Humor as antithesis in The House of The Seven Gables.
"Laughter," as John Morreall concludes, "results from a pleasant psychological shift" (133); thus, it is not surprising that Hawthorne's humorous novel relies heavily on antithesis, with entire paragraphs made up of paired opposites. Earl Rovit suggests,
humor generally exploits a situation of radical disproportion--some grotesque discrepancy from an established norm or ideal state of affairs which has been tacitly or explicitly embodied in the philosophic and ethical perspectives of one's time. Conditioned to expect a certain predictably reasonable pattern of "behavior, the reader is subjected instead to an abrupt disturbance" in rhythm -a sudden deviation from his legitimate anticipations. (239)
Hepzibah considers herself a hereditary member of the New England nobility. The reader expects such a person to live sumptuously, dress" elegantly, and live a life of leisure. The novel opens in a run-down" mansion with Hepzibah in a rusty black dress forced to open a cent-shop in hopes of earning enough by her labor to feed herself and her brother. The comic scene majors in Rovit's deviations. Edward L. Galligan concurs in discussing the comic in antithetical terms: "Comic art, like" all other kinds of art, speaks to and for all of us in every recess of our" lives, and the comic vision is possessed by ordinary, uncelebrated men" and women as well as great artists" (xi). Like many other theorists, Neil" Schaeffer sees that "laughter results from an incongruity presented in a ludicrous context," referring to comedy's great themes as "pleasure" transmuted out of pain, order out of chaos, harmony out of conflict" (17, 121), again resorting to antithesis to explain the comic. Hawthorne, seeing both its positive and negative aspects, exploits humor as antithesis" throughout The House of the Seven Gables.
Hawthorne's humor has long been noted and often connected with his somberness. James K. Folsom analyzes Hawthorne's comic mode: for Hawthorne, "tragedy and comedy are two distinct points of view in" terms of which a given event may be interpreted, each one is valid and to some extent dependent upon the other" (135). Folsom continues, "Comedy is just as serious for him as tragedy, capable of as profound" "insights, and productive of about the same results" (136). Folsom sums up the importance of the comic mode:
Indeed the larger serious purpose of comedy in Hawthorne's vision seems to be that it has a sanative effect. It offers a method for perceiving the meaning of experience which enables one "to understand rationally, to give one some control over the unchecked tragic play of the emotions. The comic spirit depends upon the tragic vision because humor is impossible if the joke is not taken seriously, yet the comic spirit itself is a means of handling experience which is neither morbid nor unrealistic. The comic vision is a sign of the healthy mind, not only, as might first appear, because an untroubled man can laugh, but because he has learned to see himself from two points of view, to cut his tragic pretensions down to a more realistic external human measure. (153)
As Folsom points out, Hawthorne recognizes that people are better off if they can laugh at themselves and their pretensions, as Hawthorne does himself in the introduction to "Rappaccini's Daughter" where he says his "writings, if read in the appropriate spirit "may amuse a leisure hour as" well as those of a brighter man" (92).
Other critics also treat Hawthorne's humor, many seeing the connection between tragedy and comedy. John Caldwell Stubbs says that Hawthorne uses "comic expectations" to distance himself from the action of The House of the Seven Gables and "exploit [s] the idea of the artificiality of his fictional world by flagrant exaggeration" (86). For him the "straightforward presentation [is] counterpointed with comic inversion" (94). Robert H. Fossum describes the prose of the novel: "the daffydowndilly prose contains an irony, partly comic and partly serious" (138). James G. Janssen sees the relationship between comedy and ragedy in Hawthorne's work: "The suggestion, that within the tissue of experience the comic and the serious are parts of the same design, is recurrent in Hawthorne's work.... More specifically, Hawthorne seems to have been intrigued to a special degree by the comic element inherent in life's disturbing and tragic realities ... " (107). Janssen adds, the comic affords Hawthorne a means of presenting the complexities and ambiguities of human existence," noting the incongruity inherent in the comic (114). Though most critics who refer to the comic approve of Hawthorne's tone, Agnes McNeill Donohue rejects the humor of The House of the Seven Gables, saying that Hawthorne's "laughter at Hepzibah is a vain and heavy-handed attempt at humor" (72). Speaking "of Judge Pyncheon, Kenneth Marc Harris says that his "inability to recognize his own wickedness is meant to be ludicrous.... [T]he book "... is meant to be funny, but it isn't quite funny enough ... and yet it is not quite serious enough either" (89). Saying that Hawthorne's humor is basically Calvinist humor, Michael Dunne points out, "It is, assuredly, very unusual to mix the awful and the humorous in this way, but it is a way that Hawthorne often adopts" ("NH's Calvinist Humor" 10). Michele Bonnet suggests the problem: "Building one's plot on a curse that was meant to doom not only a man but his whole progeny nevertheless made it difficult to break the tragic dynamics thus entailed. There was some inherent contradiction between this initial choice and Hawthorne's desire to demonstrate that he was as responsive to sunshine as to darkness" (482). Calling it whimsical, Sanford E. Marovitz" describes Hawthorne's humor, which "leaves one pondering over the" unpredictable reversals that ironic twists bring" (114, 115). However, the" relationship between humor and antithesis in the novel calls for further attention as that focus makes sense of the conclusion of the novel.
