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The Missing Mother in The House of the Seven Gables - A study in Feminine Nature

by Dominique Régis Claisse
Université de Valenciennes, France

Dominique Régis Claisse,Université de Valenciennes, France
Dominique Régis Claisse,Université de Valenciennes, France
Human justice is in the hands of male characters in The House of the Seven Gables: the Colonel, though not a man of law himself, holds the sword and distorts human law to his own profit. The Judge, Jaffrey Pyncheon, whose social role is to administer justice, is brought to trial in chapter eighteen and found guilty. Paradoxically, the pair of scales, restored by Hepzibah, brings to mind a mythological female figure, Themis, the goddess of Justice. The speech of revenge in chapter eighteen, with its pervasive violence and relentlessness, suggests another mythological female character, Nemesis, the goddess of retaliation. Both are invisible, standing in the background, as representatives of a threatening and domineering female figure, the awful Mother.
At the dramatic level, there is no such character as a mother, but the psychoanalytical approach will show the mother’s importance throughout the romance. This absence at the conscious level of the narrative, and the alleged omnipresence of a mother’s figure in the writer’s unconscious, may open up new perspectives of analysis: beyond those two antagonistic interpretations, where and how can the presence of a mother be detected through the narrative or speech ? What is the place of the feminine in The House of the Seven Gables? After going through the analytical approach, which points to the clear presence of the mother in the writer’s psyche, this study will focus on the role and nature of imaginative powers: can the house and, even more, the garden, with their profusion of combined images, be intimations of femininity or motherhood? The paradox, based on absence and presence, may eventually be resolved in a quest for balance, either negative, when father and mother are forsaken, or positive, in the foretold union between Phoebe and Holgrave.

The Writer’s Psyche

Among the dramatis personae, there are three major female characters: one, Hepzibah, is an aged and grotesque spinster; the other two are maidens: Alice, a long-dead victim of male aggression, is portrayed negatively; the other, Phoebe, is the picture of a potentially successful woman. But, contrary to what happens in The Scarlet Letter, dominated by the figure of Hester, none is a mother. Conversely, the analysis of the writer’s unconscious supposedly conjures up the Mother as a central figure. Teresa Goddu sees the house in terms of sexuality (120), and focuses on the incestuous pattern of the Pyncheons. As to Pierre Met, “That beautiful house, the child’s ultimate protection, becomes the image of the mother’s womb (...)” (85); the house, which stands for the mother, is the object of desire, locked by speech, forbidden to the father, both a source of guilt and fear of castration. The course of events may be interpreted as the fulfilment of a desire under the form of “a sexual allegory”. In Met’s analysis, “Hawthorne imagines a situation which, by giving the mother the position of prime object of love and desire, shows, as if it had been achieved, the return of the child to a state of fusion” (165). The combination of two oedipian themes, “incest and parricide” (150), the distinction between “the bad mother, as place of sexuality, and the good mother, who supplies food” (149), are illustrations of the importance of the mother’s figure in this analytical approach.
The psychological intricacies in conscious characterisation, on the one hand, and insights into the writer’s psyche, on the other hand, have both been favourites in criticism, ever since the publication of the romance. They add up to its antithetic structure: consciousness and the unconscious, what the narrative reveals on purpose, or, conversely, unconsciously hides. Neurotic obsessions and ambiguities might be at the heart of the writer’s impulse, but can the secrets of The House of the Seven Gables be fully disclosed by a study in the writer’s unconscious ?
Part of the answer is supplied by Hawthorne himself: “It is only through the medium of the imagination that we can lessen those iron fetters, which we call truth and reality, and make ourselves even partially sensible what prisoners we are” (417).

