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Reality and Unreality in <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i>

Reality and Unreality in The House of the Seven Gables

By Rob Velella
Independent scholar
For Hawthorne Society 2014
Illustration depicting Clifford blowing soap-bubbles (cf. chapter XI "The Arched Window") from frontispiece to <I>The House of the Seven Gables</I> published in 1880 by Houghton, Osgood and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge
Illustration depicting Clifford blowing soap-bubbles (cf. chapter XI "The Arched Window") from frontispiece to The House of the Seven Gables published in 1880 by Houghton, Osgood and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge (courtesy of Halldor F. Utne)

      There in seclusion and remote from men
      The wizard hand lies cold,
      Which at its topmost speed let fall the pen,
      And left the tale half told.
These words form part of the poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote shortly after attending the funeral of Nathaniel Hawthorne 150 years ago. About 20 years later, their mutual friend Oliver Wendell Holmes echoed the description in his poem “At the Saturday Club” by calling Hawthorne “the Essex wizard.” At about the same time, Bronson Alcott offered his own similar description in a sonnet, referring to “some stroke of magic,” the “enchanted spell,” and “that wizard tale” he told, before concluding he was a “Magician deathless!”

I will argue the “magic” seen by Hawthorne’s contemporaries is best displayed in The House of the Seven Gables. Some 20th century scholars including William Charvat and others have referred to the 1851 novel as his most intentionally commercial work and one which was written mostly to satisfy public tastes. Such a dismissive assessment is too simplistic and is belied by the author’s careful craftsmanship in writing the novel, which he admitted was more difficult than writing The Scarlet Letter.i Referring to its progression, particularly when his publisher James T. Fields pushed him to complete the book quickly, Hawthorne responded with imagery that his work was like building a literal house and, equally tellingly, that he was planting a garden: “I must not pull up my cabbage by the roots, by way of hastening its growth.”ii

To accomplish this magic, Hawthorne mixed reality and unreality – terms he used at least 12 times throughout the book – to create a novel which offers his greatest exploration of ambiguity and its impact on the reader. Hawthorne, as a wizard not unlike Matthew Maule himself, uses his narrative voice to cast a spell over his readers to confuse their knowledge of what is really occurring as the plot progresses. Certainly, Hawthorne was effective among his contemporaries, as best noted, perhaps, by western Massachusetts author Catharine Sedgwick who noted, “The book is an affliction… It affects one like a passage through the wards of an insane asylum.”iii Hawthorne serves as a narrator who is alternately heterodiegetic (not taking part in the plot) or homodiegetic (a character within the plot) in that he sometimes has complete knowledge of his characters and story, and yet sometimes places himself among those characters and watches the story unfold the same way the characters do. Ultimately, he is best described as an omniscient author who displays an awareness of this role in the text, to the point where Hawthorne playfully refuses to release helpful information, denies his knowledge of others, and purposely plants false evidence to set a mood of suspense and create an aura of confusion. I stop short at using modern terms like “sleight of hand” or “misdirection” or other magic tricks, but the concepts of those techniques are certainly present.

For the sake of this paper, “reality” refers to the fictional reality of the book, but I will also use the term “unreality” to refer to the confused reality in the book, possible or even likely to be representative of reality, but unproven to be so. Hawthorne himself used the term “unreality” in the novel. In the chapter on “Maule’s Well,” Phoebe has trouble discerning the source of an uncertain sound, said to resemble only the utterance of a feeling: “So vague was it, that its impression or echo in Phoebe's mind was that of unreality.” Much later in the novel, in the chapter “The Flight of the Two Owls,” Hepzibah Pyncheon has a similar feeling, such that she questions her own corporeality: “As they went on, the feeling of indistinctness and unreality kept dimly hovering round about her, and so diffusing itself into her system that one of her hands was hardly palpable to the touch of the other.”

This confusion over reality and unreality appears as early as the first chapter. When Colonel Pyncheon is found dead, Hawthorne presents the “facts” of the scene as a series of rumors passed down through the generations. This is a conscious choice on the part of Hawthorne, who should need neither rumors nor generations of legend to tell the story; he himself is the creator of the story. This form of authorial detachment will be repeated throughout the book. He does not truly confirm, for example, marks of violence on Colonel Pyncheon – “marks of fingers on the throat,” a bloody hand print, disheveled beard, and even “the figure of a man” seen, or perhaps not seen, “clambering over the garden fence.” Instead Hawthorne dismisses these details as “folly” immediately after introducing them: “For our own part,” he writes, “we allow them just as little credence as to that other fable of the skeleton hand which the lieutenant governor was said to have seen at the Colonel’s throat, but which vanished away.”iv For the purpose of storytelling, Hawthorne – who already knows if Colonel Pyncheon has been murdered or not – allows a mystery for the reader as to the true cause of death, implying murder or supernatural causes, even as he dismisses both. In fact, Hawthorne gives the actual cause of death in that paragraph: apoplexy. The “magic,” then, is planting suspicion in the reader even as he tells the reader not to be suspicious.