The detailed specificity of Hawthorne's notebooks indicates his awareness of the real world around him. Though in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne claims that he is writing a romance rather than a novel, making his story have "a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead, than with any portion of the actual soil" (2:3)," his comedy springs from the realistic acknowledgement of humankind's often ludicrous behavior while tragedy focuses on the ideal, the potential which an individual might reach. Comedy also focuses on the society rather than the individual. Hawthorne has made it impossible to say who the main character is in The House of the Seven Gables as he deals with relationships between characters rather than the development of any one individual. Kathryn Carlisle points out that in the novel "the relations of the characters, not a full view of each character, are of central importance" (89). She adds, "It is impossible to say that any character is the principal character.... The author maintains a marvelous balance among his characters. Instead of the thorough penetration of one character, there is a multiple exposure of the surfaces of all the characters" (91). The issue here is that the mode is comic rather than tragic. Though the backstory--the hanging of Matthew Maule as a wizard, the Maule's revenge in the death of Alice Pyncheon, and the false imprisonment of Clifford--is tragic, the story as given in the present of the novel is comic.
With his distant mocking tone, the author/narrator in the novel's preface and first two chapters insists on the ridiculousness of not only the behavior of the Pyncheons but of all humanity. Hawthorne states his "moral" with humorous exaggeration in the Preface: "[T] he Author ... would feel it a singular gratification, if this Romance might effectually convince mankind ... of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them ... " (2:2). In every paragraph of the first two chapters that follows, the narrator mocks the poor Pyncheons' attempt to uphold aristocratic pretensions. Hepzibah finds the situation tragic, but the narrator finds it ludicrous. Though he mocks the Puritan's theft with understatement--"it appears to have been at least a matter of doubt, whether Colonel Pyncheon's claim were not unduly stretched" (2:7)--the narrator is quite serious in condemning the witchcraft mania of 1692:
Old Matthew Maule ... was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen--the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day--stood in the inner circle roundabout the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. (2:7-8)
Thus Hawthorne sets up the mixture of tragedy and comedy that is The House of the Seven Gables and the multitudinous contrasts that characterize the novel.
In writing of Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, Hawthorne selects words such as ludicrous, absurd, and ridiculous. The narrator describes Hepzibah as she prepares for her first customer in the cent-shop that is to provide enough income for the poor aristocrat and her brother to eat: "In the aspect of this dark-arrayed, pale-faced, ladylike, old figure, there was a deeply tragic character that contrasted irreconcilably with the ludicrous pettiness of her employment" (2:37).
