Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to spark more hatred from people than most “classic” novelists I’ve encountered. My only explanation for this is that, with the exception perhaps of The Great Gatsby, his novel The Scarlet Letter is probably the most common classic novel that people are forced to read in school—in America, at least. This creates greater chance for people who would normally not read a novelist of his era or style to encounter him, and of course, when one is forced to read something, it generally creates animosity. Though, I don’t understand the intensity of hatred I’ve seen expressed towards him and his works (most notably The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables). People seem to take his novels as a personal affront; so much so, that I’ve read reviews wherein readers make radical attacks agaisnt Hawthorne the person rather than Hawthorne the author. I just want to assure people: Hawthorne wasn’t trying to insult you by writing something you didn’t enjoy; and, from what I’ve read about him, he seems like a fairly interesting and likeable fellow—so calm down.
Now on to my thoughts about The House of the Seven Gables. Personally, I felt this novel was worse than The Scarlet Letter, but I don’t consider either of them bad pieces of literature. For an American novel of this era, the prose is no worse or less than most others: at times flourishing and lyrical, at others convoluted and boring. I think the main failing is in the structure and scope of the novel though.
Hawthorne has set up a personal tale about the weight of the past and the the consequences of deep-seated guilt. The main sin he deals with is greed, and the two actions caused by this greed is loss of land and loss of freedom. Matthew Maule’s land is taken from him by Colonel Pyncheon, and Clifford Pyncheon’s freedom is taken from him by Judge Pyncheon. An interesting concept to consider is that Hawthorne is using his story of a family’s sorid history to deal with the much larger issue of America’s none-too-guiltless past—the theft of land and freedom specifically. I don’t know that he had that in mind, but it makes for an interesting metaphor. Unfortunately, the metaphor and message of the novel lack the teeth to leave a mark from a bite that should be able to leave a noticable wound.
The main cause of this lackluster feeling drawn from the novel is that Hawthorne does not develop the story as it should be. For a novel of this size, why are we given such long descriptions of Clifford and Pheobe’s time spent in the garden or looking out the window. As interesting and poetic as his descriptions can be, it felt like they led no where. The end of the novel doesn’t feel like it came about because that was where the story was headed, but because that was where the author wanted it to go. This is doubly disappointing because I felt he accomplished that rather well in The Scarlet Letter. And speaking further about development, I felt like I should’ve known the characters a bit more after spending nearly two hundred and fifty pages with them, and that I should’ve been able to see a noticable change in them. Aside from Clifford being a bit more clear-headed in the end, there was no development. They were all happier in the end, except Judge Pyncheon, and that’s great for them; however, Hawthorne didn’t really make me feel like this happiness mattered. Probably because he never made me feel like their misery matter.
As for the scope of the novel, I think that for a story of this type, it should’ve been structured as either much shorter or much longer. Personally, I think a longer version would’ve given the grandeur that the theme demanded and given Hawthorne more time to actually draw out the personalities and importance of the characters.
I do have some positives to say about the book though. Obviously, I thought the theme was impressive. The concept of the weight of the past on individuals and upon family lines makes for some interesting reading, in my opinion; and my favorite parts of the book were the prologue covering the origins of the curse and Holgrave’s short story about Alice Pyncheon, which made me think that this novel could’ve been truly great had it covered the entire two hundred year history of the Pyncheon family. (I can almost hear the groans of the people who thought the novel was too long as it was.) The atmosphere of the novel was also quite compelling. The gloominess of it all made for rather good October reading, and I wonder if I would’ve liked it as much if I had read it in spring. Aside from that, his ornate prose can be highly enjoyable, though I know many readers are split about that topic. Like I said, his prose is either wonderful or boring. Sometimes he’ll slip out of one and right into the other seemlessly. I would actually catch myself going from being extremely engrossed to completely tuned out in the midst of one sentence. To be fair though, Hawthorne does have some lengthy sentences sometimes.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
I went to get groceries and while I was locking up my bike some woman told me I shouldn’t have my headphones on while riding my bike. I just looked her right in the eye and said, “It’s a good thing I’ve got my ‘I Don’t Care Sweater’ on.”
It rained today inside of me
Winds of dismay, they blew me away
I felt the change in the weather, whether it be my blame to place
It’s over now
I wanted to walk
Oh and you, you wanted to breathe
I wanted to talk
Oh and you, you wanted to sleep