The Imagination

Marks sees imagination as both the subject-matter and process of the romance (415). As for Brodhead, it gives access to “a private imaginative region, but without (the artist) becoming available through the process” (81). Henry James mentions the artificial sense of sin in Hawthorne’s mind, which becomes “the very essence of his imagination” (111-112), and Waggoner speaks of the romance as a mythopoetic masterpiece (413).
The House of The Seven Gables is much more intricate than the mere developments in characters or the narrative can suggest; but still, can the writer become the object of analysis, like a butterfly stuck with a pin ?
A study in the nature of imagination might help. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard asserts that the poetic image escapes the investigations of psychology and psychoanalysis (2). He insists on the incapacity of psychoanalysis to study the reality of poetic images, and quotes Carl Gustav Jung: “The poet becomes a clinical case, an example having a determined number in psychopathia sexualis”(qtd. in Bachelard, 14). According to Gilbert Durand, “the thesis of repression cannot account for artistic creation” (379), and instead of connecting imagination with the return of the repressed, he prefers to speak of it as a source of liberation. He questions the vision of imagination as “la folle du logis”, ‘the madwoman’; referring to Bergson, he writes: “At the ontological beginning of the spiritual adventure, instead of the fatal processes of change, we find their negation in the form of the fantastic function” (389).
How does that perception of Imagination as la fée du logis, ‘the perfect housewife’, fit into this study in feminine nature? Neither a puppeteer, nor a corpse or dead butterfly lying for observation, the writer calls up faculties that enable him to create life. Jung clearly connects the work of art with the feminine, and even the mother: “The psychology of the creative act is properly speaking a feminine psychology, as the creative work of art gushes out of the depths of the unconscious, which are specifically the domain of mothers” (219). Imagination connects male and female capacities, in that “(...) Imagination seems to be, in the final analysis, the maternal creative force of the masculine spirit” (222). In his classification of the structures of the imaginary, Durand discerns two orders: the diurnal order, based on antithesis, and the nocturnal order, based on euphemism; while the diurnal order is at the origin of verticalising or postural images, the nocturnal order will create images of “warm intimacy” (195), based on the archetype of descent, which refers to the feminine or the maternal. The images of earth and water create a sensual and happy atmosphere, which constitutes a rehabilitation of femininity. The euphemisation of death, the double negative and miniaturisation, or gulliverisation, are other keys to the nocturnal, feminine and motherly order in Durand’s perspective.
Durand’s fields of research echo so many elements in The House of The Seven Gables: darkness and the night, the light of the moon, the womb-like house, the ambiguous corpse, the treatment of death, which is clearly masculine in Hawthorne’s romance (137; 305), or the numerous examples of miniaturisation, among others.
Beyond the characters, the romance is also built upon three interrelated spheres: the street, which is the symbol of a male-dominated society, the ambivalent house, guarded by Hepzibah, and the garden. The feminine can first be detected in the house itself. It is personified: ”The battered visage of the House of the Seven Gables, black and heavy-browed (...)” (81). It has its proper “fate” (197), its own gurgle, and has custody of the secret and the letter. Its “human countenance” (Crews 178) is both feminine, as home, hearth and refuge, and masculine, with the seven gables, the fireplace and the identification with the major sins of the Pyncheons, a symbol of pride and Puritan haughtiness. It operates as a link between the street and the garden, and this spatial role is made more complex as it also works as a threshold that connects the narrative present to the past, a passage between the world of realities or “solid unrealities” (229) and the world of fantasies, ghosts and bubbles. Likewise, the house is both the outside and inside, the here and now, the place and process of interiorisation, as Clifford notices: “I thought of you both, as we came down the street, and beheld Alice’s Posies in full bloom. And so the flower of Eden has bloomed, likewise, in this old, darksome house, to-day” (308).The feminine essence of the house has been clearly shown by some critics; Roy Male for instance, wrote: “As a veritable ‘womb of time’, the house is also the repository of the word” (432). The ambiguity of its feminine nature and male appearance has been pointed out; by Met, for example: “The very conception of a house, a symbol that is rather feminine, equipped with seven gables, external phallic attributes, shows the desire to deny at once the difference between sexes and the threat of castration, whose agent might well be the father” (120). Analysing the archetype of the house, Durand speaks of “the feminoid semantics of the dwelling and the anthropomorphism resulting from it: a doublet of the body, (the house) is itself isotopic with the kennel, the shell, the fleece and finally with the maternal womb”(236). Bachelard draws a parallel between the house and the human soul :”It makes sense to see the house as an instrument to analyse the human soul”. The house combines the inside and the outside: “The images of the house work in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them” (19), and the maternal dimension also comes in the foreground: “The poet knows that the house holds motionless childhood in her arms” (27).
If we admit, with Roy Male (429), that the house and the street are two essential spheres where the major characters are moving, it might be of interest to consider the garden as a third one. It is a little patch of nature, a refuge for most of the major characters, and a place that the judge is not allowed to penetrate. The garden is indeed a major source of images, many of which refer to the mother, or more generally to the feminine. Nature, in The House, is humanised :”Nature made sweet amends” (284). It is not the wild forest of The Scarlet Letter, but it is kept within safe boundaries, even reducing in size (27). No longer “the Puritans’ dark model for all that is depraved” (Roberts 148), the wilderness has been turned into an epitome of nature, moderated by human culture, whose major gardener is Holgrave, the artist.