Recognizing conflicting emotions regarding her, the narrator comments, "we positively feel so much the more inclined to shed tears of sympathy, from the very fact that we must needs turn aside and laugh at her!" He continues the metafiction, addressing the reader: "For here--and if we fail to impress it suitably upon the reader, it is our own fault, not that of the theme--here is one of the truest points of melancholy interest that occur in ordinary life" (2:37). The situation is indeed tragic to the characters though from an outsider's view of Hepzibah's "absurd delusion of family importance" (2:19) it seems comic. According to the narrator, the dust in the unused cent-shop "treasured itself up, too, in the half-open till, where there still lingered a base sixpence, worth neither more nor less than the hereditary pride which had here been put to shame" (2:35). Hawthorne himself points out the antitheses of the scene:
It is a heavy annoyance to a writer, who endeavors to represent nature, its various attitudes and circumstances, in a reasonably correct outline and true coloring, that so much of the mean and ludicrous should be hopelessly mixed up with the purest pathos which life anywhere supplies to him. What tragic dignity, for example, can be wrought into a scene like this! ... And, finally, her great life-trial seems to be, that, after sixty years of idleness, she finds it convenient to earn comfortable bread by setting up a shop, in a small way.... Life is made up of marble and mud. (2:40-41)
The narrator never forgets his scorn of the Pyncheon "ridiculous consciousness of long descent" (80) but does sympathize with Hepzibah; in fact Nina Baym makes a thoroughly convincing argument that she is the heroine of The House of the Seven Gables, but the treatment of the Judge is harsh throughout, justifying Baym's assertion that he is the antagonist in the conflict: "If we take Hepzibah to be the protagonist, and think of the protagonist as heroic, we may then perceive that it is she who ultimately rescues the entire knot of characters from Jaffrey Pyncheons evil clutches" (609). After Phoebe draws back from Judge Pyncheon's kiss, "her highly respectable kinsman, with his body bent over the counter, and his lips protruded, was betrayed into the rather absurd predicament of kissing the empty air ... and was so much the more ridiculous, as the Judge prided himself on eschewing all airy matter, and never mistaking a shadow for a substance" (2:118). Hawthorne never leaves off the biting satire where the Judge is concerned. The word ridiculous is used again in the description of the Italian boy with barrel-organ and monkey, but it also sums up humanity: "in this pantomimic scene, ... we mortals, whatever our business or amusement--however serious, however trifling--all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass" (2:163).
The Democrat Hawthorne differentiates between social classes with his humor. The absurd pretensions of Hepzibah and the Judge are treated with scorn, especially in the first two chapters and chapter eighteen, the Governor Pyncheon chapter, gloating over the dead Judge, but the Maules, though proud enough, have been humbled by status as well as poverty, and the narrator does not mock them; rather he makes them tragic. The difference in attitude is seen in the treatment of the original Matthew Maule, who is accused and hanged for his garden ground (surely an ironic touch). Equally ironic are that the Maules manage to wrest a princedom from the Pyncheons by hiding the Indian deed and that Hawthorne really does paint the Maules as wizards. Holgrave tells the story of the grandson Matthew Maule and Alice Pyncheon as a tragedy rather than a comedy, and Holgrave himself is not made ridiculous or the butt of humor as are most of the other characters though he is capable of making fun of himself: "In the humorous line, I am thought to have a very pretty way with me; and as for pathos, I am as provocative of tears as an onion!" (186). The reader wonders if Hawthorne is not making fun of himself, as he does ironically introducing himself in "The Old Manse--"I took shame to myself for having been so long a writer of idle stories, and ventured to hope that wisdom would descend upon me with the falling leaves of the avenue, and that I should light upon an intellectual treasure in the Old Manse, well worth those hoards of long-hidden gold, which people seek for in moss-grown houses" (10:4-5).
Hawthorne even shows a light touch in the humor provided by the lower-class characters, treating them with levity rather than scorn. Hepzibahs customer, the schoolboy Ned Higgins, comes for a second gingerbread figure, "the cannibal-feast, as yet hardly consummated" (2:50). When he comes again, the narrator refers to him as "the little devourer--if we can reckon his mighty deeds aright--of Jim Crow, the elephant, the camel, the dromedaries, and the locomotive." After Phoebe adds a whale, "The great fish--reversing his experience with the prophet of Nineveh--immediately began his progress down the same red pathway of fate, whither so varied a caravan had preceded him" (2:115). The humor is hyperbolic as much humor comes from gross exaggeration, but there is no victim to be taken seriously. Michele Bonnet comments on the gingerbread fancier:
The truth illustrated by the Ned Higgins story-within-the-story is, then, that tragedy is eminently reversible. Hawthorne dramatizes it by making Ned incorporate--and thus dispose of and subdue--a number of objects whose common denominator is that they are associated with anxiety-generating situations: strife, warfare, material progress, the question of emancipation, archaic fears such as that of being devoured, and all the general threats embodied in the monsters, and more specifically the whale, that travel down to Ned Higgins's stomach. (493)
Bonnet thus sees Ned Higgins as playing a crucial symbolic role in the novel as his destroying the fearful monsters prepares the reader for the fear-prone Hepzibah's triumph over the monstrous Judge Pyncheon.
