The House of Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Hawthorne was influenced by his transcendentalist friends and so a definition of transcendentalism is a good place to start to understand how The House of Seven Gables can be a symbol of P-B. Transcendental can mean minimizing the importance of or denying the reality of the sense experience (craving and aversion or security, sensation and power), asserting a supernatural element in experience (inner wisdom or intuition), rising above common thought or ideas [P-B], or experiencing a state or identity beyond and independent of the material universe [P-A].
First, the sense experience, being impermanent and having no substantial reality is an illusion so the transcendentalists are correct on that score. Secondly, the so-called “supernatural element,” is the “reality” in Simple Reality and is the basis on which a sustainable human community can be developed. The experience of “feeling” in the present moment does have a substantial reality because it is beyond change and only that which is unchanging is real. And finally, our identity as human beings in P-A, is beyond and independent of the material universe. Clearly, American transcendentalists were on to something, admittedly with the help of the Bhagavad Gita.
The over-arching theme of The House of Seven Gables is that the current generation inherits the flaws and mistakes of past generations. It is the principle of cause and effect spanning generations. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and set the children’s teeth on edge.” The following paragraph is a good description of that theme in Hawthorne’s gothic style. “[I]n some low and obscure nook may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it; for it has long been his daily breath! Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses, to his life.”
We are each born into the ongoing story of P-B (the “palace,” house, paradigm or context) and are assigned a role over which we have virtually no control because we lack awareness of what has happened. It is that sense in which we inherit the flaws of past generations. We also inherit through the collective unconscious of humanity in general more basic “flaws.” The insight that Hawthorne had, thanks to his intuition, was correct as to the overwhelming influence that dominant beliefs, attitudes and values of past generations have on the behavior of those of us in the global village today. Our identity, “man’s character,” does indeed shape our reality and our unsustainable behavior.
Hawthorne’s own family was contained in a story that might explain his selection of the theme for The House of Seven Gables. “His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel himself added the w to the family name), was a soldier and magistrate who once had a Quaker woman publicly whipped through the streets. William’s son John, having, as Nathaniel said, ‘inherited the persecuting spirit,’ was a judge at the infamous Salem witch trials, during which a defendant cursed another of the three judges with the cry, ‘God will give you blood to drink!’ Thenceforth, as Hawthorne noted, although the family remained decent, respectable folk, their fortunes began to decline.”
Being born into the nightmarish narrative of P-B makes it difficult to realize that it is ironically the survival strategy itself which is the cause of our suffering and self-destructive behaviors. We are too close to and rapidly become used to these behaviors because, after all, everyone else is behaving in pretty much the same way. “The palace is infested with the smell of rotting ancestors, and no one even notices or thinks to root out the problem.”
In the House of P-B we are haunted by the ghosts of our own false self, the specters endlessly seeking security, sensation and power. Several Pyncheon family members over several generations had been seeking status and wealth often in unethical ways creating the family curse that haunts The House of Seven Gables. All of humanity lives in this house with portraits of family members hanging on the walls appearing respectable but hiding the curse of a very dysfunctional family history that promises an outcome that we don’t want to think about.
The heroine of the story, Phoebe, has escaped the worst influences of the Pyncheon family’s karma because she is a “country cousin” and “the girl’s self-reliance must have come from her mother’s blood.” Notice how Hawthorne admired a trait considered basic to not only transcendentalism, but to Simple Reality as well, namely self-reliance. This could have come from Hawthorne’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote a famous essay with that title. Phoebe also possessed another trait of a P-A identity, which is compassion, positive acts of good will or responses instead of reactions.
Hawthorne’s 19th century language would be amusing today were it not for the damning accuracy of his melodramatic description. “A man will commit almost any wrong—he will heap up an immense pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, and which will weigh heavily upon his soul, to eternal ages—only to build a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for his posterity to be miserable in.” That “dark-chambered mansion” is the survival strategy of the false self, what Hawthorne called “man’s predisposition to evil” or his “dark necessity.” Such is the house of P-B.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.