The garden generates seeds and roots, flowers and birds: the ruined bower, another version of the house that has been miniaturised and is gradually covered by the green hop-vine, is the place for rest, intimacy and mutual love, where Clifford is regenerated. As Durand observed, nature is clearly connected to the feminine: “The eternal feminine and the feeling for nature go hand in hand in literature” (226), and he connects several elements that make sense in the romance: “Circular space is rather that of the garden, fruit, egg or belly, and displaces the symbolic emphasis onto the secret pleasures of intimacy” (240).
Images might reflect the connections that are suggested by Jung in Die Seele und Das Leben (219), between the work of art, the feminine, the mother and the unconscious. In the romance, images come from various origins, but three main sources, namely alchemy, mythology and nature, are related to the object of this analysis. As analysed by Durand, the combination of these three sources creates complexes or constellations of images: “When symbols form a constellation, it is because they develop from a specific archetypal theme, because they are variations from an archetype” (44).
What are, in the romance, some of the archetypes that gave birth to the variations of symbols and metaphors, and, among them, which are more specifically related to the feminine or this “domain of mothers” ?
Alchemy, though not openly referred to, serves as a general background to the narrative: among other examples, the quest for the hidden letter, the secret recess, the sun seen as a source of gold that reveals the truth: “The sun, as you see, tells quite another story (...)”(92). Masculine death, the great dissolver, is linked to gold and truth: “Death is so genuine a fact that it excludes falsehood, or betrays its emptiness; it is a touch-stone that proves the gold, and dishonors the baser metal” (310). Change and mutation are at work, either in the dry rot and damp rot that threaten the house, the “dissolving acids” (121) of time, the “single branch (of the elm-tree) (that) has been transmuted to bright gold” (285), and the house itself : “(...) (The Posies) seemed, as it were, a mystic expression that something within the house was consummated” (286). But the alchemical process of transmutation or regeneration can also be detected in Clifford’s transfiguration (104), Phoebe’s and Holgrave’s love that “transfigured the earth” (307), or even the changeover from weeds to flowers. More basically, perhaps, at the level of writing, metaphors might be the sign of a mental alchemy, as Durand analyses it:” This is evident in metaphorical processes (...): all are distortions of objectivity and beyond the literal sense – the residue of linguistic evolution – they retrieve the vital original figurative meaning, effecting the unceasing transmutation of the letter into the spirit” (400). Once essentially a male activity and pilgrimage, based on the combination of two principles, one male and active, the other female and passive, alchemy has been reconsidered by Frieda Fordham in An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology: the traveller may hope “to find the treasure difficult to reach, the diamond body, the golden flower, the lapis, or any other name or form chosen to refer to the archetype of completeness, the self” (87-88). Besides, the moon, which is so present in the romance, is the feminine principle, the Mother in alchemy: “the goddess always fertilised but forever virginal, represented as a Woman crowned with stars and dressed in a lunar crescent “(Hutin 63). Still, Hawthorne is no alchemist; the Great Work is not his objective, nor is the philosopher’s stone; but the recurrent imagery and symbols used by alchemists, and revived by Jung in Psychologie und Alchemie, may help to understand some constellations of images and metaphors in the romance: the egg, were it an ironical and “diminutive” (153) one, is but another amusing example.
Likewise, mythology, whether Greek, Roman or other, is another vein that helps to apprehend the world of images. Themis and Nemesis, as goddesses representing justice, are two examples of a feminine divine presence. The physical absence of a full-size female character is so impressive that it makes it the more rewarding to trace one, behind the characters and all through the narrative. Mythology is directly present in some passages, as in the golden branch already quoted. Mother-earth, or Gaia, the Great Mother, is a universal archetype, as is the Old Wise Man, perhaps Uncle Venner in the romance. Phoebe, in ancient Greek mythology, is the Titan, often related to the moon, and grandmother of Artemis, the goddess of the Moon. In the romance, Phoebe, the character, is most often associated with the sun, when Holgrave prospers in the dark. This reversal or inversion, which is not unusual in The House of the Seven Gables, points to the apparent prevailing confusion between the feminine and the masculine. A short reference to Jung’s exploration of the male psyche may help at this stage: beyond the public persona, he detects the presence of the anima, also known as the feminine soul of man. According to Marie-Louise Von Franz, the Sophia is “the highest and most spiritual form of the anima” (228); incidentally, Sophia, the goddess of wisdom or “heavenly mother” (Durand 128), symbolised by the dove and so closely related to the Holy Spirit in religious terms, is also the name of Hawthorne’s wife, who is said to have given birth to angel-like and rustic Phoebe.
Both mythology and alchemy belong to human culture. They are often associated with Nature, the Great Cyclical Mother, that dispenses life and rejuvenation; much more than a mere provider of metaphors, Nature is one of the major sources of inspiration for the writer’s imagination, and it is mainly at work in the garden of the seven gables, as Uncle Venner calls it.

