The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

March 17, 2009

house-of-the-seven-gables When I was in high school, I had to read a lot of Hawthorne in my American Lit class. I clearly remember tackling The Scarlet Letter, as well as a whole bunch of his short stories. Since I liked those works, I always meant to go back and read more Hawthorne when I had a chance. Recently I came across a copy of The House of the Seven Gables in my basement, and decided to try it. Honestly, I should have left well enough alone!

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): It’s hard to come up with a true plot summary for this book because not much happens in it! Hawthorne begins with a Prologue to tell the readers a bit of history about a seven-gabled house in a small New England town. The house was owned by a man named Colonel Pyncheon, who allegedly got title to the prime land by nefarious means. The Colonel accused the rightful owner, Matthew Maule, of being a sorcerer, which resulted in Maule being hanged — but not before putting a curse on the Colonel and his descendants.

The book then jumps forward a couple of generations. The Pyncheon house is now in a shambles, as the family money has fallen into the hands of Judge Pyncheon who no longer lives in the house. In fact, only the elderly Hepzibah Pyncheon still lives there, and her financial circumstances are so dire that she must open a cent shop under one of the gables in order to make ends meet. Hepzibah also takes in a boarder named Holgrave, who, unbeknownst to her, is a descendant of the Maule clan.

Soon, Hepzibah’s distant cousin Phoebe comes in from the country for a visit, and ends up staying in the house to help with the cent shop. A short time later, Hepzibah’s brother Clifford returns to the house after being imprisoned on murder charges. When Judge Pyncheon gets wind of Clifford’s return, he does everything he can to secure a meeting with Clifford because he believes that Clifford knows where a long-lost deed to a large, valuable tract of land is hidden. Hepzibah refuses to let this meeting occur, and she flees the house with her brother.

The judge ends up dying in the House of the Seven Gables in much the same manner that Colonel Pyncheon died many decades before. Clifford and Hepzibah return home, and upon learning that they’ve inherited the judge’s money as the only living relatives, move to a new place — with the soon-to-be-married Holgrave and Phoebe in tow.

Liked:

  • The initial history of the Pyncheon house and the feud with the Maule family was pretty interesting. The book would have been much better if that was the focus instead of just serving as a background piece.

Disliked:

  • How is it possible that the book turned out to be as long as it was?? There were just a few significant events that I can recall (Phoebe’s arrival, Clifford’s return, and the judge’s death), none of which required so many pages to describe.
  • Hawthorne’s endless descriptions of the minutiae surrounding the Pyncheons’ lives added nothing to the tale and made the novel drag on FOREVER. For instance, was it really necessary to go on and on about the chickens? Yes, I get that this was supposed to symbolize how the Pyncheons themselves were on the decline, but seriously, there were other ways Hawthorne could have expressed this point.
  • Three whole chapters to account for Hepzibah’s first day as a cent-shop proprietress? Ugh… see what I mean?
  • A whole chapter talking about how the judge appears to be sleeping in his chair but is actually dead? Yeah, this is why the book ended up being so long.

Rating:

I’ve read a lot of “classics” in my time, a lot of character-driven books where nothing much happens in the way of action, so I know what to expect from these types of works. Still, you need compelling characters in order to succeed, but Hawthorne just doesn’t have that here. The House of the Seven Gables was a tedious exercise in perseverance on the reader’s part, one that I will not be repeating in this lifetime. I give it 1 star out of 5.

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