Friday, March 7, 2014
Literary stereotype A meets literary stereotype B
I've not read an awful lot of Hawthorne, but so far the only piece of his I really like is "Young Goodman Brown." I did read The Scarlet Letter in high school and I remember that it was frustratingly dense - dense enough that my IB Oral exam was a breeze because my excerpt was from Scarlet Letter and so I could BS anything that I wanted to. The House of Seven Gables is similarly dense but is also significantly less interesting, largely because of the characters.
Henry James wrote an essay that was included in as the afterword in my copy of Seven Gables; in it he discusses the characters as portraits, not people, and he was spot-fucking-on. None of these people are complete, none of them are interesting, and all of them are frustratingly predictable.
When you see a wind-up toy, you're never surprised by it. You know what it's going to do from the moment you release it until the moment its power is discharged. It will follow a set pattern of mechanical behaviors and then it will stand or fall over with nothing left to move it. That's precisely how every character in Seven Gables acts, only they're not even wind-up toys of individuals, they're wind-up toys of types. There's a Spinster, a Dreamer, a Good Young Lady, and a Greedy Old Man. The Greedy Old Man is greedy and gets his comeuppance. The Spinster is uptight and needs to learn how to love. The Dreamer walks around with his head in the clouds and doesn't understand mere mortals. The Good Young Lady gets married. The end, you know everything that happens in this book and you didn't need me to tell you - all you had to do was know what Type each character was.
The language in Seven Gables is stunning, beautiful, and infuriating. There's an entire chapter about a dead person that is wholly focused on the things that dead person might do if they were not dead. It's an interminable chapter. I'm sure it was really only a few thousand words long, but it felt like it was a few thousand hours long.
There are some charming illustrations scattered about this Reader's Digest edition. They're tolerable.
The House of Seven Gables wasn't a bad book, and I can see its influence in some books that I actually really like (King and Straub's Bleak House as the most prominent example) but I have essentially no interest in reading it again.
I do, however, think it's time for another look at "Young Goodman Brown," so perhaps some good came of reading Seven Gables after all.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. Reader's Digest. Pleasantville:
New York. 1985. (1851).