Complementary to Ned Higgins is Uncle Venner, another lower-class figure, and one whose positive attitude contrasts positively with Hepzibah's fears. Hawthorne treats him with humor and respect: "In his younger days--for, after all, there was a dim tradition that he had been, not young, but younger--Uncle Venner was commonly regarded as rather deficient, than otherwise, in his wits.... But, now, in his extreme old age ... the venerable man made pretensions to no little wisdom, and really enjoyed the credit of it" (2:61). When first described, he is "a miscellaneous old gentleman, partly himself, but, in good measure, somebody else; patched together" (2:62), like a clown. Uncle Venner is "as ready to give out his wisdom as a town-pump to give water" (2:155). And indeed the narrator does allow him to say wise things, as this to Hepzibah as she begins shopkeeping: "It's for your credit to be doing something; but it's not for the Judge's credit to let you!" (2:63). Later he tells Clifford that "Infinity is big enough for us all--and Eternity long enough!" (2:156). As these examples illustrate, the novel is built on opposites as if Hawthorne thinks in antitheses throughout the writing of it; this is the mixture of comedy and tragedy that is the human condition.
The Pyncheon chickens exemplify this antithesis as their pretensions are opposite to the reality--tiny, insignificant fowl with their "aristocratic lineage" (2:90) and "dignity of interminable descent." The mother hen regards her one chick "as necessary, in fact, to the world's continuance, or, at any rate, to the equilibrium of the present system of affairs, whether in church or state" (2:151). Bonnet's comment seems appropriate: "humor ... pervades ... the fable of the hens, whose degeneration replicates in the figurative and comic mode the decay of the Pyncheon family, offering a preposterous mirror image of what starts out as a tragedy" (484). Insignificant as the chickens are, they humorously represent the Pyncheons and their pretensions while they connect the comedy and tragedy that is the novel.
The penultimate page of the novel leaves the reader with a light touch as the unnamed man who throughout the novel addresses Dixey declares, "My wife kept a cent-shop, three months, and lost five dollars on her outlay. Old Maid Pyncheon has been in trade just about as long, and rides off in her carriage with a couple of hundred thousand--reckoning her share, and Clifford's, and Phoebe's.... [I]f we are to take it as the will of Providence, why, I can't exactly fathom it!" (2:318). Readers who have followed the fortunes of the Pyncheons and the Maules will find the laboring man's complaint humorous, but the passage illustrates that humor depends on one's vantage point, as to a poor laboring man it is hard to see the wealthy aristocrat ride off in a carriage while his wife lost her outlay in her attempt to provide for their family.
Though The House of the Seven Gables arrives at a fairy tale happy ending with the death of the villain, the imminent marriage of the beautiful young couple, the sudden wealth of the poor struggling aristocrats, and the reconciliation of the opposed feuding houses, the past of both families includes much tragedy.
This mixture has a basis in the oft-repeated references to the Garden of Eden story and even to the serpent. Hawthorne foregrounds the Pyncheon garden behind the titular house throughout the novel, and when that dwelling is left, talks about the garden at the house to which the characters are moving. When Phoebe Pyncheon first looks out the window of the house of the seven gables, she sees a rose bush covered with roses: "A large portion of them ... had blight or mildew at their hearts; but, viewed at a fair distance, the whole rose-bush looked as if it had been brought from Eden ... " (2:71). This is a blighted Eden. Speaking of Clifford, the narrator says this garden is "the Eden of a thunder-smitten Adam, who had fled for refuge thither out of the same dreary and perilous wilderness, into which the original Adam was expelled" (2:150). Judge Pyncheon appears to have the fascination of a serpent (2:119), and when he hears Clifford speak, "a red fire kindled in his eyes" (2:129). In Hawthorne's picture of life, tragedy and comedy both result from the fallen nature of humankind. The narrator sums up the fate of humanity in summing up Clifford's fate: "You are old, and worn with troubles that ought never to have befallen you. You are partly crazy, and partly imbecile; a ruin, a failure, as almost everybody is--though some in less degree, or less perceptibly, than their fellows" (2:157-58). Hyatt H. Waggoner finds "references to Eden" throughout the novel, the references implying, "Man is a fallen creature in a fallen world. Any redemption possible for him is offered only on condition that he recognize this fact" (180), and he finds within the novel "The secular movement of light and dark, the rhythm of flower and blight, the allusions to prelapsarian innocence and post-Adamic sin, the themes of isolation and reunion and permanence and change, even the contrasts of head and heart and pride and humility ... " (175). Though not specifically discussing The House of the Seven Gables, Dunne argues that Hawthorne writes from the Calvinist perspective of man's fallen nature because of Adam and Eve in all his work: "whether or not Hawthorne actually embraced any orthodox affiliation with the theological assumptions of John Calvin, he certainly wrote as if they shared a common view of human nature and--in my view, a common sense of humor" ("NH's Calvinist Humor" 13-14).
