The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The invitation to a group read of The House of the Seven Gables, extended by Frances and Audrey was enticing, but I hesitated. My only previous experience with Hawthorne, ‘The Scarlet Letter’, was less than happy. In fact it was hard work.

But something about this book called me. I never could resist a book about a house …

“Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm-tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon Elm.”

An opening chapter reveals much of the history of the house.

A house built on disputed land.

One party to that dispute was Matthew Maule, a man tried and executed for witchcraft. From the scaffold he curse Colonel Pynchon, the man who finally won the land and the man he blamed for his demise.

Colonel Pynchon won the land, built his great house, but there was much to suggest that he and his family were cursed …

I was entranced. That chapter read beautifully, the story was simple and yet it seemed so rich. I saw many possibilities, and I quite forgot that I had expected Hawthorne to be difficult.

And then the story moved forward, to the middle of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne’s age.

The house was still home to the Pynchon family, but their circumstances had been very much reduced. There was  Hepzibah, an elderly spinster struggling to make a living from a cent shop. There was her brother, Clifford, who has recently been freed from prison, and who may be a broken man. There was Holgrave, a lodger, who worked as a daguerreotypist and who studied the past. And there was Phoebe, a young cousin, newly arrived from the country, who held the household together.

Each character was beautifully drawn, and I was fascinated as I watched their interactions, as I watched their daily lives as I wondered just where the author was going to take me.

The story was rich with symbolism, and full of questions about guilt, retribution, atonement …

The intervention of another member of their family, the greedy and ambitious Judge Pyncheon, brought the story to a head.

The resolution was simple but perfect.

And now I really don’t know what to write.

I have said little about the plot, because it is elaborate and I can’t separate it from the rest of the book. The context, the history, the symbolism, the themes …

There is so much in this book, far too much still buzzing in my head for me to write coherently.

All I can say is that I have read, I have reacted, and I have conquered my fear of Hawthorne.

8 responses

  1. I loved The House of the Seven Gables!! You really have to be in the mood to read Hawthorne – his style is so ornate! – but once you start reading, you become totally engrossed. Time seems to slow down – you can almost feel the timbers of the old house breathing… And Phoebe is simply lovely!

  2. You say you don’t know what to write but you do. Lovely. So glad that the book captured your imagination as well. I slid right into the read and kept having trouble separating myself from it. It is much less thorny than The Scarlet Letter. I think the author allowed his own temperament to shine through the text a little.

  3. I’m so glad you read this with us! I have to admit I wasn’t especially expecting to enjoy this book (more feel virtuous because I had read it), but I did — and you captured many of the reasons why,
    Thanks for joining us!

  4. I haven’t read it, but as a child read the Classics Illustrated comic, and was entranced by it. I can see the characters, Hepzibah sadly going from Lady to Shopkeeper by finally accepting a coin from a child for gingerbread. the ghosts wandering around the sitting room at night, the artist boarding upstairs, the fresh young Pheobe. I think I might just have to read the original.

  5. My mother always urged me to read this as a teen because she liked it, but I don’t think Hawthorne and teens go very well together. I loved The Scarlet Letter in college and would probably appreciate this more now.You make the characters sound very appealing to read about.

  6. This book has been calling to me for years, too… but my reaction wasn’t quite as positive. The house, the characters, the atmosphere were all well done, so I’m struggling to express why I didn’t like it more. Still, it was much better than The Scarlet Letter.

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