Archive for July, 2013
If you’ve been following my reading this summer (which, I’ll admit, you probably haven’t been), you may have noticed that The House of the Seven Gables took me a bit of a long time to read. The truth is that I just had a bunch of trouble getting into it. And that about sums up my opinion on this one.
It started out promisingly enough. A drama of Puritan greed and witch hunting, a terrible curse and a sudden death. I was hoping for murder. Or a ghost. Or a family plagued by dramatic and terrible misfortunes at the hands of the dead wizard’s curse! So many possibilities, and, instead, there were pages and pages about an old woman running a cent shop with the help of her young cousin while taking care of her brother. And we learned about their personalities and their daily routines and how they got along with each other. We learned about the customers in the shop and the people who passed by the house and a whole lot of other things that made me wonder where exactly this plot was going.
Granted, The Scarlet Letter, which I enjoyed reading, didn’t have a whole lot of action, either, but at least there was a sort of tension. From the beginning we know the trouble that Hester is in, we see that her husband is out for revenge on the unknown father of Hester’s child, and basically that all is not well in Puritanville (disclaimer: this is not the town’s real name, although it should be). So as we learn about the internal struggles of Hester and see what Chillingworth is up to, we know why these things matter. In The House of the Seven Gables, I just wasn’t getting it.
I did like the ending when I finally got to it, and I will say that this may be one of those books that is better on the second read. For now, though, if I speak truthfully, it kind of bored me. And in my rating system that almost automatically equals a rating of:
- The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (traumastop.wordpress.com)
- The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (bfgb.wordpress.com)
- The House of the Seven Gables (applemay143.wordpress.com)
- The House of the Seven Gables: Taking the Mickey (corvidaeinthefields.wordpress.com)
As I read The House of the Seven Gables, a particular passage caught my attention. “That,” I said, “sounds exactly like something I read by Emerson last semester!”
It shouldn’t be surprising that these two writers influenced each other. Both lived in Massachusetts in the early 1800’s when, thanks to Emerson and his colleagues, the Transcendentalist movement was going strong. While Thoreau was practicing living deliberately at Walden Pond, Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter less than 30 miles away. When Hawthorne and his wife were living in Concord, Emerson actually invited him to join his social circle. Clearly, Hawthorne was no stranger to Emerson or his Transcendentalism, and comparing passages from their work reveals two narrators who seem to be operating on the same wavelength.
An Imaginary Conversation
Just for fun, I’ve assembled the following out of quotes from Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Emerson’s essay Nature to create a dialogue of sorts. We begin by asking each for their opinion on society’s relation to the past:
Hawthorne responds by saying: “‘Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?’ … ‘It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried.'”
And Emerson’s answer comes in perfect agreement: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.”
Hawthorne provides more examples: “‘A dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men’s books! We laugh at dead men’s jokes, and cry at dead men’s pathos! We are sick of dead men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity according to dead men’s forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man’s icy hand obstructs us!'”
Emerson nods in agreement and asks: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
Hawthorne: “‘I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men’s houses… But we shall live to see the day, I trust… when no man shall build his house for posterity… If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own house, that simple change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices– our capitols, state houses, courthouses, city halls, and churches– ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.”
And Emerson concludes: “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past…? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
A Bit of Bubble Bursting
Yeah, that’s right, I’m going to burst my own bubble here. It’s unfortunately necessary because, while Emerson is writing out his own ideas in his own voice, we must remember that The House of the Seven Gables is a novel. If you noticed the constant use of triple quotes, it’s because they were all taken from the dialogue of a character named Holgrave, which means that they can’t actually be connected in any way to Hawthorne’s real opinions on Transcendental thought. In fact, Holgrave himself appears to change his mind near the end of the story, saying of a certain house that it should have been built of stone rather than wood so that it could last longer.
To take things a step farther, I found out while doing a bit of research for this post that Hawthorne apparently had no love for Transcendentalism, having lived in a failed Utopian community based on those ideas. His novel The Blithedale Romance (which I unfortunately have yet to read) is said to satirize the Transcendental movement by drawing upon his experiences there.
So if Emerson and Hawthorne really sat down to have a discussion on Transcendentalism, it probably would have looked much less like this “great minds think alike” sort of exchange I made up and a lot more like a great big, cleverly worded argument. Now that is something I would really like to see!
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (captainslead.wordpress.com)
- Reading Emerson (starscrutiny.wordpress.com)
- Nathaniel Hawthorne (hilobrow.com)
When reading a book entitled The House of the Seven Gables, it generally helps to know the answer to this question. I’m hoping here that I’m not the only one who has wondered this because, otherwise, this post is bound to make me look really stupid.
After a quick Google search (Google really is your best friend for these sorts of quick questions), I have discovered that a gable is actually a rather common bit of architecture. My other good friend Wikipedia tells me that a gable is the “triangular portion of a wall between the edges of a sloping roof”, which means you might have had one without even knowing it! A quick look around my neighborhood shows that they are everywhere.
Having seven of them, though, would make for an interesting look on a house. Wouldn’t it? Hooray for Google image search! Ah, the wonders of the internet. It turns out that the book was inspired by a real seven-gabled house in Salem! I could actually take a tour of it. You know, if I lived anywhere near Massachusetts. Or had the time and the money to go there. Which I don’t. But I can give you this handy link so you can see for yourself what it really looks like. Or you could just read the description from the book.
“On every side the seven gables pointed sharply towards the sky, and presented the aspect of a whole sisterhood of edifices, breathing through the spiracles of one great chimney.” – The House of the Seven Gables, page 7
Now I just have to find out what a spiracle is…
- Deciding What to Read Next (dste9.wordpress.com)