The allusions to the Garden of Eden story point to the less than ideal nature of humankind. Janssen describes Hawthorne's view: " [I] t reveals an interesting aspect of Hawthorne's darkly comic vision: that he sees the world, not as absurd or meaningless, but as occupied by men and women of imperfect natures and imperfect knowledge, involved in lives of momentous circumstances, only portions of which they are able to control" (116). Donohue criticizes the view Hawthorne presents in this story: "[T]he tragic view of the fallen and diseased human condition which is Hawthorne's most characteristic and regretful conviction ironically and heavily undermines the sunny tale he thinks he relates" (80), but Thomas M. Inge finds the novel true: Hawthorne "knew that given the opportunity, man is as likely as not to make a comic spectacle of himself" (5). According to Wylie Sypher, "We have ... been forced to admit that the absurd is more than ever inherent in human existence: that is, the irrational, the inexplicable, the surprising, the nonsensical--in other words, the comic" (195). Despite the humor, the novel is full of tragic circumstances, the waste of the lives of Hepzibah and Clifford, the destructive and loveless behavior of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, and the harm done to the Maule family, not only because of the infamous hanging of the original Matthew Maule for witchcraft but because his descendents have been blighted for two centuries by their unforgiveness of the hereditary wrong and their consequent failure to thrive. They too have become cold, hard hearted, and sometimes destructive.
There is much less humor in the later chapters except for the chapter entitled "Governor Pyncheon," in which Hawthorne shows himself a master of macabre black humor. With the dead Judge "[s]till lingering in the old chair," the narrator taunts him: "Let him go thither [to the bank], and loll at ease upon his money-bags! He has lounged long enough in the old chair" (2:270). Referring to the Judge's plan to see his doctor, "But, a fig for medical advice! The Judge will never need it" (2:273). Scorning the Judge's accomplishments, the narrator says that "had he done nothing else, [he] would have achieved wonders with his knife and fork" at the dinner he planned to attend where he expected to be selected as his party's nominee for governor (2:275). Saying that "Ghost-stories are hardly to be treated seriously, any longer," the narrator calls forth a parade of Pyncheon ancestors, at whom the Maule who built the House of the Seven Gables jeers, "finally bursting into obstreperous, though inaudible laughter" (2:279-80). This parade seems to be Hawthorne mocking his pretentious characters. According to Igor Krichtafovitch in Humor Theory: Formula of Laughter, humor has a victim, and the teller of the joke or creator of the humor rises in the eyes of the audience or the group by his successful use of humor as he puts down someone else (81-82). This victimizing and the ludicrous behavior, the lack of love that spawns it, the desire for the stature and power that successful delivery of humor brings are all a result of the fallenness of humankind. High seriousness or tragedy and low comedy or humor both result from the evil behavior of people. At any rate Hawthorne ends this tour de force of black humor with a fly, a common housefly, on the Judge's nose as a sick joke to show his scorn.
