The House of the Seven Gables: Essay Q&A

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Essay Q&A

1. John Clute and John Grant offer the following critique of Hawthorne's work as a whole:

The darkness of his vision of the human psyche gives to almost everything [Hawthorne] wrote. a sense that its protagonists are acting in obedience to the Gothic manipulations of the dead but shaping past, that they can never simply flourish in the here and now. It is in something like this sense that so much of his work seems to have been treated as allegory: his characters are so in bondage to the stories they have been appointed to undergo that they seem to "stand" in an allegorical relationship to symbolic events, rather than to live them (p. 457).

How does Holgrave's manuscript, which he reads to Phoebe, either support or rebut Clute and Grant's analysis?
 

  • Students' responses should show a clear understanding of how Phoebe parallels Alice in the manuscript, and how Holgrave parallels Maule-a parallel that Hawthorne goes to great lengths to make readily apparent. Holgrave functions as an instance of auctorial self-reflection. Authors wish to "cast a spell" over their readers, to "enthrall" them and hold their attention. Holgrave achieves these tasks in an apparently literal as well as a figurative sense. In this sense, the chapter involving Holgrave's manuscript reinforces Clute and Grant's analysis: as Holgrave reads aloud his story, he reenacts it, and Phoebe responds as did Alice, both in history and in Holgrave's thinly fictionalized representation of that history. On the other hand, Phoebe and the rest of the Pyncheons are, in the novel's final chapter, able to break free of the "story" of the past and forge the beginnings of a new story for themselves (for example, by incorporating Uncle Venner into the family). Essays should show some awareness of this tension.

2. Identify and comment upon at least one way in which Hawthorne strives to articulate an American self-understanding-that is, a "definition" of the young country's new identity-in The House of the Seven Gables.

        Acceptable responses will vary. One of many possible examples occurs in the contrast between Holgrave and Uncle Venner in the early chapters. In Chapter 3, Holgrave states his belief that noble titles "imply, not privilege, but restriction" in the present time and place (i.e., nineteenth-century America)-clearly a sentiment with which Hawthorne agrees. In the next chapter, Uncle Venner's conversation with Hepzibah raises the issues of class and status in America, a new society unlike any of the old societies of Europe. For instance, Venner says, "In my young days [i.e., before the Revolution], the great man of the town was commonly called King. Nowadays, a man would not dare to be called King." Venner's reference to the Revolution shows readers that the issue is not simply one of social status. It is an issue of America's status among the nations of the world. The context for Venner and Hepzibah's conversation is political and historical, not just sociological.

3. How might Holgrave function as Hawthorne's surrogate in The House of the Seven Gables?

        Hawthorne's past is, doubtless, an influence upon the character of Holgrave. Like Holgrave, Hawthorne was descended from someone associated with colonial witch trials (although Hawthorne's ancestor was a judge, not a victim). Like Holgrave, Hawthorne is a writer (see Suggested Essay Question 1, above). Hepzibah characterizes Holgrave as a friend of the "strangest companions," "community-men" among them. Community-men were "individuals involved in one of the utopian communities or communes established in the mid-nineteenth century" (Notes, 2001 Modern Library Edition, p. 278). Hawthorne was at one time involved in such a community, called Brook Farm, a utopian, Unitarian, transcendentalist community. Represented not only by such members as Hawthorne but by such visitors as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley, Brook Farm would have exemplified the "strange companions" whom Hepzibah views with suspicion. This identification of Holgrave's social circle gives readers a greater understanding of the background for his comments to Hepzibah about democracy and egalitarianism (Chapter 3). The criticisms Hepzibah makes of Holgrave were no doubt criticisms Hawthorne had heard made about himself.

4. Critic Neil Barron has written of The House of the Seven Gables:

The novel is a democratized transcription of the European Gothic romance, a new kind of horror novel designated as "Yankee Gothic." Technically, the novel thoroughly conforms to the requirements of the Gothic... Usurped ownership of the house, an ancestral crime and curse, and a haunted interior filled with supernatural objects, mysterious events, and bizarre characters show how closely Hawthorne adhered to the Gothic blueprint. The plot, like many Gothic plots, involves the fantastic working out of the curse and the supernatural purification of the tainted house (Neil Barron, ed. Fantasy and Horror 1-57 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000).

To what extent do you agree or disagree with Barron's assessment? Cite specific examples from the text to support your answer.

  • Although Barron is certainly correct to point out the structural similarities of Hawthorne's work with other Gothic texts, the claim that there is a "supernatural purification" of the House is more problematic. As discussed in the Analysis above, mesmerism was regarded as a new and legitimate means of knowledge in Hawthorne's day, not as anything "supernatural." More importantly, however, Hawthorne's continued raising of the expectation of the supernatural, from the Preface on, only to then frustrate those expectations, suggests that, for Hawthorne, purification must be achieved by human means-in other words, as humans committed the sin that stained the House and the Pyncheon "house" in the first place, so must humans purify it (as the characters do in the final chapter by leaving it behind).

5. Discuss one of Hawthorne's symbols at some length, showing how it reflects the thematic or moral concerns of the book as a whole.

  • Students' responses will vary based on the symbol chosen. This model answer focuses on the symbol of the chickens in the Pyncheon garden. These fowl mirror the family itself, as the narrator explicitly tells us in pointing out that the hens' "lamentably scanty" crests resemble Hepzibah's turban. The rooster, hens, and chicken are "pure specimens" of good breeding, but are now "scarcely larger than pigeons"-just as the once-noble Pyncheon family has sunk to the state where Hepzibah is operating a common cent-shop out of the House. "It was evident the race had degenerated, like many a noble race besides, in consequence of too strict watchfulness to keep it pure." The preceding sentence applies in the text to the birds, but it of course also applies to the Pyncheons themselves.

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