1. John Clute and John Grant offer the following critique of
Hawthorne's work as a whole:
The darkness of his vision of the
human psyche gives to almost everything [Hawthorne] wrote. a sense that its
protagonists are acting in obedience to the Gothic manipulations of the dead
but shaping past, that they can never simply flourish in the here and now. It
is in something like this sense that so much of his work seems to have been
treated as allegory: his characters are so in bondage to the stories they have
been appointed to undergo that they seem to "stand" in an allegorical
relationship to symbolic events, rather than to live them (p. 457).
How does Holgrave's manuscript, which he reads to Phoebe,
either support or rebut Clute and Grant's analysis?
- Students' responses should show a clear understanding of
how Phoebe parallels Alice in the manuscript, and how Holgrave parallels
Maule-a parallel that Hawthorne goes to great lengths to make readily
apparent. Holgrave functions as an instance of auctorial self-reflection.
Authors wish to "cast a spell" over their readers, to "enthrall" them and
hold their attention. Holgrave achieves these tasks in an apparently
literal as well as a figurative sense. In this sense, the chapter
involving Holgrave's manuscript reinforces Clute and Grant's analysis: as
Holgrave reads aloud his story, he reenacts it, and Phoebe responds as did
Alice, both in history and in Holgrave's thinly fictionalized
representation of that history. On the other hand, Phoebe and the rest of
the Pyncheons are, in the novel's final chapter, able to break free of the
"story" of the past and forge the beginnings of a new story for themselves
(for example, by incorporating Uncle Venner into the family). Essays
should show some awareness of this tension.
2. Identify and comment upon at least one way in which
Hawthorne strives to articulate an American self-understanding-that is, a
"definition" of the young country's new identity-in The House of the Seven
Acceptable responses will vary.
One of many possible examples occurs in the contrast between Holgrave and Uncle
Venner in the early chapters. In Chapter 3, Holgrave states his belief that
noble titles "imply, not privilege, but restriction" in the present time and
place (i.e., nineteenth-century America)-clearly a sentiment with which Hawthorne agrees. In the next chapter, Uncle Venner's conversation with Hepzibah raises the
issues of class and status in America, a new society unlike any of the old
societies of Europe. For instance, Venner says, "In my young days [i.e., before
the Revolution], the great man of the town was commonly called King. Nowadays,
a man would not dare to be called King." Venner's reference to the Revolution shows
readers that the issue is not simply one of social status. It is an issue of America's status among the nations of the world. The context for Venner and
Hepzibah's conversation is political and historical, not just sociological.
3. How might Holgrave
function as Hawthorne's surrogate in The House of the Seven Gables?
Hawthorne's past is, doubtless, an influence upon the
character of Holgrave. Like Holgrave, Hawthorne was descended from someone
associated with colonial witch trials (although Hawthorne's ancestor was a
judge, not a victim). Like Holgrave, Hawthorne is a writer (see Suggested Essay
Question 1, above). Hepzibah characterizes Holgrave as a friend of the
"strangest companions," "community-men" among them. Community-men were
"individuals involved in one of the utopian communities or communes established
in the mid-nineteenth century" (Notes, 2001 Modern Library Edition, p. 278).
Hawthorne was at one time involved in such a community, called Brook Farm, a
utopian, Unitarian, transcendentalist community. Represented not only by such
members as Hawthorne but by such visitors as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace
Greeley, Brook Farm would have exemplified the "strange companions" whom Hepzibah
views with suspicion. This identification of Holgrave's social circle gives
readers a greater understanding of the background for his comments to Hepzibah
about democracy and egalitarianism (Chapter 3). The criticisms Hepzibah makes
of Holgrave were no doubt criticisms Hawthorne had heard made about himself.
4. ï¿½Critic Neil Barron has written of The House of the
The novel is a democratized
transcription of the European Gothic romance, a new kind of horror novel
designated as "Yankee Gothic." Technically, the novel thoroughly conforms to
the requirements of the Gothic... Usurped ownership of the house, an ancestral
crime and curse, and a haunted interior filled with supernatural objects,
mysterious events, and bizarre characters show how closely Hawthorne adhered to
the Gothic blueprint. The plot, like many Gothic plots, involves the fantastic
working out of the curse and the supernatural purification of the tainted house
(Neil Barron, ed. Fantasy and Horror 1-57 (Lanham, MD:ï¿½ Scarecrow Press,
To what extent do you agree or disagree with Barron's
assessment? Cite specific examples from the text to support your answer.
- Although Barron is certainly correct to point out the
structural similarities of Hawthorne's work with other Gothic texts, the
claim that there is a "supernatural purification" of the House is more
problematic. As discussed in the Analysis above, mesmerism was regarded as
a new and legitimate means of knowledge in Hawthorne's day, not as
anything "supernatural." More importantly, however, Hawthorne's continued
raising of the expectation of the supernatural, from the Preface on, only
to then frustrate those expectations, suggests that, for Hawthorne,
purification must be achieved by human means-in other words, as humans committed
the sin that stained the House and the Pyncheon "house" in the first
place, so must humans purify it (as the characters do in the final chapter
by leaving it behind).
5. Discuss one of Hawthorne's symbols at some length,
showing how it reflects the thematic or moral concerns of the book as a whole.
- Students' responses will vary based on the symbol chosen.
This model answer focuses on the symbol of the chickens in the Pyncheon
garden. These fowl mirror the family itself, as the narrator explicitly
tells us in pointing out that the hens' "lamentably scanty" crests
resemble Hepzibah's turban. The rooster, hens, and chicken are "pure
specimens" of good breeding, but are now "scarcely larger than
pigeons"-just as the once-noble Pyncheon family has sunk to the state
where Hepzibah is operating a common cent-shop out of the House. "It was
evident the race had degenerated, like many a noble race besides, in
consequence of too strict watchfulness to keep it pure." The preceding
sentence applies in the text to the birds, but it of course also applies
to the Pyncheons themselves.