Hawthorne in somewhat similar fashion fills the novel with smiles, but most are not joyful. Mary Allen in discussing smiles and laughter in Hawthorne's works observes that "laughter may signify the way evil seems bound with good in nearly all experience" (124). She adds, "In the dark lives of Hawthorne's people, who so need comic relief, there is none. Rather than reflecting light and happy hearts, their smiles and laughter reveal the weight of experience, sin, and hypocrisy. The signs of mirth may clearly indicate corruption, but they may show, brilliantly, the often indecipherable nature of good and evil forces" (128). Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is first introduced with four "smiles," but the narrator makes clear they are false. Jaffrey is displeased at discovering that Hepzibah has opened a cent-shop, but as he sees Hepzibah in the window, "the smile changed from acrid and disagreeable, to the sunniest complaisancy and benevolence" (2:57). Hepzibah measures his sinister smile accurately: "Let Jaffrey Pyncheon smile as he will, there is that look beneath! Put on him a scull-cap, and a band, and a black cloak, and a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other--then let Jaffrey smile as he might--nobody would doubt that it was the old Pyncheon come again!" (2:59). The narrator describes the Judge's smile as "so broad and sultry, that, had it been only half as warm as it looked, a trellis of grapes might at once have turned purple under its summer-like exposure" (2:127). His aspect is so "kindly" that "an extra passage of the water-carts was found essential, in order to lay the dust occasioned by so much extra sunshine!" (2:130-31). Such gross exaggeration shows Hawthorne quite capable of biting satire. Though Phoebe is first introduced alighting from an omnibus and smiling with a "cheery glow" at the "cavalier" (2:68) who helps her down the steps, most of the novel's smiles and laughter seem related to mockery and scorn. Nicholas Canaday, Jr., in writing of The Scarlet Letter notes that Hawthorne's
ironic humor ... permits him to express his insight into the problems of sin, guilt, and punishment without sacrificing their complexities. Together with the ironies of character and circumstance, the symbolism, and the characteristic multiple explanations accompanying crucial events, ironic humor makes possible the moral ambiguity of the novel. (17)
The same can equally well be said of The House of the Seven Gables, which Hawthorne fills with references to sin, serpents, devils, Satan, and Hell as well as smiles, laughter, scorn, and humor.
Using a variety of synonyms or near synonyms, critics have long noted the antithesis of the novel, which stylistically undergirds the mixture of laughter and pain, tragedy and comedy. Henry James in 1879 found in The House of the Seven Gables "the mixture of shabbiness and freshness." For him, "Holgrave is intended as a contrast; his lack of traditions, his democratic stamp, his condensed experience, are opposed to the desiccated prejudices and exhausted vitality of the race of which poor feebly-scowling, rusty-jointed Hephzibah is the most heroic representative" (110, 113). James pinpoints the oppositional nature of the novel, but he is followed in the mid-twentieth century by a series of critics who reiterate what he says, expressing the same trait but in different words. Mark Van Doren (1949) says Hawthorne "mingled ... somehow the genius of tragedy and the genius of comedy" (180). Clark Griffith (1954) also recognizes the antithetical verbal pattern of "Substance words and shadow words" running throughout the novel, finding that "Hepzibah and Clifford have aggravated and perpetuated the original sin, set it in motion anew. Accordingly, they must seek for their redemption in the outer world" (14, 20). Griffith recognizes the adjacent contrasts in Hawthorne's work, which R. W. B. Lewis (1955) sees as "the inevitable doubleness" and "a pattern of escape and return, at once tragic and hopeful" (72), leading to Roy R. Male's (1957) aptly calling the novel a tragicomedy (137). William B. Dillingham (1959) spells out the oppositions suggested by fellow critics:
Despite the superficial motif of an inherited curse, the real theme concerns the necessity of man's participation in what Holgrave terms "the united struggle of mankind." Hawthorne projects his theme in a series of antitheses. Poverty is contrasted with riches, the present with the past, aristocracy with democracy, youth with age, greed with unselfishness, the complex with the simple, appearance with reality, pride with humbleness, the isolated with the unisolated. And each contrast subtly throws light on the theme. (60)
These critics show their awareness of Hawthorne's insistent contrasts, but they don't usually see the connection with his humor, which stems from his tragic view of life. People's errors are very often funny if seen from a distant perspective, and they contribute to their tragedies. The conversation continues on into the sixties, seventies, and eighties with critics repeatedly noting the oppositional nature of Hawthorne's thought, such as Waggoner's referring to "balance, repetition, and antithesis," "conflict," "antinomy," and "opposed views" (172, 179), but Hawthorne's point that the comic is inherent in the tragic, as Shakespeare's work abundantly testifies, escapes notice.
