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Free «Socio-Political Context in  The House of Seven Gables» Essay Sample

Hawthorne concludes The House of Seven Gables with the happy marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave. The peaceful union of the last descendants of two previously warring families represents the way not only to satisfy sexual passion but also to overcome the class conflict generated by economic inequality that the Blithedalers had sought to abolish.

To grasp the broader political significance of the tale, however, we must examine the interaction between plot and setting in a novel.

American life had changed so much since the Puritan founding that Hawthorne was led to ask what-if any-relevance the past had for life in the contemporary commercial republic. Was there an American heritage? If so, what was it? To answer that question Hawthorne used a story of the fortunes of a particular family to bring out the several meanings of "inheritance": biological, economic, social, and historical (Lloyd-Smith, 1984).

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The House of Seven Gables in which Hawthorne sets his tale had been built by a Puritan-Colonel Pyncheon – as an enduring monument to his fame and wealth. When the story opens, however, we see that the last heir living under the now rotting timbers of the family mansion has been forced to open a penny shop to eke out a living. The first question, then, becomes how to explain the decline in the Pyncheon fortunes and the second, how best to respond to that decline.

Determined to build a family mansion on the site of a well that was owned by the commoner Matthew Maule, Colonel Pyncheon had sought to obtain title to the land in court. When Maule won the lawsuit, Pyncheon contrived to have Maule hanged as a witch. Unable to act against the aristocratic Pyncheons in public, Maule's plebian descendants nevertheless took their revenge-slow but sure. Pyncheon hired Maule's son to erect his mansion. And the carpenter hid the Pyncheon deed to a truly baronial territory in Maine inside a secret panel that he built into the wall behind a portrait of the old colonel. Anxious to be remembered by posterity, the colonel forbade his heirs to move his image, so their claims lay in abeyance until they were finally lost. As a result, the Pyncheon family became poorer and poorer. The decline in the Pyncheon family fortunes is not, then, simply a reflection of the decay of all things physical. It is a result of the interaction of the colonel's domineering pride with the resentful reaction of those whom he oppressed. And – Hawthorne shows – later generations inherit and act on the basis of both.

Colonel Pyncheon's heritage is not just economic; it is also political and psychological. In changing the American regime, commoners like the Maules denied the aristocratic pretensions of people like the Pyncheons to be better than others by birth. But – Hawthorne suggests – declaring that all "men" are created equal and that govern ments are instituted to secure their rights is not sufficient to prevent oppression. On the contrary – just as the colonel used the witch trials to serve his own particular interests – so his democratic descendant, Judge Jeffrey Pyncheon, is able to use his position and knowledge of the law in the contemporary commercial republic to obtain what he wants at the expense of the rights of others. Unwilling to share the estate that he has inherited, the judge uses his influence. First, he has his cousin and competitor Clifford incarcerated until the latter is too feeble to fight. Then the judge has Clifford freed so he can pressure him into revealing the secret of the lost Pyncheon estates, which the judge is convinced (erroneously) that Clifford knows.

Contrary to the opinions of most of his contemporaries, Hawthorne seems to feel that making government officials responsible to the people through elections will not suffice to secure individual liberty. There are democratic as well as aristocratic means to dominance. The judge has no "aristocratic" qualms about currying favor with the populace or buying his party's nomination – and thus virtually assuring his election as governor (pp. 230, 268-83).

As is customary with the rich, when they aim at the honors of a republic, he apologized, as it were, to the people, for his wealth, prosperity, and elevated station, by a free and hearty manner towards those who knew him; putting off the more of his dignity in due proportion with the humbleness of the man whom he saluted, and thereby proving a haughty consciousness of his advantages as irrefragably as if he had marched forth preceded by a troop of lackeys to clear the way. (p. 130)

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Americans who believe that they have escaped the oppression of the past by establishing democratic institutions ironically commit the same intellectual error that their Puritan forefathers had. They overestimate the power of institutions to affect human behavior – especially the more self-regarding passions – just as they underestimate the resistance of human nature to external control.

If Americans are truly to absorb the lessons of the past concerning the evil effects of attempts to dominate others, they have to internalize and personalize those lessons. And Hawthorne shows how this might occur through the major plot of the novel. The marriage of the last heir of Matthew Maule – named Holgrave – to the last Pyncheon descendant – Phoebe – clearly represents the final and effective overcoming of past class antagonisms and the true foundation of a liberal, egalitarian regime. To discover how Hawthorne thinks that Americans can truly absorb the lessons of the past (or their heritage), we thus need to investigate the circumstances that made such a union possible.

