About The House of the Seven Gables


About six months after the publication of The Scarlet Letter on March 16, 1850, Hawthorne began writing The House of the Seven Gables. On January 12, 1851, it was finished, and Hawthorne said he preferred it to the earlier romance. However, neither the general reading public nor the literary critics, it has turned out, agreed with him. The Scarlet Letter has, almost from the beginning, outsold The House of the Seven Gables and has evoked a massive number of critical essays that the latter will probably never approach. Nevertheless, The House of the Seven Gables has continued to hold a fascination for both readers and critics because of its richness.

The variety of ways in which The House of the Seven Gables has been interpreted by perceptive critics is a clue to that richness. The novel has been read as a parable on the nature and effects of Original Sin. It has been read as a more nearly complete working out of the theme of Hawthorne's short story "Lady Eleanor's Mantle" — that is, that pride and death are inseparable companions: They sit together in the darkening room that is at once the heart of the old Pyncheon house and the tomb of Judge Jaffrey's ambitions. The novel has been read as the most impressive artistic statement of Hawthorne's democratic beliefs; according to this reading, the aristocratic Pyncheons discover that death and suffering are no respecters of persons and that they, the Pyncheons, must give up their pretensions to superiority and mingle with "the common people" and, in particular, the "common" Maules. The House of the Seven Gables has been read as a statement of the archetypal theme of withdrawal and return, which Hawthorne interpreted as isolation and redemptive reunion. It has also been read as Hawthorne's maturest statement on man's relationship to the past, considered as determinative for the future, and on whether, or how, man can escape from the bondage which the past imposes. It has also been read as a piece of charmingly poetic realism, a sort of forerunner of the "local color" tales of old New England that were so popular after the Civil War.

The House of the Seven Gables can engage the reader successfully either in its love story, its picturesque Salem history, its Yankee humor, its romantic legend, its modern realism, its melodrama, or even its few moments of gothic terror.

In order to take a sufficiently inclusive view of The House of the Seven Gables, we must both examine and look beyond even Hawthorne's own surface emphasis; the author does mean what he says about his characters and their doings, but his deeper hints of characterization, his imagery, and the direction of his plot all bespeak an overriding concern with something of importance for all of us who read the novel.

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