Hawthorne’s Haunted House

Every fall, I try to teach a “spooky” work to capitalize on the Halloween spirit floating around campus. This semester, I selected Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables. House 7

As part of the American gothic tradition, The House of the Seven Gables has all the right ingredients: a cursed family, unexplained deaths, mysterious characters, and, of course, a giant decaying house full of shadows, cobwebs, creepy portraits, and ghosts parading through the parlor at midnight.

Based on an actual house that still stands in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is the story of a mansion built in the late 17th Century by the well-respected Colonel Pyncheon over the execution site of the property’s rightful owner Matthew Maule. In order to take Maule’s land, Pyncheon falsely accuses Maule of witchcraft. From the scaffold, Maule curses the Pyncheon family, crying out, “God will give him blood to drink!” (8). By the 1800s, and after a handful of mysterious (and possibly curse-related deaths), the Pyncheon family line has degenerated under the weight of the Colonel’s crimes, and the only remaining inhabitants of the ornate house are the elderly Hepzibah Pyncheon, her brother Clifford (recently released after 30 years of false imprisonment), their young country cousin Pheobe, and the mysterious artist tenant Holgrave (who is later revealed to be a Maule). The only other living Pyncheon relative is the successful, yet deceitful, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon–a dead ringer for the original Colonel and the man who condemned Clifford to prison in order to seize Clifford’s inheritance.

The “Haunted House” Formula: 

While many of my students this semester are first-time readers of the novel, most can readily recognize the characteristic conventions of the “haunted house” and “ghost story” narratives at work in the novel based on the current popularity of shows like American Horror Story. Reading The House of the Seven Gables, therefore, serves as an opportunity for students to see the origins of the haunted house formula in American literature and consider the ways in which the formula has evolved.

Dale Bailey understands most American gothic literature as social critique and credits writers like Hawthorne and Poe as founders of the genre in the United States: “If many of the themes the American haunted house tale invokes are rooted in a tradition of social criticism, the formula itself finds its origin in the complex and subtle literature of the American Renaissance, which borrowed a series of conventions already extant in the European gothic and cast them into uniquely American form” (15). In The House of the Seven Gables, students explore socially relevant issues, such as guilt stemming from America’s violent origins, the dangers of inherited weath and materialism, the question of ethics in politics, and the effects of technological advances like photography and railroads.

House 3

So what innovations on the European formula do writers like Hawthorne and Poe bring to the table? Bailey writes, “Most obviously, and perhaps most significantly, both Poe and Hawthorne displace the supernatural focus of the text from the figure of the ghost—the revenant spirit of a human being—to the house….As their titles frequently suggest…the house itself—the physical structure—serves as antagonist in the haunted house tale” (21).  Hawthorne’s novel centralizes the house, “and not the ghosts who may or may not exist there–as the external manifestation of Pyncheon moral corruption” (23). Such commentary is confirmed through the “living” imagery repeatedly applied to the house: “It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences” (Hawthorne 27). The novel’s end also confirms Bailey’s theory as the Pyncheons eagerly move into the country cottage of the recently deceased Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon despite the 30 years of torture he inflicts upon his cousins Clifford and Hepzibah, suggesting that the house itself is the real problem, not Jaffrey.

Hawthorne also strays from the European gothic tradition in his shift of setting. In “The Nature of Horror,” Noël Carroll identifies “marginal” spaces and “environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social life” like “old houses” as common horror “geography” (57). But instead of using a traditionally isolated marginal setting, the novel is “set not on some windswept alpine height” but on a busy street in Salem, Massachusetts.  Though brother and sister Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon are barred from society by the ancestral forces within the house, the two can still longingly “look out upon the life of the street” from their “arched window” (159).

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The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

The Main Ingredients:

The first thing students need to know in order to tackle the novel are the “main ingredients” that comprise the traditional “haunted house” narrative.

According to Bailey, the basic 19th Century haunted house formula would opt “for a flatly prosaic description of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present” (5-6).

Next, insert a family that is “forced to confront the fault lines in familial relationships” when “subjected to gradually escalating supernatural assaults” (6). Upon Clifford’s release from prison, it is clear that the haunting elements of the house have pushed him to near insanity. Hepzibah is rendered helpless by the house’s ominous forces. When Clifford demands of Hepzibah, “Why do you keep that odious picture [of Colonel Pyncheon] on the wall?…Take it down at once!”, Hepzibah can only reply, “You know it cannot be!” (Hawthorne 111). According to legend, the House of the Seven Gables would crumble to the ground if the portrait were ever removed.

