Book Review: The House of Seven Gables by Nathanial Hawthorne

I fear the more I read classic American literature through my 1001 books quest, the more irritated I’m going to become. Not with the material; in fact, by the time I closed The House of the Seven Gables last night, the welcome sense of satisfaction a well written book always leaves me with almost made me forget the issues I had with the novel. What is irritating is the lack of visual adaptations of American literary history. I mentioned this in my review of The Awakening and have little to add to the sentiment, except my growing realization that Americans just don’t appreciate their literary history like we should.

The house, in Salem, Mass, said to have inspired Hawthorne.

A year ago, I posted a rather scathing review of The Scarlett Letter. The good news is I liked The House of Seven Gables better. Of course, I’m a sucker for stories spanning multiple generations, though I’m constantly doing the math* to figure out what year what happened, what the style of clothes the people in various ages would be wearing and what was happening in England at the time (i.e., was Jane Austen born yet?).  Add to that witchcraft, a 150 year old curse and a creepy, haunted house, so much the better!

*If I would have known this would be my primary application for math in adulthood I probably would have paid more attention.

The bad news is the problems I had Hawthorne’s writing style in The Scarlett Letter are still evident in The House of the Seven Gables.

“He uses pages of prose to describe the inner turmoil of the various characters when a paragraph, or sometimes a well-crafted sentence, would do. {snip} But, probably 2/3 of the book is navel gazing by the characters or emotional exposition by the narrator…” my review of The Scarlett Letter

What makes this all the more frustrating in The House of Seven Gables is that when Hawthorne finally does give the reader character interaction and bring the story to the barn, so to speak, it’s damn good writing. Even lost amid the pages and pages of detailed character exposition are brilliant insights into the human condition, specifically the American mind, that resonate today. My favorite describes the very phenomena of history repeating itself and the constancy of humanity.

“You are aware, my dear sir, you must have observed it, in your own experience – that all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future.” ~ pages 259-260, Penguin Classics Edition (1981)

The novel is full of symbolism; it’s easy to see why it would be a favorite of American literature classes. In fact, I would have much rather read this novel in high school than The Scarlett Letter. With that said, there were many times during the middle of the novel that I felt sorry for any high schooler that would have to slog through exposition about Clifford’s love of beauty and Phoebe’s sunny nature. I almost put the book down when Hawthorne took three pages to describe and talk about the ancestral chickens. Of course, I realized that though he was talking about the chickens he was really describing the Pyncheon family, which made it more bearable but only slightly.

I picked this novel up after finishing the first volume of Great Expectations  to contrast the writing styles between American (Hawthorne) and British (Dickens) contemporaries. (A better comparison would, probably, be between Twain and Dickens.) While Hawthorne could be very witty and creative in his exposition (there is an entire chapter about a dead man written in the most fascinating point of view I’ve read in a while) the overall tone of his writing is more staid and preachy. In short, he seems to take himself and what he is trying to say more seriously than Dickens who uses satire effectively to hold the mirror up to the foibles of his countrymen. Which style the reader likes better will depend on tastes of the reader. For me, I will be much more likely to re-read Great Expectations than The House of the Seven Gables.

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