Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review - The House of the Seven Gables

The House of Seven Gables is another one of those "must read" classics that has sat on my "to read" list for years. I actually read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter in High School (and have read it a few times since then). I've read a few of Hawthorne's short stories and generally enjoyed them, though I can honestly admit to finding some of them exceedingly dry. Unfortunately, I also found Seven Gables to be a bit dry for my taste.

The premise of the book sounded very promising to me. A centuries-old house haunted by ghosts of generations following greedy land grabbing and mysterious deaths/murders. An old spinster and a young girl/lady work together to try and revitalize the house and the family. The setting and the backstory work to bring the Gothic Horror genre to early America. In spite of the Gothic tone suggested by the synopsis, Hawthorne touts the story as a Romance. In fact, I found very little "Gothic Horror" or "romance" in the story. I suppose it could be deemed a "romance" in the more broad sense of romanticising an idea or an era. There were possibilities of conventional romance between the young Phoebe and the boarder staying at the house. In fact the book seemed like it tried to swing in that direction once or twice but was repressed by the situations.

The book begins with the building of the home in colonial times by Colonel Pyncheon, a renown soldier who helped in the Salem witch trials and other similar events. The Colonel receives the property for his house in what some claim to be ill-founded circumstances and shortly after the home is completed, the Colonel is found dead in his study. Generations later, the story picks up with the spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon opening a penny store out of the side of the house. She has also taken on a boarder to try and bring in some income. The boarder is a mysterious daguerreotypist (a precursor/cousin vocation to photography) named Holgrave. It is suggested that Holgrave is a wizard or some other practitioner of "dark arts." A teenage cousin Phoebe Pyncheon shows up out of the blue to stay at the house and shortly afterwards Hepzibah's brother Clifford also shows up. Phoebe is naive, optimistic and innocent. Hepzibah is grizzly, reticent and gloomy. Clifford is eccentric and confusing...he seems to be mentally struggling due to some earlier trauma. Together, the three of them make for very interesting residents to the home. From the other end of town another cousin, the Judge Pyncheon, visits from time to time to try and convince Hepzibah to essentially give him the house and property and for the three of them to come and live with him. We're not told why, but Hepzibah vehemently abhors the suggestion and constantly throws the Judge out of the house with whatever insults she can come up with.

The story progresses with some very wonderful descriptions of the town, the house and the inhabitants. We learn a lot of very intricate details about the furnishings of the house, the clothing of the people, the art and decorations of the area and the nearby vegetitation. We casually observe the rather mundane actions of the characters as they go through the commonplace motions of life. And yet the author keeps us at arm's length from any real action or information concerning the true tension between the characters. There are ongoing suggestions of a problematic and potentially violent history between the Judge and Clifford. There are numerous insinuations into the dark nature of Holgrave. But for page after page no action occurs to substantiate any of the rumors or bring any validity to the anxiety trying to be created.

Near the end of the novel we finally do have a rather abrupt confrontation with dramatic results. The characters involved are immediately confused and unsure what to do and so the results are unexpected and impetuous. The action rambles on for a few pages more and then everything calmly resolves itself and life returns more or less to normal.

Thinking about the book as coming from the mid 19th century, I can definitely appreciate the attention to detail and the very subtle nuances and slow investigation of life. As an English major, I can try to put all sorts of symbolism on the house and the characters in an effort to make the story more interesting. I do not doubt at all that Hawthorne may have had some secondary mode in mind as he laid out the characters and events of the story. I'm sure there are some compelling and valid close readings of the book. But in my initial reading I found the story overly dry thanks to a lot of heavily descriptive sequences that had some great poetic flourishes but didn't serve to create tension, action or advance any sort of plot that I found compelling. As a story, the book is bogged down with details and nuance. As a symbolic or poetic work, it feels a little too guarded or obtuse. Perhaps a second reading would help, most likely with the aid of a Hawthorne expert or some commentary. But for the time being, I'm not really interested in a second reading. The characters were slightly interesting but not compelling enough for me to want to return to them any time soon. As one of the "Greatest American Novels", I'm not entirely sure how this one meets the criteria. I can appreciate the artistry but am not compelled by the overall result.

2.5 out of 5 stars

(NOTE: I will likely re-read this with a closer reading or some commentary to try and better appreciate what Hawthorne is doing here)

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

reading old books is interesting...i am reading the portrait of the artist as a young man, right now...and its taking some getting through...