Sunday, May 14, 2006

"The House of Seven Gables"

Here's Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables:
A large and generous production, pervaded with that vague hum, that indefinable echo, of the whole multitudinous life of man, which is the real sign of a great work of fiction.
Jane Smiley is not so generous in her take on the novel:
Hawthorne doesn't deliver on the promise of the tale--that the story will be entertaining. The novel turns out to be sober but not realistic, mysterious but not entertaining, and so doesn't succeed as either a romance or a realistic novel.
Smiley does however offer an interesting conjecture about what Hawthorne may have been up to with this story.
The novel was written in 1850, when Americans were broadly conscious of both the moral compromises of slavery and of the eradication of Native Americans but had not decided how to act upon their misgivings. It is possible, I think, to read the static and heavily moralistic qualities of Hawthorne's novel as a resistance to considering larger questions of injustice and guilt in favour of contemplating minor ones. The novel is attempting to interpret history as entirely personal, through the lens of a family curse, but the characters cannot as yet imagine how to solve even their minor dilemmas--they are stuck in a state of unhappiness and moral unease until something happens that is outside their control, and miraculously, that thing brings prosperity.
If Smiley nixes any desire I ever had of reading this novel, she also suggests an intriguing alternative:
[The House of the Seven Gables] bears comparison with Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor because it makes use of similar materials--old curses, fated outcomes and family histories. But whereas Scott is careful to make the psychology of the characters and their interactions mesh with the omens and predictions, so that by acting within character the characters seem to work out their destinies as predicted, Hawthorne is less of a psychologist and more of a moralist. His few characters are not so much agents of the plot as objects of the narrator's observations and victims of circumstances.
The Bride of Lammermoor...does face up to history and acknowledge its moral complexities; characters act and react to the consequences of their actions, but Scott also makes canny use of folkloric elements, so the novel gives the pleasures of both realism and romance. Scott has a political philosophy that encompasses injustice, hatred, revenge, and the passage of time that leads to reconciliation.

Click here to download a free copy of The House of the Seven Gables. Click here to download a free copy of The Bride of Lammermoor.

For other essays in the Smiley series in the Guardian, click here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue