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From "Purified with Fire" to "That Impression of Permanence": Holgrave's Conversion in The House of the Seven Gables.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's preoccupation with history or the burden of the past is widely embodied in his art. Denis Donoghue argues that there is a greater sense of history in Hawthorne's works than in the works of Henry James (39). Similarly, the poet and critic James Russell Lowell regards Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables as "the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made" (191). The central position of history in The House of the Seven Gables is made apparent in the preface to this novel, in which Hawthorne expresses his genuine hope that this novel "connect[s] a by-gone time with the very Present that is flitting away from us" (HSG 2). (1) This reference to a "by-gone time" immediately reflects a sense of the past. This statement is thus inextricably linked with the moral lesson of the story: "the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief" (HSG 2). From Brook Thomas's perspective, Hawthorne's moral lesson involves two different meanings: first, it argues that each generation is responsible for its own actions; second, it suggests the absurdity of aggregating or inheriting "ill-gotten gold, or real estate" that is obtained through evil acts passed down from ancestors (HSG 2). With this warning, Hawthorne hopes to make "individuals reform their behavior to benefit those who come after them" (Thomas, "Reading the Romance" 197). Thus, for Hawthorne, inheriting the wealth of the fathers also means inheriting the sins associated with that possession. Nevertheless, such ancestral sins can be cleansed through acts of reform and regeneration. In this light, the alignment of history and reform figures prominently in this novel.

This paper investigates the three phases of Holgrave's perspective of social reform and examines the inseparable relationship between Hawthorne's reformist impulse and historical consciousness in The House of the Seven Gables, which illustrates the power of social reform for renewal and regeneration and the force of history (as embodied by ancestral sins). By focusing on Holgrave's transformation from a radical reformer to a conservative, this paper argues that the inextricable relationship between Hawthorne's concept of social reform and a strong sense of historical continuity is prominently displayed in The House of the Seven Gables. In other words, Hawthorne advocates for social reform that is not divorced from a sense of the past.


The novel begins with a detailed description of and ends with a departure from the old Pyncheon house, undoubtedly the most important piece of property in this novel. All the characters are closely associated with the house, and all important actions occur within or are centered in the house. As a house that has lasted more than two centuries, it is inseparably linked with the two families in conflict, the Pyncheons and the Maules. After appropriating this house from the Maules, seven generations of Pyncheons have lived in it. The house is a vivid record of the past and the conflicts between the two families. Notably, the house assumes figurative importance in this novel with regard to the theme of history and tradition.

A close examination of the physical appearance of the house provides readers with important information about the character of the dwellers, Hepzibah and Clifford. Most critics agree that there is a close correspondence and even an interactive relationship between the inhabitants and the house that is reiterated as many as seven times in this novel for emphasis. An example can be found in the following passage: "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" (HSG 5). The narrator strongly perceives the personifying qualities of the house that are symbolic of the emotional history of the Pyncheon residents. Later, while describing the same house, the narrator continues:
So much of mankind's varied experience had passed there--so much had
been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed--that the very timbers were
oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human
heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and sombre
reminiscences. (HSG 27)

Bearing a striking resemblance to British gothic houses, this old and haunted house is reminiscent of the inhabitants' collective experiences. Hawthorne personifies this house as a human heart intending to demonstrate the dynamic and interactive influences between the house and its residents. The word "oozy" vividly illustrates the effect of human deeds on the house as if they were truthfully recorded in the timbers. In addition, "rich and somber reminiscences" enhance the sense that the house is a precise record of the residents' lives and experiences. Unfortunately, the house has witnessed more suffering than happiness, thus becoming a "theatre" of "Hepzibah's and Clifford's misfortunes, and those of generations before them" (HSG 217). The old spinster Hepzibah is a fine illustration of these mutual influences. She "had dwelt too much alone--too long in the Pyncheon-house--until her very brain was impregnated with the dry-rot of its timbers" (HSG 59). Taking into account these reiterations, Jonathan Arac pays particular attention to the way the house contributes to and intensifies the thematic importance of the family's historical past: "The enduring physical establishment of the house forms an interface between the family and history, just as the established institution of the family joins the individual and society" (6-7).

Arac's incisive observation finds ample evidence in the old maid Hepzibah, for whom the house is no different from a prison. Since the house represents the past of the aristocratic Pyncheons, Hepzibah fully identifies it with the family's regard for aristocracy. She "had grown to be a kind of lunatic, by imprisoning herself so long in one place, with no other company than a single series of ideas ..." (HSG 174). Her self-imprisoning, stubborn, and persistent clinging to one simple chain of ideas results in the degeneration of her mind. Moreover, the old maid "had wilfully cast off the support which God has ordained His creatures to need from one another" (HSG 245). Consequently, Hepzibah's exorable isolation is an outcome of her own will, and it severs the link between her and the hustle and bustle of life outside the house.

As long as she imprisons herself within the house, Hepzibah views herself as an inheritor of the traditional noble pedigree. (2) She clings desperately to this vain, self-claimed importance until she is forced to open and tend a shop for her livelihood. If the house of family importance has removed Hepzibah from the dynamic changes of society, then the act of reopening the shop can be seen as the hermit-like Hepzibah's positive step towards participation in society as an ordinary citizen instead of as a privileged lady because America recognizes no aristocratic position. In William B. Dillingham's opinion, socio-economically, the pathetic reopening of the shop also indicates the "decline of the Pyncheon aristocracy" (61). Holly Jackson argues that it illustrates a transition of "land-based economy" to the capitalist economy (284). From another perspective, the "degenerated" hens "of aristocratic lineage" in the garden also metaphorically allude to the decline of the aristocratic genealogy (HSG 89-90). Whether it is the degeneration of the family or the hens, which represent the past, it denotes a requirement for reform and regeneration.

Holgrave trenchantly criticizes Hepzibah for her fanatical obsession with the aristocratic status. His initial words to Hepzibah express his striking antipathy toward tradition and his support and encouragement for Hepzibah's desire to seek a more authentic life: "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" (HSG 45). According to Holgrave, in the modern era, the lineage of aristocracy merely represents the shackles of the past. With aristocracy doomed to the past and democracy winning the present, it is not difficult to see that both the house and the unyielding claim of aristocratic status in the novel have become, for Holgrave, a symbol of self-imposed imprisonment and a sharp reaction against social progress.

Under these circumstances, by closely connecting the past with the present, the Pyncheon house represents what Holgrave wishes to repudiate through radical means of social reform. Holgrave wonders, for instance, "Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" Holgrave continues his tirade against the past: "We read in Dead Men's books! We laugh at Dead Men's jokes, and cry at Dead Men's pathos!" (HSG 183). (3) This point is significantly enhanced when Holgrave views the past as "a giant's dead body" that heavily burdens the present (HSG 182). "Giant" here is a metaphor for the debilitating weight of the past upon the present, which is also embodied in Maule's curse. (This curse that supposedly afflicts consecutive generations of Pyncheons is believed to be responsible for their decline and mysterious deaths.) Judge Pyncheon is a vivid illustration of such a giant. When he strives to seek out Clifford for the missing deed, Hepzibah feels that the judge's presence calls back the "dreary past," which "weigh[s] upon her heart" (HSG 240). In fact, Judge Pyncheon's gross and animal qualities also give the impression of excessive weight. Moreover, among all the living Pyncheons, he perfectly represents "the person and attributes of the founder of the family" (HSG 240). The attributes indisputably hint at the same evil of his ancestors: the grasping greed for the deed to acquire a large piece of land, which engenders an aristocratic pride in the Pyncheons and hence sets them apart from others. If Judge Pyncheon remains a greedy manipulator like his ancestor, Maule's curse will also be ruthlessly directed against him. Judge Pyncheon's timely death of apoplexy deserves our attention as it serves three distinct functions: it clears Clifford of his name, lays the foundation for Phoebe and Holgrave's inheritance of the house, and, more importantly, immediately connects Judge Pyncheon to the ancestors and the past as Colonel Pyncheon and Uncle Pyncheon all die of the same sudden disease. Judge Pyncheon's unmistakable tie to the past is also illustrated by his strong resemblance to Colonel Pyncheon's portrait as well as his "hard and grasping spirit [that] has run in [Pyncheon] blood, these two hundred years" (HSG 237). Therefore, with the property restored to its rightful owner, the family curse ends. In line with the judge's weight (or, rather, the weight of the past), after his death, Hepzibah's brother Clifford enthusiastically sings to Hepzibah that "The weight is gone" (HSG 250). Ultimately, Judge Pyncheon's death suggests the radical reformer's overwhelming desire to nullify the past.

Accordingly, somehow nullifying the past becomes the starting point of Holgrave's social reform. Holgrave's abhorrence of the past is also illustrated by his belief that the Pyncheon residence "is expressive of that odious and abominable Past. ... I dwell in it for awhile, that I may know the better how to hate it" (HSG 184).

The "deadness" of the past, by the same token, denotes the uselessness of tradition upon the present. Holgrave pungently contends that as long as the abiding influence of the past predominates, the development of the present will be stifled. At this point, there is no better word than "radical" to portray Holgrave's extreme antipathy toward the past and his intense desire to segregate the present from the past.

As a spokesman for radical reform, Holgrave's radical thoughts on social progress have much to do with his past experiences characterized by mobility. Before his arrival at the Pyncheon house as a daguerreotypist, which represents new technology and progress, he has a wide range of experiences and moves from profession to profession: school teacher, seller in a country-store, political-editor, peddler in New England and the middle states, dentist, supernumerary official in Europe, and lecturer on mesmerism. What is more important, Holgrave's enterprising spirit and radical reform plan also stem from his previous experience as a Fourierist, one who commits himself to a visionary future built upon a complete destruction of the past.

From this perspective Holgrave believes that, instead of inheriting everything from their forefathers, each generation should build their own future and their own houses to eschew the influences of the past. The possibility of change and progress embodied in each new building, for Holgrave, symbolizes reform, which is desperately needed in society: "If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for" (HSG 183-84). Holgrave explicitly expresses his projection of a society that adopts an open and tolerant attitude toward subversive social reform.

Public buildings, for Holgrave, should be also designed to be constantly rebuilt, denoting the need for continuous institutional reform with regard to the past:
I doubt whether even our public edifices--our capitols, state-houses,
courthouses, city-halls, and churches--ought to be built of such
permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should
crumble to ruin, once in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a hint to the
people to examine into and reform the institutions which they
symbolize. (HSG 184)

Remarkably, Holgrave casts serious doubts on the building materials. In his view, perishable rather than enduring substances should be used in constructing public buildings. Hence, Holgrave considers twenty years a reasonable time to thoroughly renovate and reform the public buildings--or, rather, the institutions they represent. In other words, public buildings should be torn down and rebuilt every twenty years to allow people to embrace new ideas. Marius Bewley takes this statement as an explicit expression of "the purest and extremest Jeffersonianism," which is founded upon the principle that "the earth belongs to the living" (443). Hence, each generation, instead of succeeding to the fortune of those who "lived and legislated before it," should be independent; as a result, "every constitution required revision every nineteen years" (443). Evidently, both Holgrave and Jefferson deny historical continuity but show a profound interest in periodic reforms and revolution based upon a complete break from the bondage of the past.

Though Hawthorne censures Holgrave in terms of his radicalism in reform, (4) he also praises his sincerity to change for the better and that "inward prophecy" for reform, which makes him one of the "harbingers abroad of a golden era" (HSG 179).

As for the private Pyncheon house, Holgrave's suggestion is even more radical:
Now this old Pyncheon-house! Is it a wholesome place to live in, with
its black shingles, and the green moss that shows how damp they
are?--its dark, low-studded rooms?--its grime and sordidness, which are
the crystallization on its walls of the human breath, that has been
drawn and exhaled here, in discontent and anguish? The house ought to
be purified with fire--purified till only its ashes remain! (HSG 184)

Words such as "old," "black shingles," "green moss," "damp," "dark," "low-studded," "grime and sordidness," and "discontent and anguish" are purposefully employed to demonstrate Holgrave's intense dissatisfaction with and sharp criticism of the Pyncheon house. Moreover, in terms of grammar, two exclamatory sentences and three rhetorical questions enhance Holgrave's critique of the house and thus his strong desire to drastically reform it. Since the house represents history, Holgrave's radicalism is also implicitly directed against the past. Such radical views draw negative responses from critics. Stephen Knadler suggests that Holgrave the radical reformer becomes "a figure who, whatever his patent medicine, often exerts the dangerous, diabolic control of a political hubris disguised as idealism" (280). Words such as "dangerous," "diabolic," and "hubris" clearly demonstrate Knadler's vigorous criticism of Holgrave's plan of radical reform.

Nevertheless, Holgrave is not completely wrong in his proposal of a fiery purgation of the past. The reasons lie in the essence of reform. By definition, reform refers to the change or reconstruction of the current state to improve it. It is common sense that every generation cannot obstinately maintain the same rules and principles as their forefathers because historical conditions always change from generation to generation. Though reform is necessary, Hawthorne suggests that society should be reformed only to the extent that the link between the past and the present is maintained. In this sense, the problem with Holgrave's idea about reform is its radicalism because his plan of reform utterly relinquishes historical continuity.

In "Earth's Holocaust," the big fire that destroys everything is caused by the reformers themselves, who subvert the institutions and social order they expect to improve. The conflagration symbolizing radical reform burns up everything except the human heart. Hawthorne maintains that only the human heart has the possibility of being reformed. In other words, for Hawthorne, any successful reform must first and foremost start with the heart, or conscience. As pointed out by Russell Kirk, Hawthorne's plan of reform characterized with a conservative spirit is ultimately "reform of conscience" (254), or moral reform.


Holgrave's first appearance in the novel immediately connects him to the Pyncheon house as a lodger in one of the gables. He is also identified as "an artist in the daguerreotype line" (HSG 30). As a daguerreotypist, Holgrave can employ his art, which works like a mirror, to look into the spiritual world of the individuals and reveal inner truths. While showing Phoebe this new technique, Holgrave proudly claims that it diplays "disagreeable traits on a perfectly amiable face" and "the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon," partially because the pictures come from sunshine, where "a wonderful insight" (HSG 91) exists. The judge's death strikingly illustrates the telling power of the daguerreotype, which relieves Hepzibah and Clifford of the sin of murdering their cousin. Holgrave takes a picture of the dead Judge and finds that "there is a minute and almost exact similarity in the appearances" with regard to the deaths of the judge and Clifford's uncle thirty years earlier. Holgrave concludes that this mode of death "has been an idiosyncrasy with his family, for generations past" (HSG 304). Furthermore, the judge is at the age and mood, "in the tension of some mental crisis, or perhaps in an access of wrath" of this inherited physical predisposition (HSG 304). In this way, the judge's death is God's "punishment for his wickedness," or the judge simply dies of natural causes. Thus, Holgrave is convinced of Clifford's innocence thirty years earlier (HSG 304). In addition to being an acute observer, Holgrave's gift of mesmerism empowers him to infringe upon others' souls (5)--if he wishes to, he could have mesmerized Phoebe, as his ancestor Matthew Maule had done to the young Alice Pyncheon.

Mesmerism, as a technique of hypnotism, is "a reformatory science potentially bringing individuals and nature into a state of perfect harmony" (Levine 212). (6) The reason Holgrave is unwilling to wield hypnotic power over the young girl, Hawthorne writes, stems from Holgrave's "rare and high quality of reverence for another's individuality" (HSG 212). For many critics, however, the fact that Holgrave refrains from exercising this hypnotizing power over Phoebe is evidence of the burgeoning love between them, a relationship that will occasion important effects on Holgrave's ideas of radical social reform. Francis Joseph Battaglia is one of the critics who pays close attention to this early change in Holgrave's radical views. He contends that Phoebe's love changes Holgrave's radical views toward reform--or, rather, that Phoebe's love makes Holgrave recognize the problematic aspects in his understanding of reform (582). Structurally and thematically, this recognition serves as a damper and paves the way for the conjugal union between the two and for their inheritance of Judge Pyncheon's country house. Another reasonable explanation for Holgrave's reluctance to exercise power over Phoebe is that Holgrave, unlike his ancestors, is not a man with a vengeful heart and "carrie[s] his conscience along with him" (HSG 177).

Battaglia believes that the union of Holgrave and Phoebe comes from a long and natural process rather than being forced or artificial. Jackson also contends that their union, which entails a transition of family property from "the colonial family" in the seventeenth century to "the republican family" in the nineteenth century (278), is natural, even "necessary" (285). The stages of their romance form a coherent plot, which delineates the way Phoebe's love effects perceptible changes in Holgrave. We notice in chapter twelve, still in the beginning of their relationship, that Holgrave inveighs against the past and suggests the best solution to cleanse the ills of the house is fiery purgation. In chapter fourteen, however, Holgrave's radical views are remarkably altered. Eventually, toward the end of the novel, Holgrave is aware that Phoebe would change him more than he would like (HSG 315). At this moment, according to Battaglia, Holgrave is "exercising hindsight, not precognition" (582). Hence, the subtle process of Holgrave's political conversion closely follows the course of their deepening love. (7) Nevertheless, the question remains whether Holgrave already knows that the union with Phoebe would render him the rightful successor of the house, by which he would become a wealthy owner of real estate.

To answer this question, we need to trace Holgrave's views throughout the novel. With regard to Battaglia's reading, Holgrave's statements toward the Pyncheon house in chapter fourteen already show the softening effect of Phoebe's love:
After all, what a good world we live in! How good, and beautiful! How
young it is, too, with nothing really rotten or age-worn in it! This
old house, for example, which sometimes has positively oppressed my
breath with its smell of decaying timber! And this garden, where the
black mould always clings to my spade, as if I were a sexton, delving
in a grave-yard! Could I keep the feeling that now possesses me, the
garden would every day be virgin soil, with the earth's first freshness
in the flavor of its beans and squashes; and the house!--it would be
like a bower in Eden, blossoming with the earliest roses that God ever
made. (HSG 214)

The first three exclamatory sentences tellingly display Holgrave's striking changes. More precisely, his former inclination to fundamentally reform the world has been amazingly transformed to full contentment with and plain praise of the same world. With regard to the Pyncheon house, Holgrave at this moment resolutely deserts his former radical suggestion of fiery purification because his love for Phoebe has considerably subdued his radicalism. Instead, he is possessed by a delightful feeling that the garden is fresh and the house is like a bower in this Eden.

In chapter twenty, while declaring his love for Phoebe, Holgrave remarks how much Phoebe has changed him:
A dark, cold, miserable hour! ... I never hoped to feel young again!
The world looked strange, wild, evil, hostile;--my past life, so
lonesome and dreary; my future, a shapeless gloom, which I must mould
into gloomy shapes! But, Phoebe, you crossed the threshold; and hope,
warmth, and joy, came in with you! The black moment became at once a
blissful one. (HSG 306)

This description of Phoebe's sweeping influences on Holgrave deserves careful attention. The negative words "dark," "cold," "miserable hour," "lonesome and dreary," "a shapeless gloom," and "gloomy shapes" photographically reproduce Holgrave's hopeless life before meeting Phoebe. The adversative conjunction word "[b]ut" denotes a turning point for Holgrave. In other words, Phoebe enters Holgrave's life, and his former "hopelessness" is transformed to "hopefulness." As cheerfully articulated by Holgrave, who experiences the radical changes, the former black moment is changed to a blissful one because of his love for Phoebe. He explicitly conveys his profound gratitude for Phoebe's strength and wisdom, which offer him counsel and guidance and prevent him from wandering "all astray" (HSG 302). (8) Meanwhile, Holgrave clearly states his own conversion from a previously lawless man to a conformist of the law: "I have a presentiment ... to conform myself to laws, and the peaceful practice of society. Your poise will be more powerful than any oscillating tendency of mine" (HSG 307). Holgrave candidly acknowledges the marked effect of Phoebe's love upon him.

More evidence concerning Holgrave's conversion comes from a renewed view of the same house. The morning after the judge's death, Alice's posies "were flaunting in rich beauty and full bloom" (HSG 286); more extraordinarily, "[e]very object was agreeable, whether to be gazed at in the breadth, or examined more minutely" (HSG 284). Even the metaphorical chicken, which is "a symbol of the life of the old house" (HSG 152), becomes more procreative and lively. The Pyncheon house is remarkably altered: "there was really an inviting aspect over the venerable edifice, conveying an idea that its history must be a decorous and happy one" (HSG 285). Here, "agreeable," "inviting," and "venerable" contradict Holgrave's former harsh attack on the same house and the same objects.


Towards the end of the novel, "that sworn foe of wealth and all manner of conservatism--the wild reformer--Holgrave" (HSG 313) subdues his former radical beliefs on social reform and articulates his own change: "You find me a conservative already! Little did I think ever to become one" (HSG 315). His radical views are finally overturned when the triumphant party of survivors prepares to take possession of the judge's country mansion. The daguerreotypist states,
But I wonder that the late Judge ... should not have felt the propriety
of embodying so excellent a piece of domestic architecture in stone,
rather than in wood. Then, every generation of the family might have
altered the interior, to suit its own taste and convenience; while the
exterior, through the lapse of years, might have been adding
venerableness to its original beauty, and thus giving that impression
of permanence which I consider essential to the happiness of any one
moment. (HSG 314-15)

With a better understanding of the past and reality, Holgrave amends his former extremist ideas of reform and inherits the house and fortune of the judge. That is, any attempt toward social progress depends on an appreciation of the values and enduring significance of the past, which exerts continuing influence upon the present and the future. When he finds that the house is made of wood, he laments that it would be better built of stone, which could become a symbol of permanence and contribute to "the happiness of any one moment" (HSG 315). Rather than completely dismantling and rebuilding the Pyncheon house, Holgrave now envisions an unchangeable exterior coupled with an interior that is always open to renovation. Holgrave's new interest in the notion of heritage is motivated by his desire to "plant and endow a family" (HSG 185).

Holgrave's conversion is first keenly perceived by Phoebe, who comments "with infinite amazement," "how wonderfully your ideas are changed! A house of stone, indeed! It is but two or three weeks ago, that you seemed to wish people to live in something as fragile and temporary as a bird's nest!" (HSG 315). Michael T. Gilmore considers Holgrave's reversal of his radical views of property, to a certain degree, "a compromise between reform and conservatism" (362); more precisely, it is a compromise between radicalism and conservatism.

Compared with Holgrave's initial strong desire to burn everything that reflects the past, at the end of the novel, Holgrave has realized that his idea of radically rebuilding the present house is a failure at best. (9) He abandons his former "crude, wild, and misty philosophy" divorced from "practical experience" (HSG 181) in favor of a more conservative view. In Hawthorne's view, Holgrave's main "error" at this point largely lies in "supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; ... in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for it or against it" (HSG 180). Hawthorne here is asking for historical continuity regarding gradual social-historical progress and renewal through "patchwork." The last sentence unquestionably demonstrates the author's omnipresent perspective as he subtly suggests that Holgrave would be the inheritor of the land property.