The Constellations of images

In order to give the final strokes that might permit to transform a blurred sketch into the full-size portrait of an absent mother, which might stand somewhere between the large portrait of the domineering Colonel, or dead father, and the miniature portrait of Clifford, or abortive child-artist, it now becomes necessary to study some constellations of images, most of which are related to the garden.
A choice has to be made in such a profusion; besides, nature is not idealised. It is not the nature of Romantics: good and evil, or admiration and rejection, will both be present here.
In the garden, “the feathered people” (89) make up a humorous and meaningful picture. Those “crack-brained humorists”, reduced in size, have bred a “feathered riddle” (152), new-born but so aged, the epitome of destiny facing time and death, preparing the way for the final step to regression, namely the “diminutive egg”, the beginning and the end, the all-in-all or completed cycle of alchemists, promised to ... the frying pan! The fowls are outrageously ridiculed and the metaphor is explicit: “the chicken itself was a symbol of the old house” (152). Still, they are related to the more elaborate complex of water: they are fond of snails, to be found on the margin of Maule’s well, and of the brackish water itself (150). Water, and its “incontrovertible femininity“ (Durand 99), is itself part of a constellation of images. The water of the fountain can be a mirror, the threshold of the imaginary, and a place for magic. It can also flood part of the garden, when the storm rages in chapter eighteen. The water, once “pure and pristine”, has become brackish, which connects it to sea-water, recalling that the house, built on a “sea-girt peninsula” (6), is like an island in the ocean, “the dwelling on water” of Durand (241). The image leads up to a temporary climax of pure intimacy, that gives birth to a timeless dream of unity and fusion: “The secret, so long as it should continue such, kept them within the circle of a spell, a solitude in the midst of men, a remoteness as entire as that of an island in mid-ocean; - once divulged, the ocean would flow betwixt them, standing on its widely sundered shores” (305). The threat of disclosure and separation recalls fissures or fractures; for example those of the earth that is split open at least three times. Two are related to death and ghosts: the graves of wizards and witches, in “the crevices of the rocks” (189), and the cracked tombstone of the Judge’s wife. One refers to water: “Maule’s well had overflown its stone border” (299).
Another combination of ambiguous images, which runs through the whole book, is that of cobwebs and spiders. That is the kingdom of Arachne, the mythological maiden who dared to challenge Minerva, and was turned into a spider. Hepzibah wipes off the cobwebs from the shop: “The rich and heavy festoons of cobweb, which it had cost a long ancestral succession of spiders their life’s labor to spin and weave” (35). She also removes them from the passage to Holgrave’s room: “She unbolted a door, cobwebbed and long disused” (244). The Judge’s imagined palace connects cobwebs with secrets, stagnant water and death: “The bolted closet with the cobwebs festooned over its forgotten door, or the deadly hole under the pavement, and the decaying corpse within” (230). A feminoid monster for Victor Hugo (Durand 103), the spider often has a negative symbolism (Durand 304). Still, cobwebs are not always negative in the romance, as is shown in the phrase: “Love’s web of sorcery” (319), or Phoebe being compared to a gold thread in the Puritan Web (76). The image is closely connected with the woof and warp: young and old women are criss-crossing, as in chapter three, where Hepzibah serves “a little girl, sent by her mother to match a skein of cotton-thread” (52), and chapter five, when Phoebe welcomes an old woman, “probably the very last person in town who still kept the time-honoured spinning-wheel” (78). The image is made richer when applied to Hepzibah’s voice, as it is associated with religion, silk, death and the thread of speech: “This miserable croak (...) is like a black, silken thread, on which the crystal beads of speech are strung (...)” (135). It may even be found in the recurring metaphor of the veiled maiden becoming a woman: “A veil was beginning to be muffled about (Phoebe)” (211). And, in chapter eighteen, couldn’t the silent voice of the hidden narrator be compared to a thread of speech that, little by little, forces the Judge into immobility before the final blow, like a fly trapped in a cobweb; a blow that is dealt by a spider which in Durand’s words, represents “the symbol of the ill-tempered mother who has succeeded in imprisoning the child in the toils of her web” ? (103-104). Likewise, the Lady at the Wheel, daughter of the Parcae, is “the spinner using this device, ‘one of the finest machines’, (is) mistress of rhythms and circular movement, and as the lunar goddess, (is) the lady of the moon and mistress of its phases” (Durand 311).
