I returned home, not disappointed, for I have said that I have long considered those authors useless who reprobated; but I returned, not at all the more inclined to recur to those studies in any shape.

Agh! I guess if you read it a few times you begin to make some sense of it, but it doesn’t get any more enjoyable with multiple readings.

There are a few lovely little phrases buried in Frankenstein. I even found this one sentence that is acceptable in its entirety: I had worked hard for two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body.

 

Plausibility and the Monster

If it’s going to bother you that I expect some measure of plausibility from this early 19th century pillar of sci-fi and horror, go ahead and skip this section. Also, spoiler alert, I guess. I am going to divulge much of the plot before the end of this post.

I know that we must suspend our disbelief to enjoy most literature. I am really good at suspending my disbelief. For example, I am absolutely ok with Frankenstein using electricity to give life to inanimate flesh. What Shelley never explains is why he needs to “prepare a frame for it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles and veins.” Why doesn’t he just take a recently deceased corpse and electrify that? Well, Jesus brought the dead back to life and we simply can’t go around giving mortals the sacred abilities of Christ, you know? Also, this is horror. If you can think of a reason, however flimsy, for your character to poke around in cemeteries, you better let him do it. If he stitches corpses together, even better.

So far I am willing to accept that Frankenstein steals sinews from corpses to create a human body from scratch, more or less, and brings the body to life using lightning. What I cannot believe is that the creature he made was so jacked up ugly that he could not be tolerated in human society. Victor Frankenstein spends months hunched over his creation, laboring over every minute detail, but fails to notice that his creation is so vile looking that people will start trying to murder it the instant they see it. Really?

Understand that Shelley’s original Frankenstein monster is not the shambling, lovable dunce you know from movies and TV. He is faster, taller and stronger than humans. He learns the English language in a couple of months. And not just “me hungry” either. Frankenstein’s monster uses language far above the comprehension level of the average American adult. (Sorry, average American adult. It’s not you; it’s our political system!) Here is an example of Frankenstein’s verbal abilities: “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” Clause-y, but impressive for someone who used to be corpse parts. So, Victor Frankenstein is capable of turning a junk heap of dead bodies into a super smart super human. The monster has a unique identity.  He is not a pre-existing person brought back to life. Implicitly, Victor Frankenstein built a human brain. He    built    a    human   brain.    But he couldn’t make cheekbones? He couldn’t slap some soft, smooth skin on this guy? If only he had given him a handsome face! Frankenstein’s monster is only a monster because he isn’t good looking.

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein’s first big mistake is that he neglects to make his creation pleasing to the eye. Now, let me explain to other ways in which dear Victor is a useless, negligent git. Bear in mind that Shelley frequently cues the reader to pity rather than condemn Victor for his faults. Shelley seems to offer the understanding that Victor’s only error was scientific hubris, not the million other errors he makes throughout the book.

All of Victor Frankenstein’s mistakes:

  • Victor bestows life on his creation without noticing that it is horrifying to look at.
  • Victor is so fixated on bringing his creature to life, that he doesn’t have a plan in place for handling his creature once it is alive. Most of Frankenstein’s problems stem from this initial lack of foresight.
  • He doesn’t tell anyone what he is working on. No scientist has ever completed an experiment, especially a large scale experiment, without consulting other scientists. That’s just not how it works. Also, Victor is working on something potentially dangerous and feels no need to warn anybody that he may be releasing a powerful psychopath on the world.
  • When he sees his horrifying creature brought to life, he passes out of consciousness and into a nervous condition that incapacitates him for MONTHS. The monster is left to just wander freely, doing whatever pops into its brand new brain. He sets this creature loose, without providing for its safety or happiness. It goes on to have a really terrible experience while out in the world and develops some serious rage problems. As you would if you were born a horribly disfigured orphan that no one loved.
  • When Victor finally comes to, he doesn’t tell anyone what he has done.  He doesn’t try to find his monster.
  • The monster murders Victor’s little brother. An innocent young woman is suspected of the crime. Victor thinks that no one will believe him if he tells them about his monster. Instead of trying to make them believe, he just lets them execute that poor lady.  Come on! That has to rank among the shittiest things that a literary character has ever done.
  • The monster murders pretty much everyone else in his family. Instead of fighting back, Victor has more nervous fits. Just loses consciousness for extended periods of time, exactly like the storied heroes of lore. Precisely the kind of thing Hercules or Sir Lancelot would do when troubled.
  • The monster asks Victor to create a mate for him. Victor refuses. I won’t say that he absolutely should have created another “monster,” but this is an example of his continued rejection of his responsibility to provide a reasonable life for his creation.
  • He’s oblivious to the very clear indication that the monster plans on killing Victor’s bride on their wedding night.