Clearly, love plays an important role in the mellowing process of Holgrave's conversion, (10) but the more important reason for his change may be Holgrave's rectification of his formerly distorted understanding of truth. (11) As Thomas sharply notices in his reading, Holgrave's belief in a stable conscience leads to "a belief in conscience as a ground for truth," but conscience may turn out to be "a shaky foundation" ("Reading the Romance" 204). To clarify, Holgrave's reformist consciousness originates from a subjective understanding of truth rather than from fact. Holgrave embodies the unsettling elements of modern life, represented by his lack of professional stability. Hawthorne tells us that the reformer seems to "unsettle everything around [Phoebe], by his lack of reverence for what was fixed" (HSG 177). To put this another way, the neglect of either tradition or history, for Hawthorne, is derived from Holgrave's solipsistic consciousness. (12) He tells Phoebe, "I speak true thoughts to a true mind! ... The truth is as I say!" (HSG 185). Phoebe perspicaciously observes that Holgrave is "a lawless person," which means that he has "a law of his own" (HSG 85), a view seconded by Hepzibah. What Phoebe and Hepzibah mean by "law" here does not refer to legal documents or deeds but rather an order or inner law to govern his personal emotions. Accordingly, Holgrave still holds a firm belief in his own view of truth and thus "ha[s] never lost his identity ... [and] ha[s] never violated the innermost man" (HSG 177). The innermost man is a solipsist whose lack of concern about history is rebuked by the author.

Moreover, another important motivation for Holgrave's conversion lies in his personal inheritance of the Pycheon house together with Phoebe. In other words, Holgrave's original idea of radical reform to subvert the established social order is also partially directed at an overthrowal of the property ownership, which has robbed his family of the Pyncheon property through cruel means. Although Holgrave is a lawless person at the beginning of the novel (when he still holds radical views of social reform), he is appreciably transformed at the end to a conformist who views the same world from a completely different perspective. In addition, he is substantially changed from a homeless to a propertied man who can cheerfully project a happy life in society. Holgrave's promising views, according to Edgar A. Dryden, are rooted in "the enchanted realm" because he is "not affected by the problems which burden other people" (313).

In short, in Hawthorne's opinion, it is essentially necessary to carry out reform for each society that must resemble no more than the alteration of the interior of the house--a reform that can sustain rather than dismantle the continuity of history.


Regarding the novel's controversial ending, (13) F. O. Matthiessen incisively comments that by moving into the judge's house, Phoebe and Holgrave have "made the successful gesture of renouncing the worst of the past," referring to the Pyncheon house. (14) At the same time, he protests that "in the poetic justice of bestowing opulence on all those who had previously been deprived of it by the Judge, Hawthorne overlooked the fact that he was sowing all over again the same seeds of evil" (332). The ending seems to contradict Hawthorne's own words in The American Notebooks: "To inherit a great fortune. To inherit a great misfortune" (293).

Similar to Matthiessen, Thomas opines that Holgrave's attempts to reform the world are, in fact, no different from an ambition to control the world for personal greed. Thus, Holgrave can ultimately be accused of "repeating the very wrongs that he so violently attacks" (202). Both critics reach the same conclusion that, in inheriting the judge's house, Holgrave will not escape the destiny of repeating the wrongdoings of the Pyncheons.

In contrast to Matthiessen and Thomas, Lawrence Sargent Hall and Bercovitch (15) interpret the conservative theme of the novel from an ideological perspective. That is, Hawthorne's works entertain an affirmation of the American belief in moderate and democratic progress, or "locating hope with human history" (qtd. in Thomas, "Reading the Romance" 208). Hall argues that The House of the Seven Gables "constitutes Hawthorne's most forthright use of American democratic philosophy as a basis for a social ethic" (ibid).

Examined closely, as "the central action of the romance" (Zuckert 87), Holgrave's conversion from a radical reformer to a conservative can be justified from three aspects: Hawthorne's philosophy of history, his position on slavery, and the genre of romance.

For Hawthorne, historical continuity and political stability are the basis and medium for improvements and social progress. Any political change cannot be separated from a historical connection with the former generation or age. Social progress and the promise of a better future are built upon the accumulated experience and wisdom as well as a reverence for the past generation rather than the destruction of the past. In other words, history is a gradual continuum. No one can escape history or deny the existence and continuing influence of the past. In the novel, Hepzibah and Clifford flee the scene of Judge Pyncheon's death in the house of the seven gables, which is "rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, damprotted, dingy, dark, and miserable," "poisonous" (HSG 261) and should be burnt up, only ending in "a wooden church, black with age" (HSG 266). Their desperate escape from the house is suggestive of their helpless and futile escape from the past. In the end, the same house, whose "former evil and sorrow" has been purified and purged by Phoebe's "sweet breath and happy thoughts" (HSG 72), represents the inseparable link between the past and the present.