Phoebe and Holgrave would not ordinarily have been attracted to one another. Had they met under different circumstances, neither of these young persons would have been likely to bestow much thought upon the other, unless indeed their extreme dissimilarity should have proved a principle of mutual attraction. External similarities of habit, manners, or appearance will not suffice to create or maintain a community, Hawthorne suggests. It is necessary to deal somehow with the internal or psychological differences of the people composing it.

The first condition necessary for the romantic union here is the relinquishing of the Pyncheons' aristocratic claims to be better than others by birth. Phoebe herself turns out to be the product of a marriage between one of the Pyncheon family's sons and a commoner and she has to support herself by own labor. As a result, she does not consider herself too good to marry a plebian because of her heritage or inheritance.

Nevertheless – Hawthorne indicates – the leveling of social and economic differences is only a necessary condition for the establishment of a democratic union; it does not suffice. Like Holgrave, common people must overcome their angry resentment of past wrongs and learn not merely to tolerate individual differences – but to appreciate them positively, as well.

 
 
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Like the average American that he is, Holgrave represents unformed potential. As such, his future is "delightfully uncertain." Precisely because Holgrave is so typical, Hawthorne makes his change of attitudes – or "education" – the central action of the romance.

Before his arrival at the house of seven gables, Holgrave has already had a broad range of experiences. He tried his hand at several occupations : teaching school; selling in a country store; writing political editorials; and even dentistry. He toured the New England and Middle Atlantic states as a peddler, and traveled to Europe. Perhaps as a result of this enterprising spirit, he also experimented with living in a Fourierist community, and even tried his hand at mesmerism. Holgrave thus embodies both the egalitarianism and materialism of the American spirit of enterprise.

These experiences have convinced him primarily of the mutability of human existence and the need for reform. "Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" cried he.... "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. I doubt whether even our public edifices – our capitals, state-houses, court-houses, 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." (pp. 182-84) Although he has read few books, Holgrave here follows Jefferson, who would have had each generation construct its own system anew every 19 years. (Jefferson, 1789). Holgrave Maule represents the dominant American tendency – as Hawthorne sees it – to respond to past oppression and present dissatisfaction by attempting to wipe the slate clean and start again from scratch (McFarland, 2004).

Acting on the basis of such a thought or ideology, Americans clearly will not learn anything from the past. In attempting to destroy a heritage of class hatred, they unwittingly condemn themselves to perpetuating a more deeply rooted "natural" cycle of domineering political ambition (if in democratic guise) and sporadic (often disguised) popular reaction against it. Hawthorne thus tries – if very subtly – to suggest a different tack.

As a result of his experience at the house of seven gables, Holgrave's attitudes undergo a profound change. The turning point occurs when he reads Phoebe a short piece that he has written for a magazine – a tale drawn from the history of their two warring families. Watching Phoebe nod under the hypnotic effect of his own words, Holgrave refrains from exercising his hereditary hypnotic power; his story has reminded him of the destructive effects of both possession and revenge. And the narrator praises such self-restraint:

There is no temptation so great as the opportunity of acquiring empire over the human spirit; nor any idea more seductive to a young man than to become the arbiter of a young girl's destiny. Let us, therefore – whatever his defects of nature and education, and in spite of his scorn for creeds and institutions – concede to the daguerreotypist [Holgrave] the rare and high quality of reverence for another's individuality. (p. 212)

Rather than seeking to dominate or punish, Holgrave falls in love with Phoebe and asks her to marry him. And in so doing, he quite consciously exchanges his former ambition to found a new social system for the ease of prosperity and domestic happiness: "The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease," Holgrave observes. "The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits. I have a presentiment that, hereafter, it will be my lot to set our trees, to make fences, – perhaps, even, in due time, to build a house for another generation, – in a word, to conform myself to laws and the peaceful practice of society" (pp. 306-7).

Holgrave has come to see not only the cost of political ambition and class-based resentment, but also – in terms of the book's dominant imagery – the true locus of new growth and individual distinction: the "interior." His marriage to Phoebe is founded on an explicit recognition of their differing perceptions and talents and the advantages of pooling their resources, rather than demanding the subordination or conformity of one to the tastes of the other. Holgrave has thus internalized and personalized what he learned about the evils of oppression from reflecting on a fictionalized account of the past.

Because Holgrave is an artist, his marriage to Phoebe indicates something of what Hawthorne thought not only about the foundations of a free community, but also about the relation of the artist to bourgeois society. Such a community will not be possible until its members rather explicitly give up all desire to dominate others, on a personal as well as a political level

   

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