Inherited Vice

The House of the Seven Gables (Dover Thrift Editions) BY Nathaniel Hawthorne. Dover Publications. Paperback, 240 pages. $4.

The cover of The House of the Seven Gables (Dover Thrift Editions)

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE CONSIDERED The House of the Seven Gables (1851) a cheery book, or at least a bit merrier than The Scarlet Letter, even though few readers would agree with him, then or now. His saga about the Pyncheon family was “an affliction,” the novelist Catharine Sedgwick declared. “It affects one like a passage through the wards of an insane asylum.” More recently, Jane Smiley said the structure of the book was unappealing, solemn, and, as far as novels go, unrealistic.

That the novel is sober should come as no surprise. After all, it’s the story of an impacted family ravaged by an ostensible curse handed down generation after generation like a congenital disease. The shabby old house with those seven gables symbolizes the desiccated Pyncheons, whose forebears erected the place on land stolen twice over, first from Native Americans and then from the sorcerer who built it and who, in a fit of pique, damned the Pyncheons and their descendants.

Whether or not we actually believe that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones,” as Hawthorne moralizes in his preface, sounding a bit like a New England Jehovah, we can easily admit that an arrogant family feeding on a fantasy of its importance is headed for trouble, or that the house it inhabits will be filled with crabby old characters shunning the light of common day. And if family curses generally imply that patriarchs visit wrongdoing on their sons, The House of the Seven Gables seems no exception. The young and hapless Clifford Pyncheon was wrongly incarcerated for almost a lifetime by his rich and rapacious cousin Jaffrey, who lusted after not just political office but also the property titles he believed would increase his power, if only he could find them.

Now a broken, elderly Clifford is returning home at last, though really he’s just moving from one kind of jail to another, for the ancestral house is its own kind of shadow prison. In it, his creaky sister Hepzibah nervously awaits his arrival. But as we watch her awkwardly open her pathetic little cent shop, which she has reluctantly installed in one of the house’s gables to earn a few dollars—“in this republican country,” Hawthorne explains, “amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning-point”—we realize that the poor woman is trapped by more than her own delusions of grandeur. She’s imprisoned by economics, sexism, and the male fantasy of freedom in which “everything is free to the hand that can grasp it.”

Middle-aged siblings locked in a deathlike embrace (the grotesque Hepzibah tries to comfort her beloved brother, who shudders at the very sight of her), and men who ravage young women (Jaffrey Pyncheon on his wedding night, wizards and their female prey): They all inhabit a house from which they cannot flee, for the house also represents the cruelties perpetrated in the name of family. “To plant a family!” Hawthorne writes. “This idea is at the bottom of most of the wrong and mischief which men do.” And family, to Hawthorne, implies men and marriage. They create all that havoc. Even Hepzibah marries, in a sense, her brother, and thereby seals her fate.

The House of the Seven Gables actually is unrealistic, in that Hawthorne rigged the plot with a convenient death, a will, and an inherited fortune. (Or, as he said before he finished the book, he had to sprinkle a little sunshine on all that gloom.) But his book isn’t really a novel in any case, or at least it’s not the kind of story that proceeds logically from incident to incident, and he knew it. To Hawthorne, families have no plots. They’re doomed to stasis. So he created a series of searing, almost ruthless tableaux: Hepzibah in her shop, Clifford poised to jump from a second-story window, the dead Jaffrey Pyncheon immovable in his chair. Hawthorne’s book is not really, then, an affliction. It’s about the affliction commonly known as family life.

Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848–1877 (Harper, 2013). She is writing a book on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.