Monday, September 8, 2008

Change as Seen in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gable’s

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work has been largely consumed by an impression of American life that is beset by dreary commitment and family disgrace. Quite often, the author has subjected his characters to experiences driven by old ghosts and static, unfaltering lives. Such is the case for Hepzibah Pyncheon, protagonist of 1851’s The House of the Seven Gables, who endures a life of loneliness, emotional hardship and bitterness. Steeped in a place and a set of memories—both personal and inherited—which tie her to the sins and intrigue of her family’s past, Hepzibah would seem an unlikely subject for any form of change. But with the unexpected arrival of her sprightly young cousin Phoebe, Hepzibah becomes a vessel for emotional rebirth that may have seemed impossible prior.
For the character in question, the notion of change should be identified as a transformation from an aged woman saddled with the miring burden of her solitary reflection of the family’s fortunes and considerably more extensive misfortunes. And in the second chapter, the narrator offers a picture of the woman which induces understanding both of her stagnant life and of the immediate inflection point which will arrive with the young relation. The narrator tells “this is to be a day of more than ordinary trial to Miss Hepzibah, who, for above a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures. Not with such fervor prays the torpid recluse, looking forward to the cold, sunless, stagnant calm of a day that is to be like innumerable yesterdays” (Hawthorne, 12) . There is a clear negativity which encompasses the routine and patterned experiences which have been Hepzibah’s and thus, there is an early indication that some point of divergence would have to be seen as a positive force for change.
It is without question that Hepzibah is at first skeptical that Phoebe should even appropriately make a presence at the house. Its dark pale and its depressing secrets clearly weighed heavily on the woman whose sad charge it had been to keep the house and with whom the rightful ownership of the Pyncheon name would likely die. She expresses the sentiment not only that she was incapable of experiencing change but further, that the house would only serve to change Phoebe for the worst. As they volleyed perceptions on how the visitor’s stay could be perceived, Hepzibah would argue, “but, Phoebe, this house of mine is but a melancholy place for a young person to be in. It lets in the wind and rain, and the snow, too, in the garret and upper chambers, in winter-time, but it never lets in the sunshine. And as for myself, you see what I am,—a dismal and lonesome old woman” (Hawthorne, 48)
For Hepzibah, it would not have occurred that a bright presence could bring her any sort of brightness. But the ensuing events upon Phoebe’s arrival would actually bring about an incredible new vibrancy to the house, altering the old maid’s shadowy existence by imbuing it with promise and merriment. The budding love affair between Phoebe and Holgrave brings a special glow to the house which helps to positively impose upon the previously empty place. The ultimate resolution, not apparent until closer to the story’s end, will also be uncovered as a peripheral effect to her presence concerning the ultimate innocence of the long disgraced and borderline lost Clifford. In these occurrences, Hepzibah finds both changes in her static life and peace in a history of restless souls.
This is aptly phrased in the narrator’s first chapter description of the house itself. In a description of the edifice to the titular house of her residence, the narrator notes that “the aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within.” (Hawthorne, 5) This sums up well the implied significance of the house itself as it concerns the history of the family and the future for a woman who might have otherwise seen herself as having none.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Your introduction is a little bit windy - for instance, you don't need to tell us when the book was published. Your argument is fine - the preparation was largely unnecessary. You need to be *concise* in short pieces like this.

In the second paragraph, you try to define transformation as "from" something, but there's no "to" here, which is jarring. I have no idea what kind of change you're focusing on. It's hard to see what you're up to in the 2nd paragraph.

In the third paragraph you shift, in some ways, from H to Phoebe, even raising the possibility that the house will change Phoebe. This seems like an argument in itself - but I'm not sure how it really connects with your ostensible main argument.

The last paragraph is the one where you actually attempt to make your argument that H. has actually changed. It falls flat, though, because although you are wisely recognizing that the end of the book is important here, you don't say anything articulate about it - to the point where I suspect that you hadn't actually read it at this point.

In short, although you do have a thesis, and you do so some knowledge of the book, I'm not clear on why you think that H. changes - you don't offer up detailed evidence that she does, or bring in any of the obvious counterarguments.