Hawthorne's emphasis on historical continuity is also implicitly articulated by Clifford, who notes that "all human progress" is "in an ascending spiral curve" (HSG 259) and that the "past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future" (HSG 259-260). For Hawthorne, the living past holds enduring importance for the present and the future because "the past was not dead" (The Scarlet Letter 27).

Holgrave's conversion also subtly and tactfully illustrates Hawthorne's skeptical stand upon the progressive movement of abolitionism, which is intertwined with his philosophy of history. The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851, when America was experiencing radical changes and facing the national crisis of civil war because of abolitionist movement. (16)

Hawthorne opposes any form of radical reform. His consistent antipathy towards the abolitionist movement and its ardent supporters mainly stems from their radicalism, because "they see that merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert [slavery] except by tearing to pieces the constitution, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and severing into distracted fragments that common country which Providence brought into one nation ..." (The Life of Franklin Pierce 108). In a similar vein, Hawthorne in his notebooks also condemns one such radical reformer who "seeks to burn up our whole system of society, under pretence of purifying it from its abuses! Away with him into the Tunnel ..." (Our Old Home 423). As Larry John Reynolds powerfully argues, Hawthorne's "persistent resistance to the abolitionist movement" "throughout his career arose not from any sympathy toward slave owners but, rather, from aversion to radicalism in whatever form it took" (47).

Though Hawthorne is against slavery, he maintains that the abolitionist movement is not a desirable solution to the slavery question. He writes in The American Notebooks that "I find myself rather more of an abolitionist in feeling than in principle" (112). In his view, "being contrary to the economical and moral convictions of the future, slavery ultimately would fade away without governmental interference" (Trepanier 316). That is to say, federal legislation would not effectively deal with the problem of slavery, because slavery is
one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be
remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by
some means impossible to be anticipated, but of the simplest and
easiest operation, when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it
causes to vanish like a dream. (Miscellaneous Prose and Verse 352)

For Hawthorne, it is futile to oppose God. When the ripe time arrives, slavery would disappear automatically by itself. In The House of the Seven Gables, Holgrave also shares similar views: "man's best-directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities" (HSG 180). Similarly, in "Chiefly about War Matters" Hawthorne articulates, "No human effort, on a grand scale, has ever yet resulted according to the purpose of its projectors. The advantages are always incidental. Man's accidents are God's purposes" (332). Hawthorne notes the futility of the reformers' efforts to repudiate slavery. Regarding slavery, he remains a cold and detached observer, like Clifford, who calmly observes the crowd from the window; but unlike Clifford, Hawthorne does not have the intension to join in the crowd. In short, Hawthorne's view of the slavery issue is to passively leave it to Providence. In other words, Hawthorne attempts to solve the critical problem of abolitionism imaginatively.

In addition to showing Hawthorne's philosophy of history and his skeptical position on slavery, Holgrave's reversal of attitudes towards reform also illustrates Hawthorne's combination of imagination and reality with the employment of the genre of romance, which offers the author more freedom to present another perspective upon truth. In the preface to the novel, Hawthorne holds that romance "has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation" (HSG 1). Romance allows for a mixture of reality and fantasy. By presenting Holgrave's change of attitudes, Hawthorne strives to solve the intractable political problems unpolitically and imaginatively. Hawthorne expects the unity rather than split of the nation.

The inseparable connection between the necessity of reform and the continuity of history is a key question that The House of the Seven Gables endeavors to answer. Undoubtedly, Hawthorne is an advocate of the middle ground. Gavin Jones's view that "Hawthorne is a writer very much in and of the middle" (95) (17) can also be aptly applied to his idea about the conjunction of reform and history. Social improvement or progress is built upon a reverence rather than a total overthrowal of the past, which is an embodiment of the accumulated wisdom and experiences of the past generations. The past defines the form and content of the present and provides the basis and medium for any reform. Radical departure or eradication of the past would destroy the continuity of history. For Hawthorne, history is an interactive dialogue between the past and the present, and social reform should involve gradual changes and improvements that maintain the intimate link between the past and the present.


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I would like to thank Prof. Liang Mao and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful and insightful advice on this paper. This article is funded by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (YWF-19-BJ-W-26).

(1) All subsequent references to The House of the Seven Gables are to the Ohio State UP edition and are given in brackets as HSG in the text.