Further, Hawthorne denies information which may or may not add to the story in order to keep a certain focus. In skipping the generations that pass in the House of the Seven Gables between Colonel Pyncheon and Hepzibah Pyncheon, Hawthorne writes that he knows little about this fictional family he has himself invented. Instead, he refers to a mirror in the house which is believed to contain all the reflected images from those generations. “Had we the secret of that mirror,” he writes, “we would gladly sit down before it, and transfer its revelations to our page.”v Of course, there is no mirror, and therefore no revelations it can offer, outside of Hawthorne’s own text. As such, his claimed inability to see into the mirror is a fictional ploy. This is a particularly interesting choice when considered alongside another object Hawthorne created, the miniature portrait Hepzibah keeps in a secret drawer. In chapter two, he writes, “It was once our good fortune to see this picture.”vi He then describes the image in detail. Both the mirror and the miniature are fictional devices, but Hawthorne chooses which one offers information to the reader, and which does not.

The most important example of withholding information is the true identity of Holgrave and his descent from the Pyncheon family nemesis Matthew Maule, a character who was put to death as a wizard. Shortly after Holgrave’s introduction, he praises Hepzibah for opening up the small shop in the House of the Seven Gables and calls it an act so noble that not even “the old wizard Maule’s anathema” would be able to undo it. The mention of the family curse displeases Hepzibah, who says, “If old Maule’s ghost, or a descendent of his, could see me behind the counter today, he would call it the fulfillment of his worst wishes.”vii In fact, she is staring face to face with a Maule descendent, a fact which a first-time reader would not know, but the author certainly does.

This same author also knows the future, including the final fate of Clifford Pyncheon. After noting that Clifford will retain his love for the beautiful until the end, we are given a brief deathbed scene: “In his last extremity, the expiring breath stealing faintly through Clifford’s lips, he would doubtless press Hepzibah’s hand, in fervent recognition of all her lavished love, and close his eyes – but not so much to die as to be constrained to look no longer on her face!”viii

The amount of information Hawthorne knows as the authorial or narrative voice is limitless in the novel, even to God-like proportions – literally. When Hepzibah wonders aloud why a wealthy neighbor does not have to work as she does, she immediately feels penitent and ashamed, calling out “May God forgive me!” Not to worry, Hawthorne tells us, “Doubtless, God did forgive her.”ix How Hawthorne knows God’s decisions is not noted, but perhaps a line in the chapter “The Daguerreotypist” will help: “God is the sole worker of realities!” In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne is the creator of that entire world and, therefore, he has complete godlike control over his creation.

More than this, Hawthorne is acutely aware of the methods he is using and ironically expresses this awareness throughout, as in the case of being unable to view the Pyncheon mirror but somehow still seeing Hepzibah’s secret miniature. Several times in the novel, Hawthorne as narrator breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, in addressing the reader or acknowledging his role as author. In chapter 8, “The Pyncheon of Today,” for example, he notes that Phoebe hears a sort of gurgle in Judge Pyncheon’s throat – “a queer and awkward ingurgitation” – but, Hawthorne refuses to confirm the apoplectic symptom, noting it was something “which the writer never did hear, and therefore cannot describe.”x The detail is more than moderately important, as the scene both foreshadows and refuses to foreshadow Judge Pyncheon’s ultimate fate. One might also argue that, at least for a few hundred words, Hawthorne refuses to acknowledge the reality of that final fate in the chapter “Governor Pyncheon,” where he describes the corpse at length without calling it a corpse. We are then led to believe that the gentle lover of the beautiful Clifford may have murdered him.

Judge Pyncheon is an important character in understanding the difference between the real and the apparently real. Throughout, Hawthorne presents a smiling, benevolent character, whose inherent goodness is confirmed by his actions, his social status, and the respect earned from his neighbors. Yet, both Hawthorne and his readers continuously question this character and his perpetual smile. His text offers all the information necessary for us to trust Judge Pyncheon, but Hawthorne himself does not make a final decision: “And yet, as strong as this evidence may seem to be, we should hesitate to peril our own conscience on the assertion that the Judge and the consenting world were right… Hidden from mankind – forgotten by himself… there may have lurked some evil and unsightly thing.”xi That suspicion is echoed in the daguerreotypes taken by Holgrave; after a half a dozen attempts, he admits that he can never capture that benevolent smile and instead the image is: “sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice.”xii His method, he claims, brings out the secret character of the subject. The truth, then, appears not in what appears to be reality, but in a false replica of reality.

