What an odd book. What is going on here?
The House of Seven Gables in Salem
I should say, to begin with, that I had a history with this book before reading it. When I first moved to the Boston area years ago, well before I began grad school, I visited the “real” House of Seven Gables in Salem. I loved the house tour and, after visiting some other former haunts of Hawthorne’s in Concord and teaching some Hawthorne stories in an Intro to Lit class, became interested in visiting it again. However, I was determined not to re-visit until I had read the novel, though it took a while for the novel to get to the top of my reading list.
Then, this summer, I came across an amazingly over-the-top pulpy vintage copy. Above the title on the cover, a line reads, “What secret joys and dread shadows haunt… THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.” There is a rat and what looks like a stone gate adorned with a dragon-gargoyle in the foreground of the cover illustration.
What is it about this illustration that reminds me of my D&D-playing high school boyfriend?
The first line of the back matter reads: “Built on land taken from a dead wizard, the Pyncheons’ seven-gabled mansion was the focus for two centuries’ secrets and legends” legends of hauntings and dying curses, secrets of madness and missing fortunes.”
How could I possibly resist?
I suspected going in that the over-the-top presentation of the book would not be entirely reflected in its content; I didn’t expect a full-on gothic novel, but rather a realistic novel with some gothic elements. This does not exactly describe what I felt the novel to be, however; actually, I was surprised by how thoroughly domestic the novel was, at least in the beginning. The first chapter, which describes the house and the legend of how it was stolen from the accused “wizard” Matthew Maule got me excited for the rest of the novel. This, however, was followed by three chapters – THREE CHAPTERS – about one of the main characters, Hepzibah, being forced to open a cent shop. Now, look, I’ve read plenty of Victorian novels, so not only do I love to read about quotidian domesticity, but I’ve also certainly read my share of stories of genteel poverty and those who suffer from too great a disparity between their family reputation and the amount of cash they have on hand. But, wow, Hawthorne really knows how to draw that out for so long that I really couldn’t take it any more.
Speaking of which, anyone who has taught or even just loved nineteenth-century literature will know that one of the most annoying criticisms of said literature is that the language is “flowery.” For a typical undergrad, “flowery” is an insult roughly translated to mean, “the sentences are unnecessarily long and complicated, and I had to work too hard to understand them.” What usually gets called “flowery” is a style that I think is elegant and often witty, full of unusual syntax and beautiful rhythm. Usually I cringe at the word “flowery.” However, if an undergrad called this novel “flowery,” I would have to agree. I have never read such clunky, overwrought sentences—at least, not from a canonical author.
In fact, I was about halfway through the second chapter of the three about Hepzibah and the damned cent shop when I began to wonder if maybe the whole novel was a satire. Were the three chapters about the cent shop meant to be some kind of parody of the domestic novel? Or were they meant to be taken seriously, as pathos – as a poor mimicry of the kind of tragic domesticity you might read in Gaskell or Dickens? There are shades of both those writers in this novel, even as it never reached those heights – that is, again, unless this was meant as some kind of parody.
The question of comedy is intimately related to the “flowery” style. Since there are times when Hawthorne clearly does use a mock-heroic style, it’s hard to tell whether the whole novel is meant to be funny. Take this passage as an example:
“The girl ran into the house to get some crumbs of bread, cold potatoes, and other such scraps as were suitable to the accommodating appetite of fowls. […] The chicken, hereupon, though almost as venerable in appearance as its mother—possessing, indeed, the whole antiquity of its progenitors in miniature—mustered vivacity enough to flutter upward and alight on Phoebe’s shoulder” (89-90).
(Side note: is it weird that, when I began to read about the rooster Chanticleer and the other chickens, I immediately recognized a passage from the literature GRE? And, in fact, I’m fairly certain that it was given as an example of mock-epic or mock-heroic style.)
So in this sentence, clearly Hawthorne is using deliberately convoluted vocabulary to discuss something quotidian, to comic effect. He is (I think) making fun of the way the chickens seem to take themselves so seriously, and of Phoebe’s desire to make herself useful.
Yet what if we compare this to what I think is intended as a serious description of Phoebe’s positive influence on her cousin Clifford:
“But Phoebe afforded her poor patient with a supply of purer air. She impregnated it, too, not with a wild-flower scent – for wildness was no trait of hers—but with the perfume of garden roses, pinks, and other blossoms of much sweetness, which nature and man have consented together in making grow from summer to summer, and from century to century. Such a flower was Phoebe, in her relation with Clifford, and such the delight that he inhaled from her” (144-145).
(Gag! “The delight that he inhaled from her”—seriously, Nate? What is this, “Scent of a Woman”? And it goes on for pages like this. I have seen my share of vapidly sweet Victorian heroines, but seriously, I expected the chickens to start making her a dress to wear to the ball at any moment.)
flowery prose, flowery girls… and flowers
If the first passage is mock-heroic, what is the second? Is the whole novel written in mock-heroic style, or is there a distinction to be made? And if there’s a distinction, where is the line drawn? Obviously, I don’t think a serious novel must be void of humor, but if the humor lies specifically in the very use of style and language, what are we to make of what appears to be non-humorous passages written in what appears to me to be the same style?
And this is not even to mention all the weirdness and all-over-the-place-ness that generally pervades the novel. There’s an entire chapter in which the narrator implores a character we KNOW is dead (there is no question) to get up and take part in all the things on his calendar for that day. What IS GOING ON in that chapter? And then there’s the part that seriously is my favorite, just because it’s so wacky: when the “artist” character takes a chapter to tell Phoebe his version of an old family tale, using a style that is even more over the top than the rest of the novel.
All in all, I will say this: though I thought the novel was very clunky and arguably may not know what it was trying to be, every time I start to describe it to someone, I get so tickled with its craziness that I find some affection for it. And in this way, I think I will always have a confused fondness for… THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.