Love in the House of Gatsby: Part 1
"Wait a minute," you're wondering. Wasn't this blog supposed to be about The House of the Seven Gables? Well, hear me out.
When you read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1923 modernist masterpiece The Great Gatsby in relatively close succession, you probably notice that houses play a central role in two of our most canonical works of American literature. You might have wondered, “Huh. Houses. Is that just a coincidence?”
It is not. I briefly noted the connection between these two novels in my earlier post on American politics and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon’s legacy in The House of the Seven Gables. Here I will elaborate.
Houses link these two novels symbolically, as well as thematically. Comparing Gatsby’s mansion to The House of the Seven Gables may at first appear counter-intuitive. After all, Hawthorne’s and Fitzgerald’s respective houses are dramatically different in terms of architecture - Hawthorne’s Pyncheon house is moldy, lonely, and decayed; Fitzgerald’s Gatsby house is brilliant, teeming with life, and inundated with flowers. Yet, both novels portray their main characters’ (and implicitly the United States connection to the past as inescapable, irrevocable, and insurmountable.
Gatsby’s house, underneath its bloom, is unexpectedly gothic. The gothic literary tradition was established by British writers of the late eighteenth century. Authors such as Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe set their novels in worlds of shadowy medieval castles, with plots steeped in mystery and suspense. Gothic tales cast the line between natural and supernatural, between dream and reality, as thin and ambiguous as the line between good and evil was stark. The villains were twisted, greedy, megalomaniac nobles and aristocrats. Protagonists were often vulnerable, yet assertive, women and the threat of violence (not uncommonly sexual) lurked around every corner.
In the early nineteenth century, authors like Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allen Poe transplanted and adapted the genre to the United States. The line between natural and supernatural remained ambiguous, but gloomy, towered-castles became haunted, gabled-houses and ancient forests. And the heroes of gothic novels in the United States were often common men and women. Without an established aristocracy in the United States, the villainous, power-hungry nobles of British gothic novels were often replaced with savage Indians and Africans. Yet an anxiety over the reestablishment of aristocracy in the United States pervades to the American Gothic. We see this theme in perhaps the most famous example of the genre, Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher" (house = family = nation).
Nathaniel Hawthorne built on the gothic traditions, yet he also innovated. In short stories like “The Minister’s Black Veil,” as well as his famous The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne conflated American anxiety over aristocracy, the supernatural, and the problem of sin. In Hawthorne’s hands, good and evil remained clearly delineated, yet the terms of their manifestation on Earth became problematic. In part due to Hawthorne’s influence, the question of what constitutes good and evil, and how we can distinguish the appearance appearance of good and evil from their reality, became central to the American gothic.
The House of Seven Gables, as I’ve told you, might best exemplify Hawthorne’s use of the gothic to interrogate the moral validity of the United States itself. Hawthorne’s seven-gabled house is a living manifestation of the sins of its founding generation, who sought to establish their wealth on American soil during the Salem Witch Trials. The family progenitor Colonel Pyncheon falsely accused a landowner and took his property after he was convicted, and then had him hanged. Pyncheon thereby figuratively built the House of the Seven Gables on a foundation of sin.
In Hawthorne’s novel, successive generations can never escape the original sins of Colonel Pyncheon. The Pyncheon family is in many ways representative of the American nation itself, with a patriarchal society grounded in the abuse of women (witch trials), built on land stolen from indigenous peoples, through labor stolen from enslaved Africans. How can the American nation, the novel prompts us to ask, ever expect to flourish (let alone survive) on a foundation of blood and sin?
During the first half of the twentieth century, writers such as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, were deeply influenced by Hawthorne. We tend to associate gothic houses with darkness, decay, and death. In contrast, in The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s house on Long Island is abundant with lively jazz, dancing guests, and alcoholic debauches. It is “blazing with light.” It is a place of such overt vitality that the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, tells Gatsby “it looks like the World’s Fair.”
When Daisy spends her first afternoon at Gatsby’s, Carraway tells us it’s filled with “period bedrooms swathed in rose and lavender silk and vivid with new flowers.” And shirts. “Shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple and green and lavender and faint orange.” Here Fitzgerald fuses the natural fertility and beauty of flowers with manufactured wealth and aesthetic style. Gatsby’s “palace on the long island sound,” as the narrator calls it, is a veritable riot of richness and vibrancy.
But Fitzgerald describes the house through gothic undertones from the very start. In the novel’s first chapter, Carraway tells us that it “. . . was a colossal affair by any standard--it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool . . .” Fitzgerald’s reference to a city hall in Normandy calls to mind classic gothic architecture. Probably he’s thinking of Caen, which would have been the capital city of the province in the 1920s (see header image). But his vagueness allowed his contemporaries to imagine any Normandy capital building.
The tower, the ivy, and the marble are all traditional features of gothic castles, although Fitzgerald tempers the gothicness of Gatsby’s mansion when he describes the ivy as “thin.” Fitzgerald sprinkles hints of the gothic throughout the novel, describing one room as "a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.” Such descriptions associate the house with the old world, where aristocracies passed castles from generation to generation, and ivy grew thick and lush. When Fitzgerald uses the deceptively simple term “feudal” to characterize the house, he transports the house through time. It becomes, like Europe, a castle older than America itself. Gatsby’s house becomes emblematic of the kind of aristocracy that Colonel Pyncheon may have hoped to establish in America when he built his gothic House of the Seven Gables.
As you can see, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about more than a handsome rich man named Gatsby and his enduring love for his childhood flame named Daisy. It is about more than 1920s’ New York. Like Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Gatsby explores issues central to the founding of the United States - questions about what the United States really is, and what is should be. For whom the United States is, and for whom it should be. The limits of what we can accomplish.
What exactly does the novel have to say about these limits? And how does its message link to our beloved House of the Seven Gables?
Well, reader, I have bad news. You are going to have to wait until our next blogpost to learn! Unless you try to learn on your own. Either way, please check back shortly!