(2) The possession of land has become a symbol of aristocratic status. This understanding also explains why Judge Pyncheon is desperately eager to seek out the deed, which is but an illusion of aristocracy. Consequently, in a broad sense, Maule's curse that "God will give him blood to drink!" (HSG 8) is directed against Colonel Pyncheon, the Pyncheons' greed for land, and their ambitious obsession with carrying on their aristocratic family importance. As a descendent of the Maules, Holgrave also holds the view that the house equals evil: "What we call real estate--the solid ground to build a house on--is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests" (HSG 263).

(3) In Hawthorne's short story "Earth's Holocaust," the radical reformers seek to eradicate the edifying influence of the past by burning up the books and pamphlets with a devouring conflagration: "Now we shall get rid of the weight of dead men's thoughts" (898).

(4) In "Earth's Holocaust," Hawthorne repudiates the radical reformers who arrogantly assume that "the human race had now reached a stage of progress so far beyond what the wisest and wittiest men of former ages had ever dreamed ..." (898).

(5) Alfred H. Marks summarizes four charges made against Holgrave by Hawthorne in the chapter "Daguerreotypist": First, he moves from profession to profession "with the careless alacrity of an adventurer." Second, he is too "cold." He is lacking in sympathy. Third, his lack of sympathy is driving him towards the greatest of all Hawthornian sins: the violation of the sanctity of the human heart. Fourth, in his youthful zeal, he wants to effect too many sweeping changes in the world (343-44).

(6) Rudolph Von Abele contends that "the power to control the souls of others, impressed him [Holgrave] as dangerous, and dangerous because it was undemocratic" (399).

(7) Battaglia contends that their love is mutual and interactive. To put it more precisely, their love also has enormous influences upon Phoebe, who is understood to change from a girl into a woman. Phoebe and Holgrave fall in love in a conversation scene. The moonlight incident is not represented solely by their talk but the artist's change of mind on the value of the past, his realization that love moves them, and almost all his effect on Phoebe (584).

(8) Similarly, in The Scarlet Letter, the social outcast Hester in the forest is described to be "wander[ing], without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness" (199).

(9) Nevertheless, concerning Hawthorne as a romance writer, the significance of this failure is that it offers an alternative, a "probable" (characteristic of romance) instead of a "possible" (feature of novels) way of reform (HSG 1).

(10) Rudolph Von Abele employs the term "curious" to describe Holgrave's conversion. In Abele's view, two reasons are available for Holgrave's conversion: through the yeasty work of his love for Phoebe Pyncheon but also, one imagines, in part through the influence of the fortune into most of which he is destined to come if he marries her. Abele continues to argue that "[r]eformism, for Holgrave, is like wandering for Aeneas, an expression of youthful energy preceding his discovery of his 'true self'" (395).

(11) Alfred J. Levy holds that for Hawthorne, the success of any reform must start with one's inner self, and efforts to make progress founded upon shaky foundations are fruitless (195-96).

(12) According to The Oxford English Dictionary, solipsism is the "view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent."

(13) Battaglia generalizes the four major failings of the novel from the perspective of many twentieth-century commentators. The second one is that the conclusion is artificial or forced (579).

(14) Abele expresses a different opinion toward the departure from the old Pyncheon house: "departure from the House of the Seven Gables, which might be taken as a symbolic shift of scene, a break with the past of which the house has been the chiefest emblem, is in fact no such thing. The break is only nominal" (396).

(15) As mentioned above, Bercovitch is a more ardent supporter of this view. His works The Puritan Origins of the American Self, The Rise of Assent, and The Office of the Scarlet Letter all propose such an interpretation. While reviewing The Puritan Origins of the American Self, Thomas offers his illuminating interpretation: "history has switched the country onto the wrong track and it is the reformer's task to return it to the correct one. Like the early Holgrave, they usually see that reform as a denial of the past and a return to a prior innocence. But Hawthorne's romance refuses to let us deny the past" (208).

(16) Though not explicitly mentioning slavery in the novel, Hawthorne was fully aware of the critical issue, which finds ample references from his other writings. He made a literary use of slavery in 1844: "Sketch of a person who, by strength of character, or assistant circumstances, has reduced another to absolute slavery and dependence on him. Then show, that the person who appears to be the master, must inevitably be at least as much a slave, if not more, than the other. All slavery is reciprocal, on the supposition most favorable to the rulers" (The American Notebooks 253). Obviously, Hawthorne did not support slavery.

(17) Chester E. Eisinger argues that "Hawthorne was a champion of the middle way which was for him the norm" in terms of his moral criticism, which can also be applied to his view on social reform (27).

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Title Annotation:transformation from radical reformer to conservative
Author:Huang, Zhongfeng
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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