Cousin Pheobe serves as one of the “outsider” or “interloper” figures common to the formula.  As Hepzibah explains, “Pheobe is no Pyncheon. She takes everything from her mother!” (Hawthorne 79). Unlike Hepzibah and Clifford who have long internalized the family curse,  young cousin Pheobe is initially skeptical of the “absurdity” of superstition that Maule’s blood “might now and then be heard gurgling” in Pyncheon throats (Hawthorne 124).  Her skeptical nature is challenged, however, upon meeting Jaffrey and hearing him cough: “Thus it happened, that when Pheobe heard a certain noise in Judge Pyncheon’s throat…when the girl heard this queer and aukward [sic] ingurgitation…she, very foolishly, started, and clasped her hands” (Hawthorne 124).

Holgrave is the novel’s second “outsider” figure. Unlike Pheobe, however, the photographer, writer, and mesmerist is oddly hyper-familiar with the Pyncheon family legends, even penning the legend of Alice Pyncheon’s possession under the Maules’ influence. By the novel’s end, it is clear that Holgrave holds the key to unlocking the secrets of the Pyncheon family’s past.

When Bailey asks “How should a ghost story be told?”, the answer is “at second hand through shrouds of uncertainty” (18-9). The narrator employs first person plural pronouns like “we” and “our” throughout the novel to convey his membership in the Salem community. Students spend almost as much time considering the narrator’s role in the novel as they do for any member of the Pyncheon family—noticing the contrast between moments when the narrator is able to divulge minute details and moments when he explicitly acknowledges his shortcomings: “the writer never did hear [the noise], and therefore cannot describe” (Hawthorne 124).

Ambiguous Endings: 

According to Anthony J. Fonesca and June Michele Pulliam, “Ghost and haunted house stories are tales of guilt thought to be long buried in the unconscious mind. The ghost or haunted house serves as a reminder to the person guilty or repressing knowledge of wrongdoing, as well as a portent to the others who know nothing of that person’s sin” (5). If, as Bailey suggests, “haunted house” narratives “employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might profitably be reformed” (6), is any effort at “reformation” implied by the novel’s end?

Hawthorne

The “haunted house” formula traditionally allows for two possible endings concerning the house: “In the first, it is destroyed” (think Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”) and “in the second, it survives to await fresh victims” (such is the case in The House of the Seven Gables). Though the novel seems to reach a happy resolution through  the death of the villain Jaffrey, the revelation of missing deeds proving land inheritance,  the union of Pheobe (a Pyncheon) and Holgrave (a Maule) to lift the legendary curse, and escape to the country-side, students still find themselves feeling unsettled by the fact that the house remains standing. To use Samuel Chase Coale’s phrasing, it is unclear if “romantic rescue will succeed” or if “the dark house triumphs…in Hawthorne’s evocation of the past, of hidden deeds, hidden chambers, and ghostly processions” (17). Upon completing the novel, I ask students to develop a list of unanswered questions that still linger around the house to generate our closing discussions, and the first questions raised were:

Is the marriage really enough to break the curse?

Is simply leaving the house enough to break the decades long hold it has had over Hepizbah and Clifford?

In a novel that explores how “the weaknesses and defects, the bad passions, the mean tendencies, and the moral diseases which lead to crime, are handed down from one generation to another, by a far surer process of transmission than human law has been able to establish” (Hawthorne 119), students are left wondering whether or not simply leaving the house is enough to halt the cycles of the past from rolling into the future.

Works Cited

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999.

Carroll, Noël. “The Nature of Horror.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 46, no. 1, 1987, pp. 51-9.

Coale, Samuel Chase. In Hawthorne’s Shadow: American Romance from Melville to Mailer. UP of Kentucky, 1985.

Fonesca, Anthony J. and June Michele Pulliam. Hooked on Horror: A Guide to Reading Interests in Horror Fiction. Libraries Unlimited, 1999.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Edited by Michael Davitt Bell, Oxford UP, 2009.

Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?