Mysteries of the House of the Seven Gables
The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second novel, is with the probable exception of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” the most influential work of gothic fiction in early American literature.
This claim may be hyperbole. But given the extent to which Gothic conventions pervade our popular culture, it is probably as true as saying that another novel most laid the foundations for the writing that came after it.
As the names of these two stories imply, architecture looms as a key element of the American Gothic. In literature a House is, as I’ve explained in at least one previous post, not a house. It is a symbol for the family, the nation, or a class.
The European writers from whom Poe and Hawthorne adapted their genre relied on the setting of the Medieval Castle for their tales of darkness, madness, and hauntings. Hawthorne and Poe, whose ancestors had only recently invaded this land, relied on the symbol of the old, crumbling, dilapidated House. American Romanticists venerated nature and sunshine, but Gothic writers used the House to create a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere wherein lurked hidden mysteries and madness. In a culture that idealized democracy, Poe and Hawthorne’s houses symbolize the threat of decaying aristocracies and hereditary wealth.
Hawthorne set his gothic novel in 1820’s New England, but he set his novel against the backdrop of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-3. The House’s progenitor, the powerful Colonel Pyncheon, accuses Matthew Maule, a poor man whose land he desires, of witchcraft. Pyncheon instigate Maule’s hanging, steals his land, and builds a mansion upon the foundations of Maule’s hut. At the same time that Colonel Pyncheon initiates an American aristocracy, he commits his ancestor’s original sin.
Long story short, that period between 1693 and 1820 leaves a lot of time for a lot to happen between the creation of the House and the actual plot of the novel. Hawthorne alludes to many exciting and terrible events that occur after Maule’s hanging. I’ve summarized some of these, as well as analyzed the novel’s relevance to our current culture here, and also here. But as much as I would want to, I couldn’t possible recap all of them for you, any more than Hawthorne felt he could record them.
In the opening pages of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne admits to the reader that in the space of one novel he cannot elucidate the sordid histories of the Pyncheon family, even their smallest portion:
Were these to be worthily recounted, they would form a narrative of no small interest and instruction, and possessing, moreover, a certain remarkable unity, which might almost seem the result of artistic arrangement. But the story would include a chain of events extending over the better part of two centuries, and, written out with reasonable amplitude, would fill a bigger folio volume, or a longer series of duodecimos, than could prudently be appropriated to the annals of all New England during a similar period. (Hawthorne, H7G, 1851.)
In the story that follows, Hawthorne focuses on the final few months of the two-hundred year saga of intergenerational sin and madness that he initiated in The House of the Seven Gables’ opening pages. The author casts the illusion of tying up the novel’s mysteries in what some readers find to be an overly didactic bow. In doing so, Hawthorne alleges that his story’s fantastical elements are easily explained by reason and observation, much as Poe explains apparently impossible events in his detective stories of C. Auguste Dupin.
Yet astute readers (that’s me and you) can discern when Hawthorne either fails to explain, or deliberately avoids unravelling, some the mysteries behind his novel plot. In the upcoming months, I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m going to publish a new blog series that explores The House of the Seven Gables’ greatest unsolved mysteries!
In each post, I’ll do you a solid and refresh your memory by summarizing how Hawthorne sets these mysteries in motion, how they unfold over the course of his novel, how he purports to resolve them, and then, in an added bonus, reveal to you what questions and possibilities Hawthorne left open for his readers.
Think you know everything about The House of the Seven Gables? Well check back, reader, in about a month, for the first installment of Mysteries of The House of the Seven Gables!