Monday, September 1, 2008

Social Darwinism in History

It has been my observation in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work that the author has an unfailing tendency to belittle those in power, members of the aristocracy, and the Puritan race in general. I have no objection to these acts. Nay, it is clear that he makes it an obvious point in his work, no exception being The House of Seven Gables. Straight from the beginning, as we tear into the background of the Pyncheon House, we find a rather questionable dispute between a land-owner (Maule) and a prospective buyer (Colonel Pyncheon). Not surprisingly, in this flashback of events long-past, it is a setting in which the paranoia of witchcraft seizes the heart and Maule soon finds himself accused of it. And since no man can ever claim innocence, once suspected, he was put to death, speaking a curse shortly beforehand. Story-wise, this is a curse against the Pyncheon family, whose newly-constructed house began with the death of its host, the Colonel. In truth, it is Hawthorne’s cry of foul against greedy men in power.

Moving forward, the Pyncheon family – in every attempt to make good use of the seven-gabled house – has fallen to misfortune, their every attempt to maintain their high place in society a dismal failure. Men and women, made to be as aristocrats, falling in line against a world which will not put up with their ways. Thus, we reach the point of Hepzibah Pyncheon, who is so reduced by the curse of high-breeding, that we daresay it is curse of social impotence. She is forced to open a shop (Gasp!) and earn her keep like normal everyday people (For shame!). Yes, the parentheses are necessary, because this is an unthinkable act for those in a high social order. The Pyncheons were a nobility of sorts, and that is the source of their downfall.

“These names of gentleman and lady had a meaning, in the past history of the world, and conferred privileges, desirable or otherwise, on those entitled to bear them. In the present – and still more in the future condition of society – they imply not privilege, but restriction!” (30)

Mr. Holgrave, originator of this wisdom, speaks in an unerring truth. Historically, one can trace back through time the days when nobility and rich high-class afforded you everything from the highest friendships in authority to the ability to get away with even murder (namely in duels), so long as it was considered acceptable in the high social class. Times change and things begin to slip in that department. The people of lower classes – or any classes – are changing their ways in order to adapt to a new world. Hawthorne attacks Puritans in particular because they represent not only the inability to compromise with the world. So saying, Hepzibah comes from a long line of woeful aristocrats whom nobody can stand because they do not change or move along with history. They pine for the good old days, cling to the lord and ladyships, even for being poverty-stricken, taking in boarders, and having to run a tiny shop. It is, for the purposes of understanding the requirement of adaptation in history, that Hawthorne made Hepzibah. Not only is she ineffective at completing the tasks of the common folk, but she cannot even look people kindly in the eye, known forever as the scowling woman.

Born to fail, I noticed that Hawthorne seemed to play a very whimsical narrator of her status, ringing the truth of her inability to cope in what may be called Social Darwinism. He makes the statement of her restrictions, as stated by Holgrave, to point out how history will always leave behind those who cannot move with it. Nobody may know if Maule’s curse were real or not, but so long as this family line treats the world as through the eyes of a so-called lady or gentleman, they cannot warm the hearts of others, attract the attentions of those they need, and certainly not make use of this old house.


Adam Johns said...

I mostly enjoyed your intro, but it was a little wordy, and your cleverest language alternated with your clumsiest... The wordiness becomes more pronounced in the second paragraph. Despite some good moments, there is no good reason why it takes two paragraphs of introduction before you discuss your quote! The quote, however, is a good one.

The following paragraph has one notable problem: you take Holgrave's statement and assume that Hawthorne agrees with it. This may well be the case, but part of your task was to explain *why* we should take your passage as being representative, and you don't really do that. This is a big omission: Holgrave offers an interesting point of view, but Hawthorne also offers other, contrary ones - why do you take this one as definitive?

Your ending is an interesting twist - I think I would have liked to have the social D. thing worked in from the start, though.

Jake The Snake said...

Well, since this is already graded, there's no harm in my commenting, right?

I took Holgrave's opinion as Hawthorne's because the book, thus far, seemed to compell - in MY opinion - towards his way of thinking in the form of a landslide. Hepzibah's first day as a store owner did not fair well for many reasons, but her mindset was one of them. She couldn't function as a commoner, so the common folk didn't like her. Arguments to the contrary there may be, but I found them lacking in terms of the world put forth by this book.

Still, no harm done. You asked for an argument and I gave one with reasonable effort. Thank you for your commentary. I only wish someone had written something prior to now so I could act on it.