I could keep going, but I think I covered the most important parts. I am not a fan of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. I get the feeling that she wants me to admire him, but I think he’s an ineffectual, reprehensible dummy. By abdicating responsibility for his actions, he unleashes a maelstrom of tragedy on anyone around him.

You might like Frankenstein if:

  • you are writing a thesis on the origin of genre literature.

You might not like Frankenstein if:

  • See above.

Final thougts: I am going to come right out and say it: Mary Shelley made it into the canon based on the strength of other artists. Without her husband she probably wouldn’t have been published in the first place. Without “Frankenstein” the movie, Frankenstein the book would be long forgotten. That’s just my opinion, man.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794

Notable for:

  • providing the prototype for the Gothic novel.
  • influencing later authors including Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

I am the only one who will suffer if I turn out to be wrong about this, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is the worst piece of literature on the Book List.  This has to be the nadir of my journey through the English canon.  I just don’t understand how Poe and Austen could have taken this as an influence and gone on to write anything worthwhile.  It’s so bad in so many ways! Ughghghghgh.

Radcliffe does one thing (only) well.  Her descriptions of European scenery are lovely.  As a young reader I was always tempted to skip over descriptive passages.  Who cares about the sunset; get back to the plot.  As a mature reader, I could read that stuff all day.  Tell me more about the shadows on the mountains!  Dear author, please continue surveying the shrubs that grow in the region you chose for the setting of your novel.  If you don’t have infinite patience and appreciation for details of landscape, there is nothing for you in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Everything else sucks.  Plot, pacing, characterization all suck.  So much.

I just tried to summarize the plot for you, but I got too filled with rage.  These bullet points on why I hate this book will have to suffice:

  • Plot movement is stiflingly, exhaustingly slow.  So many scenes and plot lines could be eliminated with no effect on the overall story.
  • The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert sucks so much.  Every time something happens to her she faints.  Which means that every scene takes three to a billion times longer than necessary, because Radcliffe pauses the action every few sentences to inform the reader that Emily has yet again fainted and been revived.  Here’s an example of how a scene in this book might go:

Random Character: I have bad news.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: Your father has died.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked you to burn all of his journals.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked to be buried in the monastery nearby.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

  • Swooning is not an acceptable response to danger.  Very ineffective.  This would be a better story if the first time Emily swoons she gets eaten by a wolf.
  • Radcliffe’s idea of mystery and suspense is to withhold all of the interesting information until the last 20 of 600 pages.  For example, Emily sees something really scary and of course passes out.  Radcliffe waits another 300 pages to explain what she saw.  That would an acceptable literary device if those 300 pages contained anything else compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest.  But they don’t.
  • Characterization is weak.  Radcliffe just tells you that the villain, Montoni, has a mean look in his eye.  She does nothing else to make him seem scary.  He doesn’t actually do anything too frightening until about page 400.  Yet, Emily swoons 50 times from fear of him before page 400.
  • All the supernatural phenomena are explained in the end.  Just like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” the ghosts turn out to be dudes in costumes.  I like my ghosts to be scary ass ghosts, not just regular guys wearing cloaks.  I liked “Scooby Doo” as a kid, but I always hoped that just once the swamp monster wouldn’t take of his scales and confess to being a local businessman.
  • I have to stop.  This book fails in many other ways, but I’m losing interest so you must be too.

Final thoughts: Don’t read it.