Friday, October 14, 2011

The House of Pyncheon

The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have read The House of the Seven Gables before, but I didn't remember much about it.  Reading Audrey's recent posts about the book on books as food got me thinking about it again, and I decided to join the group read she has helped coordinate.  Now, though, I feel a bit like a dinner guest who announces as the roast beef is served that she is a vegan.

The story of the House of the Seven Gables concerns both a physical building and the family that has inhabited it for almost two hundred years.  A leading citizen of Salem, Colonel Jaffrey Pyncheon built his house on theft and judicial murder.  When the original owner of the house site, Matthew Maule, refused to sell it to the Colonel, he acquired it after Maule was accused of witchcraft and executed in the infamous trials.  Maule went to the gallows with a curse on his persecutor: "God will give him blood to drink!"  Disdaining a dead man's curse, the Colonel erected his house, with its seven extravagant gables, only to die himself, mysteriously choked in blood, on the day it was to be blessed.  With the Colonel died the family's claim to even greater riches and power, in a vast grant of territory in Maine; no documentation of the grant could ever be found.  (The back cover of my Bantam Classics edition gives away the secret of that part of the story.)

From the day of the Colonel's death, the family's fortunes have declined, its decay mirrored in the decrepit house.  As the story opens, only five members remain: Hepzibah, an aging spinster who lives in the house itself, on the knife edge of poverty.  In addition to taking in a lodger, Holgrave, she has opened a "cent" shop, with a small store of cheap goods.  The great sorrow of her life is her brother Clifford, who has spent thirty years in prison for the murder of their uncle.  At their uncle's death, the property descended to his heir, their cousin Jaffrey, a judge and prominent local citizen, who has one son.  Hester inherited a life-interest in the house but refuses any financial assistance from the Judge.  The last member of the family is a young cousin Phoebe, who arrives unexpectedly to stay with Hepzibah, after her mother's re-marriage.  She is followed by another unexpected arrival: Clifford, newly freed from prison.

I enjoyed the first chapters of this book, as Hawthorne carefully sets his stage, lays out his backstory, and introduces his characters.  The only thing I really remembered from previous readings was Hepzibah and her struggles with the shop.  Poor woman, a lady and a Pyncheon, reduced to keeping a cent shop, and not even very good at it, between her abrupt manners and her near-blindness.  She is a very sympathetic character, as is Phoebe, who rather reminded me of a Louisa May Alcott heroine, Polly in An Old-Fashioned Girl or Phebe in Eight Cousins.  Like them, Phoebe is the proverbial ray of sunshine in the dark house, a loving, cheerful, hard-working young girl, devoted to her aged cousins.

It was with Clifford's arrival that the story became problematic for me.  I found him an annoying character, and I was supposed to sympathize with him, not just because of his long imprisonment, but because his destiny has been thwarted:
"Not to speak of it harshly or scornfully, it seemed Clifford's nature was to a sybarite . . . it is always selfish in its essence; and we must give it leave to be so, and heap up our heroic and disinterested love upon it so much the more, without a recompense.  Poor Hepzibah knew this truth . . ."
Hawthorne tells us more than once that we are to pity Clifford, not because he may after all be innocent of murder, but because he has been denied a life of beauty and ease.  I felt much more pity for Hepzibah, sacrificing herself to support her brother, who can hardly stand to look at her plain features and worn-out clothing.

I struggled with other aspects of this book, such as the language, which is ponderous and verbose, and tends sometimes toward sweeping generalizations.  There is also the conversation of Hepzibah's lodger, Holgrave, which become so opaque that Phoebe finally tells him at one point, "I hardly think I understand you."  He reads her a story he has written about her Pyncheon ancestors, and this most New England of settings actually has a black character speaking in Gone with the Wind dialect.  While there were certainly slaves in the region even after the Revolution, I thought this an unfortunate choice of language.

The story itself seems stretched rather thin - perhaps it would have made a better novella - and in the end not all that interesting.  And while the story was drawn out, particularly in the chapter "Governor Pyncheon," which seems to last nearly as long as the night it describes, the ending felt rather rushed to me.  Just on a practical level, I wondered how Clifford and Hepzibah, last seen miles from home, at a deserted railway stop, in cold and rain, made their way home again.  I thought Clifford's sudden exoneration for the murder of his uncle more convenient than credible, especially after their sudden flight.  And while the destiny of the family is settled, in its new home, what will become of the House?  Is it simply to be stand empty, left to wind and weather and eventual ruin?

My copy of the book includes a quote from Henry James, saying that it is "the closest approach we are likely to have to the Great American Novel!" (which seems faint praise).  I can appreciate this book as a classic, with an important place in American literature, but in the end it's not one I'm likely to read again.


  1. I agree with you, on everything, especially the last part about this being a great novel that I won't want to read again. And that Clifford was annoying, and that the ending seemed cobbled together. I want to read more about Hawthorne now, though (if not more Hawthorne!)

    I'm so glad you read this with us! Let's do it again sometime soon.

  2. Hmmm... I am conflicted on whether I want to read this or not. I love The Scarlet Letter and enjoyed Jane's review over at Fleur Fisher of this, but I'm not sure I can deal with the problems you've described! Maybe I will just let the rest of Hawthorne be a great mystery to me!

  3. What a wonderful post! I struggled with the beginning of the novel (mostly due to the language) and turned to an audio version for help. Things improved dramatically at that point. I settled in and enjoyed the house, atmosphere, Hepzibah, and even Clifford. The book still felt short for me and, given my previous experience with The Scarlet Letter, I won't be reading more Hawthorne.

  4. Audrey, let me know if there is a biography of him that you would recommend. I'm enjoying everyone's comments, and relieved I'm not the only one who had trouble with it! I'd definitely be up for another one.

    Anbolyn, I didn't care for The Scarlet Letter (Dimmesdale irritated me so much that I just wanted to smack him) - but if you liked that, you might like The House too. I did like the first part, and any chapter with Phoebe in it.

  5. This group read is so much fun! What you brought out about Phoebe (a typical mid-19th century portrayal of a young girl?), Clifford as a Sybarite (we're supposed to get on board with this), and the language of the black slave in Alice Pyncheon's time--this reminds me of something I read about the 19th century "romance" -- the figures are pretty much stock characters. There's nothing psychologically deep about them. There's a novella about a slave ship by Herman Melville called "Benito Cereno," in which the black characters are disgracefully stereotypical. In spite of everything, I like Hawthorne; but with the group read I feel I now have more texture or context or something to read him with. Thanks for your review.

  6. I actually thought that the storytelling in the "Governor Pyncheon" chapter was the riskiest and most interesting in the entire book, Lisa May, but apart from that I agree that the story might have been better as a novella-length work. "Thin," most definitely. That James quote is really interesting to me since both Hawthorne's own The Scarlet Letter and Melville's Moby-Dick seem like far, far better candidates for that honor in terms of pre-20th century works. Weird!

  7. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting!

    JoAnn, as I mentioned above, I really disliked The Scarlet Letter. I've seen some references to re-reading that, but I think like you I will now admire Hawthorne from a distance.

    Julia, I think you're absolutely right about stock characters. Phoebe is very much a good Victorian girl, talking to birds (well, chickens) and flowers, and spreading sunshine & light. Though I think there is an interesting backstory there: why did she come to live with her cousins? And Scipio is the most stereotypical character of all, and a jarring note in such a setting.

    Richard, I could appreciate what Hawthorne was trying to do in the Governor Pyncheon chapter, which does stand out from the rest of the book. I think I was just so irritated with him and the book at that point that I didn't give it the proper attention.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!