Not much is added to the discussion of antithesis until the eighties when Richard Gray uses a series of opposites to sum up the novel, referring to "Hawthorne's eventual reluctance either to reside amidst doubts or to resolve them." Gray observes that Hawthorne questions rather than accepting his society's assertions and sees alternatives "in a way that is at once sportive and deeply serious.... If the old Pyncheon house seems at once intimate and mysterious, a home and a place of imprisonment, then that perhaps is because the man who built it, Nathaniel Hawthorne, saw the world in precisely that way" (106-07). What Gray states so clearly is that Hawthorne's mind runs to oppositions. The House of the Seven Gables at its core tells a tragic story of family wrongdoing and its consequences in revenge until the two families are finally reconciled in the union of their young who give up their families' antagonisms, Phoebe choosing to be a simple country girl rather than an aristocrat, and Holgrave choosing the present rather than the past. In fact, Holgrave has already given up the inherited curse of revenge savored by his family when the novel begins as he no longer uses the name Maule and he helps Hepzibah with produce from his garden, symbolically planted beside Maule's well and returning to the Eden before the curse fell with Colonel Pyncheon's persecution of Matthew Maule. What the story illustrates so clearly is that the hereditary curse afflicted both houses. In the early 1990s, R. D. MacDonald, noting Hawthorne's choice of mercy instead of justice in his conclusion, again observes the antitheses in the novel and this time connects them with humor as the novel mixes comedy and tragedy:
The House of the Seven Gables weaves an unsettling (or even "devilishly" vindictive) fancy together with a larger, loving fancy. Woven together, the two kinds of humour (like the two main characters, Holgrave and Phoebe) create a substantial and brightening whole which works triumphantly from and through--perhaps "out of" but not "against"--the Puritan past. (n pag)
Both Gray and MacDonald in their traditional interest in antithesis are out of step with the critical theory and political emphases of the last thirty years. In the twenty-first century Brenda Wineapple mentions in passing the oppositions inherent in Hawthorne's way of looking at the world by referring to ambivalence: "If concealment was Hawthorne's keynote, so was ambivalence" ("Brief Biography" 14). In her 2003 biography of Hawthorne, she sees the preface as announcing, "Sophoclean tragedy on a New England stage" (233), a rather oblique way of referring to the contrasting views ever present in Hawthorne's work. As Dunne puts it in relating Hawthorne's work to what he calls Calvinist humor, we are "fallen from prelapsarian perfection into the messy condition that we call real life" ("NH's Calvinist Humor" 1).
The House of the Seven Gables illustrates the conjunction of the opposites comedy and tragedy by foregrounding antitheses throughout: "the spiritual world, knocking at the door of substance" (2:264); "After such wrong as he had suffered, there is no reparation" (2:313); "Clifford ... was always dreaming hither and thither about the house, and lighting up its dark corners with beautiful stories" (2:316). These antitheses occur on every page and exemplify Hawthorne's ambivalence about the mingling of life's sorrows and joys. Opposites are often the best way to define a word, and Hawthorne seems to define human life in antitheses because he sees the world in contraries. In one paragraph as Hepzibah and Clifford ride the train, Hawthorne lists a series of opposites as if there are two sides to the experience of Hepzibah and Clifford; they are running from the imprisoning control of the dead judge, but their running makes them look guilty and threatens their freedom; the decayed house they run from represents a dead past they need to flee, but they are running to nowhere and no future. The railroad itself with its swift travel raises questions because it changes forever the way people live and relate to one another; will anyone ever again have a permanent home? The narrator concentrates on the people involved as he describes the inside of the train:
Within the car, there was the usual interior life of the railroad, offering little to the observation of other passengers, but full of novelty for this pair of strangely enfranchised prisoners. ... It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf.... New people continually entered. Old acquaintances--for such they soon grew to be, in this rapid current of affairs--continually departed. Here and there, amid the rumble and the tumult, sat one asleep. Sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study.--and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself! (2:256-57)
Even the oxymoron "enfranchised prisoners" illustrates the oppositions of the novel: poverty and wealth, love and hatred, imprisonment and freedom, gentility and laboring classes, revenge and reconciliation, the past and the future. In choosing antithesis as the dominant trope of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne reinforces his theme that tragedy and comedy are mixed in life. Robert W. Corrigan points out that "while tragedy is a celebration of man's capacity to aspire and suffer, comedy celebrates his capacity to endure" (3). Galligan adds that comedy "is every bit as concerned with issues of fundamental importance as the tragic vision." He continues, "Comedy is often funny, but it is never merely funny: it is about something. Comedy concerns those life and death matters that all of us must cope with through most of our lives--sex and dying, aggression and injustice, love and vanity, rationality and sense" (x, xi). This novel is remarkable for its mixture of the humorous and the serious. Recognizing that the difference between them is often in point of view, Hawthorne's narrator thinks in terms of antitheses, juxtaposing opposites constantly. Certainly Hawthorne contrasts opposites throughout all his work as with the light and dark in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"; the humor in the Custom House sketch juxtaposed with the tragedy of Hester and Dimmesdale's story in The Scarlet Letter, and the hundreds of oxymorons in The Marble Faun.