Similarly, miniaturisation takes on several aspects: the gigantic egg (88) turned into a diminutive one, the giant corpse teased by the minuscule fly or mouse, or the weather-beaten bower: this “green play-place of flickering light” (75) is also part of a process of regression and inversion, where Phoebe plays the part of a comforting mother or mistress for a broken child. It works like a nest, a womb where Clifford can be re-born. This little house is also part of a repetitive mode, a place within the place, just as there is a story within the story with Alice’s episode.
The natural images applied to Phoebe are numerous. She becomes the natural inmate of the garden, the one who restores, with flowers, the broken links between the garden and the house, just as she revives, as a shop assistant, the connections between the house and the street.
The garden may be “the Eden of a thunder-smitten Adam” (150), but it is first the legitimate abode of the feminine and motherly Phoebe; chapter fourteen offers a subtle and complex tangle of images and symbols, where mother, moonlight and nature unite to foretell the birth of a new Eve in her new Eden:
“(...) the summer Eve might be fancied as sprinkling dews and liquid moonlight (...)”(213). The moon, which is the feminine goddess of cyclical changes, presides over the love declaration: “The commonplace characteristics were now transfigured by a charm of romance”. The link from time to the myth of Eden is supplied by Holgrave himself, with a play on words: “I never watched the coming of so beautiful an eve” (214). He explains it away, a few minutes later, when he mentions “youth departed” and “youth regained”. But the major actor in this ‘Paradise Regained’ might well be Phoebe, the new Eve.
Seeds and roots are also favourite sources of natural imagery: the seeds of gigantic burdocks, that are evocative of death and graveyards, the long-forgotten seeds of beans, growing into red blossoms that attract the miniature humming-birds, and above all, those seeds, of European origin, sprouting out of the decaying matter on the roof, weeds turning into crimson-spotted flowers, that “the water of Maule’s Well suits (...) best” (288). Flowers have always been one of the favourite metaphors for the feminine, and, in the romance, tasks are apparently distributed in a most conventional manner, by Holgrave, who spoke “as if the garden was his own”: “You (Phoebe) can trim and tend (the flowers), therefore as you please(...)(93).‘ Phoebe’s Roses and Alice’s Posies are but the reflections of perfect flowers, so close to the human heart, as Hawthorne himself put it in The American Notebooks: “The human heart to be allegorised as a cavern; at the entrance, there is sunshine, and flowers growing about. (...) You find yourself in a region that seems, in some sort, to reproduce the flowers and sunny beauty of the entrance, but all perfect” (392). The French poet, Henri de Régnier, offers a poetic correspondence between Woman and flowers: “Woman is the flower opening at the entrance to subterranean and dangerous lives, (...) fissures leading to a high world where souls are engulfed” (qtd. in Durand, 224). That is far from the view of the psychoanalyst, who, according to Bachelard, “explains the flower with the fertiliser” which it needs to grow (12); and Durand strangely echoes Hawthorne’s previous quotation when he writes: “Images do not have value insofar as they conceal libidinous roots but because of the poetic and mythic flowers that they reveal” (40).
Young Phoebe, almost an angel, but already so much like a woman and prospective mother, comes as a sort of substitute to redeem the various and distorted images of mother and child that appear in the story: the hen and chicken, Hepzibah and Clifford, the nameless mother and child in the procession of ghosts, for example. She might also take the place of the missing mother, physically absent but so present throughout the romance. The father’s figure, called up to appear before court in chapter eighteen, is given up. Likewise, the ruined house is left, and so is the domineering, though apparently missing, mother’s figure. Her poor secret has come out and the veil is gradually passed onto Phoebe. As Bachelard suggests, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire: “isn’t any veiled apparition feminine, in accordance with this fundamental principle of unconscious sexualisation: all that is hidden is feminine ?”(95)