Hawthorne acknowledges his own purposeful confusion over the apparent and the substantially real as early as the preface, in which he both concedes and denies there is a physical house or town that inspired the setting of the romance: “the book may be read strictly as a Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex.”xiii Also in the preface, Hawthorne lays out the moral for the story right from the outset, and begs his readers to learn enough from the book to overcome the sort of negative inheritance experienced by the Pyncheons. In the next sentence, nevertheless, he undoes that same request, noting: “In good faith, however, he [as in, the author] is not sufficiently imaginative to flatter himself with the slightest hope of this kind.”xiv The presented moral being immediately rescinded is echoed in a later chapter, “The Arched Window,” when the reader is introduced to an organ-grinder whose instrument includes several human figures that move while the music is played: “The cobbler wrought upon a shoe; the blacksmith hammered his iron; the soldier waved his glittering blade,” etc. In spite of all the work these figures do, however, the shoe is never finished, the blacksmith’s iron is never shaped out, and so on. Some cynic, Hawthorne muses, might have observed that in both business and amusement, “however serious, however trifling, – all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass... But, rather than swallow this last too acrid ingredient, we reject the whole moral of the show.”xv

In fact, Hawthorne’s meta-presence in the book as both author and an obtrusive, omniscient narrator with self-assigned limitations is the most important element of the book. He directly addresses the reader and his characters at different points. For example, in “The Pyncheon Garden” chapter, he asks forgiveness from each of us: “The author needs great faith in his reader’s sympathy; else he must hesitate to give details so minute, and incidents apparently so trifling, as are essential to make up the idea of his garden life.”xvi In that same chapter, he addresses Clifford, and again predicts his future: “Alas, poor Clifford! You are old, and worn with troubles that ought never to have befallen you… Fate has no happiness in store for you.”xvii It is worth mentioning, however, that this is not the only time that Hawthorne obtrudes as narrator in his work; in fact, it is a frequent part of his writing style. An earlier example is his short story “Wakefield,” where he chats nonchalantly with his reader and also with his titular character. At one point in that story, he tells the protagonist, “Wakefield, Wakefield! You are mad!” The story is a particularly apt comparison as, though Hawthorne claims at the beginning that it is inspired by a true story found in a newspaper, the entire plot that follows is hypothetical (“This outline is all that I remember… We are free to shape out our own idea”).

Hawthorne’s text also provides ample evidence for the final revelation of Holgrave’s lineage, particularly in the powerful control he exudes over Phoebe – “I am somewhat of a mystic, it must be confessed. The tendency is in my blood.”xviii Holgrave also gives one of the most interesting examples of unreality, or at least possible unreality, in his tale about Alice Pyncheon; it remains unclear how much to trust in what we read here about Alice or the idea that she still haunts the House of the Seven Gables. Outside of Holgrave’s story, Hawthorne only refers to Alice’s death as “[she] had met with some great and mysterious calamity” before she “gradually faded out of the world.”xix Even so there are reasons to trust the account. Certainly, the house is haunted by something, if not Alice herself. In chapter five, “May and November,” Hepzibah says her prayers with a ghostly presence in the room, or one that has only just left the room: a chair near her bed “looked as if some old-fashioned personage had been sitting there all night, and had vanished only just in season to escape discovery.”xx In case the possibility wasn’t possible enough, Hawthorne writes a few paragraphs later that a chamber had been untenanted “except by spiders, and mice, and rats, and ghosts… save for ghosts and ghostly reminiscences, not a guest, for many years gone by, had entered the heart of the chamber.”xxi Later in that chapter, Hepzibah tells her cousin Phoebe, “In old houses like this, you know, dead people are very apt to come back again!”xxii And yet, Holgrave’s own version of Alice’s story is riddled with clues that it cannot be trusted, as he frequently refers to it as a legend or as incredible.

Holgrave’s level of trustworthiness is no different than the other magazine writer present in the book: Hawthorne himself. Ultimately, the reader of The House of the Seven Gables should find its author completely untrustworthy, even as we are obligated to follow the story as he tells it. And if I can conclude by switching the imagery from magic to that of a dream, here’s how I will sum up, quoting from the chapter “Clifford’s Chamber”: “[Hepzibah] began to wonder, it is true, why she did not wake up, and at what still more intolerable pitch of dizzy trouble here spirit would struggle out of the mazes, and make her conscious that nothing of all this had actually happened. Of course it was not real.”xxiii


  • i See James R. Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980: 351

  • ii Edwin Haviland Miller, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 320.

  • iii Quoted in Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2003: 232.

  • iv Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1999: 9. All quotes from the novel refer to this edition.

  • v Hawthorne, 12

  • vi Hawthorne, 20

  • vii Hawthorne, 30

  • viii Hawthorne, 93

  • ix Hawthorne, 37

  • x Hawthorne, 85

  • xi Hawthorne, 159

  • xii Hawthorne, 63

  • xiii Hawthorne, x

  • xiv Hawthorne, x

  • xv Hawthorne, 113

  • xvi Hawthorne, 103

  • xvii Hawthorne, 109

  • xviii Hawthorne, 151

  • xix Hawthorne, 57

  • xxi Hawthorne, 49

  • xxii Hawthorne, 52

  • xxiii Hawthorne, 157

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12401/

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