Hawthorne employs much humor in The House of the Seven Gables, a novel that ends happily for the strange humbled family with whom the readers sympathize, but nothing erases the central tragedy of aesthetic Clifford in the ugly prison for thirty years while he loses the life that can never be restored. The narrator himself acknowledges that there is no reparation possible. The most consistent humor is found in the first two chapters where Hepzibah is introduced and in the black humor of the Governor Pyncheon chapter. Both are laughably funny, but they are dark rather than joyfully funny. Joined with them are Hawthorne's unending antitheses underscoring the reality that comedy and tragedy are not separable, that humor exists in all our human endeavor if seen from a wry angle, that there are truths best apprehended by humor in describing the human condition. Sypher comments on Henri Bergson's theory of laughter, looking at his work
in a new perspective now that we have lived amid the 'dust and crashes' of the twentieth century and have learned how the direst calamities that befall man seem to prove that human life at its depths is inherently absurd.... Perhaps the most important discovery in modern criticism is the perception that comedy and tragedy are somehow akin, or that comedy can tell us many things about our situation even tragedy cannot. (193)
Hawthorne seems to have recognized this truth a hundred years earlier as he makes humor and tragedy inseparable in this novel as it is in life. Sypher concludes, "There is a comic road to wisdom, as well as a tragic road. There is a comic as well as a tragic control of life. And the comic control may be more usable, more relevant to the human condition in all its normalcy and confusion, its many unreconciled directions. Comedy as well as tragedy can tell us that the vanity of the world is foolishness before the gods" (254). Aristotle insisted in The Poetics that tragedy and comedy should not be combined, but Hawthorne is in good company with Shakespeare in mixing the two. Hawthorne was tempted to close his humorous novel with tragedy, writing to his publisher, James T. Fields, on November 29, 1850, less than two months before he finished writing it, "It darkens damnably towards the close, but I shall try hard to pour some setting sunshine over it" (376). Dunne describes the ironic ending Hawthorne finally chose as Calvinist humor: "[T]he wild radical Holgrave ends up marrying the domestic goddess, Phoebe, settling down, inheriting a fortune, and turning conservative. The scheming and avaricious Judge Pyncheon, on the other hand, dies without an heir just before he can bring any of his nefarious dynastic schemes to fruition. Nothing works out the way anyone planned it ... " (Calvinist Humor in American Literature 56). Despite the tragic underpinnings of the story, Hawthorne also provides a happy resolution for Hepzibah, Clifford, and Uncle Venner besides penning a comic close involving the laborer Dixey, but the humor and antitheses throughout the romance anticipate such an ending.
Critics no longer write about Hawthorne's humor to the extent they did a half century ago because that humor is based on humankind's fallibility, not his perfectibility. In Moby Dick Melville said that we are all "cracked about the head" (81), everyone in his or her own way. If Melville is correct, society is not fixable because the people are all fallen. Hawthorne is so humorous because he agrees with Melville (who is a great humorist also). It is no longer politically correct to see the imperfectibility of humankind, and that is what humor is based on as far back as the Greeks. Ironically the most hilarious part, according to Hawthorne, is that we don't recognize that we ourselves are fallible, only that other people are. That realization leads to the antithesis Hawthorne multiplies in the novel in support of the humor. The House of the Seven Gables is a magnificent novel, just as it stands, if read with something of the same view of human nature that Hawthorne espouses throughout.
University of Texas at Brownsville
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|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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