The House of The Seven Gables moves along antithetical lines, which bring to mind Durand’s diairetic or diurnal structures: night and day, good and evil, truth and appearances; absence and presence might be another way to approach the narrative. To use the language of photography, the negative reveals more than the actual picture. Bygones are bygones, whether they are fatherly or motherly, and the future lies in the conciliation between apparent opposites, in this case Phoebe and Holgrave. The masculine and the feminine are expected to merge for a new harmony: “homeless” (177) Holgrave finds in Phoebe a new womb-like shelter and intimacy, and the possibility “to plant a family” (185). Eventually, his very name, so redolent of death and decay, will be given up and Phoebe will become a Maule herself (316).
The father’s figure is characterised by ubiquity and vicariousness in the romance. It fades away when the Colonel’s portrait falls down, but this portrait also hid or protected the secret of the house, in the recess. The fall disclosed or unveiled the mother’s figure, which had been standing behind the scenes for so long, and has now gone, too. The narrator has investigated into feminine nature and, like a tangle of webs, has created a nexus of images that speak of water and flowers, cycle and renewal, the creation of a new-born intimacy. A new space has been imagined, for a new time, an eve that is the promise of another Eden.
Phoebe is the main contributor to this new harmony: aspiring for the sun and light, and so close to the moon, she holds the key to a new secret, not to be disclosed: “It is holy ground where the shadow falls” (178). Her alliance with Holgrave, so unconvincing for many critics, is made the richer through the negative stories of Alice and Matthew or Hepzibah and Clifford, “That queer couple of ducks” (289), but also through the combination of related metaphors; this network of images creates a texture, or a text, that makes sense: Society, like Nature, follows a cyclical rhythm, where apparent opposites are essential to keep the wheel moving. The Imaginary uses both feminine and masculine images, and proceeds to a cross-fertilisation. Creative imagination moves freely, in between the various references to different past episodes, most of which are located in the same place; one of the best examples being the negative story of Alice, which contaminates the present narrative by means of its timeless seeds. Thus, the reader’s imagination is made free to fill in the blanks that are left on purpose, throughout the story: who killed Judge Pyncheon ? Where is the mother ? What about the feathered riddle ? Why leave the house to its fate ? Is Alice’s episode a short story, or a source of poetic seeds ?

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard wrote: “Space consists of countless alveoli, compartments of compressed time. That is the purpose of space” (27). The sentence was completed by Durand: “Yes, and that is the purpose of the fantastic, because the fantastic function is an infinite reserve of eternity to combat time” (393). And The House of the Seven Gables is so rich in countless alveoli, connected together by poetic gold threads, among which the most beautiful could be this new version of ‘the Eternal Feminine’, Alice and her Posies.


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