Before I began reading The House of the Seven Gables, I knew very little about it. Of course I had “heard of it.” After all, it has a memorable title. Wasn’t this some kind of early American soap opera that those post-revolutionary war people watched on their 19th century televisions? (I think it followed Days of our Lives) Or maybe it came on the scene later, post-Hollywood; as a biography of Clark Gable and his six brothers?
I’m kidding. I knew it was a classic American novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and that it is often acted out on the stage. But what else is it? I really didn’t know. Is it a haunted house novel that I should read and review for this blog? The short answer, I discovered, is “Yes. It is a haunted house novel.” But it is much more than that. It’s not really horror, per se. At least not in modern day terms. Hawthorne in his own preface labels his book as a “romance.” C Hugh Holman and William Harmon define “romanticism” as:
“the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism),”
After the reading, I discovered that, not only is this a romantic novel, but it is also a significant work within the American Gothic movement in literature. So, what are some of the characteristics of this “American Gothic” haunted house (besides the seven gables)? Let me begin by explaining what’s not in this book. There are no blood-curling screams in the night, no fanciful specters roaming the halls, no undead creatures rising up from the cellar. So what haunts this house? As a young kid, I had asked the same question about Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher , another tale from the American Gothic movement (You can read about this experience here). From a young age I have been mystified by these dark romantic tales and intrigued with the symbolism that lurks within them. It is this symbolism to which we must turn in order to answer our question.
The House of the Seven Gables is haunted by the sins of the past. By guilt and greed. By sorrow and injustice. By an antiquated air of appearances. It is occupied by the old and scowling Hepzibah Pyncheon and her frail and wraithlike brother Clifford. Living in another section of this large house is the eccentric daguerreotypist Holgrave. The visiting niece Phoebe Pyncheon brings a much-needed shine of pleasantries to this dark setting, but will it last? For the curse upon the Pyncheon family is deep-seated.
Curses – sins of the past – family tensions; these are the things that haunt Gothic novels.To quote the website www.americangothic.narod.ru/america.htm:
The role of the Gothic is figuratively to embody an intergenerational tendency.
…demonstrates in the majority of cases that neither the personal nor cultural past is dead and that both can easily return.
A house at the center of a Gothic novel needn’t have such obvious creatures of horror as “the ghost” or “the vampire” for it to be a haunting tale. Horror icon H.P Lovecraft had a great deal of respect for Hawthorne’s works . In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he opines that The House of Seven Gables is “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” In the same essay he identifies an “overshadowing malevolence of the ancient house” that he considers being “almost as alive as Poe’s House of Usher.” Any story of a shadowy past that lingers in a new age is a tale of a haunting. When these shadows of the past are cast upon a household and immersed within the current activities inside their dwelling, that house is indeed haunted.
However, The House of the Seven Gables does have some supernatural elements. It’s a tale of feuding lineages, beginning in the 17th century with Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule and a land dispute that puts these two men at odds with each other. Pyncheon cheats Maul out of land, accuses him of being a witch and then poor Maule is executed, but not before cursing the colonel with the damning words , “God will give him blood to drink!” And so begins the curse. The house of seven gables is then built upon this ill-gotten land. In the many years that follow, certain members of the Pyncheon family meet with untimely deaths while inside the cursed abode. While sitting at a desk, while sitting in a leisure chair – the life is cast out of them.
Hundreds of years after the death of Maule, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, brother and sister, old and frail, live out their dismal lives inside the house. They are encased in this behemoth structure, yet they are wrought with poverty. Towards the book’s end we discover what contributes to their misfortune, but on the way we read about their miserable day-to-day lives. The journey toward their fate is enmeshed with ghostly metaphors.
The presence of the long-dead Colonel Pyncheon is continually felt via his large portrait that hangs in a sitting room. As the book explains:
The other adornment was the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, at two thirds length, representing the stern features of a Puritanic-looking personage, in a skull-cap, with a laced band and a grizzly beard; holding a Bible with one hand, and in the other uplifting an iron sword-hilt
Through watchful albeit painted eyes, he inflicts his reverence from beyond the grave, perhaps due in part to an unconscious sense of infamy the current occupants feel toward him.
Then there is Clifford who, when he is introduced into the story, had me believing on first read that he himself was a ghost. Perhaps he is, but not literally. He is introduced from the perspective of young Phoebe, the visiting maiden cousin that brings cheer to a cheerless home. She hears him before she sees him.
She retired to her chamber, but did not soon fall asleep, nor then very profoundly. At some uncertain period in the depths of night, and, as it were, through the thin veil of a dream, she was conscious of a footstep mounting the stairs heavily.
Phoebe heard that strange, vague murmur, which might be likened to an indistinct shadow of human utterance.
Later she sees him at the breakfast table. Here is one of many gloomy descriptions of him:
..his mind and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, gray, and melancholy figure–a substantial emptiness, a material ghost–to occupy his seat at table.
With his long white hair and garments from another age, Clifford appears rather ghostly. It can be said that he is the embodiment of ghosts of a sorrowful past, a sorrow that clings to him like the sheet of a Halloween ghost. His sister doesn’t fare very well either:
above a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures.
Not a participator in the most casual of modern day affairs, Hepzibah too is but a ghost, even if figuratively so.
Then there is the harpsichord of the long since deceased Alice Pyncheon. Sometimes it makes music, seemingly on its own accord. The book is vague on whether this phantom music is made by the ghost of the late Alice or whether it is a kind of collective, symbolic hallucination – a longing for those rare but charming moments that blessed the Pyncheon family in the midst of their misfortune.
There are more metaphors and hints of a haunting throughout the book. If you wish to learn of more, I recommend reading the book. But I must say it can be a tedious read. The sentences are very long and flowery. Themes and descriptions are often repeated and drawn out. Much of the vocabulary is archaic. All this and, you know what? The more I contemplate on the story, the closer I’m pulled toward its deep heart that continues to beat a century and a half after its conception.
Sometimes a bit of effort is required to unearth something of magnitude. Although I did not realize its importance to the American gothic movement when I began the novel, I treated it with respect. I didn’t settle for a free ebook. Rather, I bought a physical book with a hard cover. I patiently read it in silent environments and uttered no complaints when I had to reread certain parts for clarification. Much of the reading took place in our newly constructed den – a room designed for reading and writing. Hell, I think on one occasion I had a brandy to go with the reading. Now that’s respect with a pinch of style!