Critical Essays Hawthorne's Preface


When Hawthorne defined his purpose as a writer of "romances," his first care was to distinguish the romance from the novel. After we finish reading his definition of a novel, as opposed to a romance, we get the feeling that Hawthorne was groping toward a conception of fiction that was more unique than he realized. Others before him, from Henry Fielding on, had wondered where to place fiction among the several kinds of literature, but Hawthorne's emphasis on fiction as an art form, his insistence that it be tested by laws appropriate to its mode of existence rather than to its accuracy as a document, clearly establishes a sound critical principle for distinguishing the novel from a romance. Other critics such as Henry James, who wrote a critical book on Hawthorne, elaborates upon the distinction, but, here, Hawthorne's choice of an analogy is particularly relevant to his argument. But most important of all to Hawthorne's distinction between a romance and a novel is his life-long insistence that the kind of truth which he wanted to portray was the "truth of the human heart," and that the best way to portray this was by using the strategy of indirection. The "truth" which he hoped to conceive is of a different order from the truth conveyed by ordinary didactic fiction, by philosophy, or by the symbolism of the exact sciences. It is a truth that can be expressed only in the images of the imagination, and as Hawthorne himself thought, this truth cannot be "grasped" except in such images. The most striking way in which Hawthorne's work foreshadows all modern fiction lies in the mythic and poetic aspects of his novel.

When, in the Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne made his now famous distinction between the novel and the romance, he was not at all intending to assign "truth" to the novel and mere "fantasy," or escapist dreaming, to the romance. He was distinguishing between "fact" (which the novel deals with) and "truth" (which is the traditional province of the romance), and at the same time he was suggesting an orientation in which "fact" is external and "truth" internal. So far as he was defending, implicitly, the validity of his own practice as a romancer, he was implying the word "mere" before the word "fact." (He was ambivalent about this, as he so often was on other matters, to be sure. He thought that Emerson was too idealistic, and he greatly admired the "beef and ale" realism of Anthony Trollope.)

The romantic artist creates, Hawthorne thought, by transforming fact into symbol — that is, by transforming it into meaningful fact. Facts which he cannot see as meaningful may be discarded. He is at liberty to manipulate his materials, to shape them freely into meaningful patterns, so long as he does not violate the "truth of the human heart." Hawthorne felt that he himself could best pursue his desired truth by looking within and exercising a kind of imaginative sympathy in both his subject and his method. In a very suggestive metaphor in another of his prefaces — that to The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales in 1851 — he defined his role as an artist as that of a person who has been burrowing into the depths of human nature by the light of observation.

In addition to his theory of fiction, Hawthorne also tells us the subject of The House of the Seven Gables; that theme, he says, is that wrong and retribution, as well as sin and suffering, will be carried on through generations. He further announces that he will observe how the wrongdoing of one generation lives into successive generations until it finally becomes a "pure and uncontrollable mischief." In an even more serious tone, he adds that he hopes that this work might warn mankind against accumulating "ill-gotten gold, or real estate," and bequeathing them to later, innocent generations. The romance provides, then, in Hawthorne's view of the matter, texts for sermons on the sins of pride and avarice and on the fact of mutability.

The novel, on the other hand, presents us with the "legendary mist" of the distant past, intermingling with the memories of the recent past, especially in the minds of the House of the Seven Gable's inhabitants. Hawthorne combines his conviction about the continuum of history and about the interdependence of person and place into a complex idea of a self extended in time, in space, and through its own layered awareness. Within that self, the past intrudes on the present as the subconscious intrudes on the conscious. In this sense, the novel presents the old Pyncheon house, haunted by the guilt of the founder and the ghost of his victim.

Hawthorne knows that what he wants to say cannot be said wholly in the Preface; thus, here he comments more freely on his intentions in the work than was customary with him, and then he tells us to read the novel attentively if we would know its meaning.

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