19 August, 2008

The House of the Seven Gables

I wanted to listen to a book on CD-ROM on my drive from Virginia back to Mississippi. I obtained The House of the Seven Gables and listened to about half of it. I subsequently read the rest of it from a real, live book. (I've started taking the bus to work, and I need something to do.)

The biggest discovery I made from this novel is that good novels don't require much in the way of a plot. On the other hand, a good novel requires some sort of plot at least, and personally I found the novel a tad wanting in this regard. I can sum up the entire plot as follows: (I marked the spoilers. Don't read them if you want to read the novel & be, well, not surprised, but something.)

  • Old, rich man connives to steal land from an old, poor man, only it ain't stealin' because he did it legally by framing the guy for a hangable offense.
  • Old, poor man curses old, rich man from the gallows: God will give him blood to drink!
  • Old, rich man builds enormous mansion on said land, but on opening day (so to speak) he is found dead, with blood in his mouth. Creepy insinuations are made, but dismissed by the narrator.
  • Deed to giant tracts of land that were supposedly promised by British King to dead rich man disappeared. If they even existed, which maybe they didn't.
  • Fast forward 6 or 7 generations. Old, poor woman is the sole descendant of dead rich man to occupy the house. Her brother is in jail for murdering his father. Her cousin is a rich judge, respected by society, but for some inexplicable reason the old, poor woman hates him passionately.
  • Also occupying the house is a young, poor, adventurous man who dabbles in ideas that society frowns on.
  • Young, pretty relative of old, rich woman comes to visit the mansion.
  • At about the same time, imprisoned brother of old, poor woman returns home from jail.
  • A lot of talking about the fragile, broken mental state of the imprisoned brother, the saccharine sweetness of the young, pretty relative, and how she makes everyone instantly happy just by… by being her young, pretty self!
  • Young, poor tenant of house reveals to young, pretty relative of landlady that he has written a story based on one of her earlier relatives, one of the dead, poor man's descendants, and how her relative's father, in an attempt to reclaim the deed, more or less sold his daughter to the poor man's descendant's witchery. Also called hypnotism.
  • Amazingly, the young, poor tenant nearly hypnotizes the young, pretty relative merely by relating his story! So the reader isn't the only one falling asleep. (I'm not being facetious; Hawthorne himself remarks at one point that the reader must be falling asleep.)
  • Poor, young relative leaves town to visit her family a short while.
  • (Cue the Wolf's theme from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.) The rich judge comes calling for his formerly imprisoned relative while the poor, young tenant is also out. He wishes to extract from him a secret which will enrich his descendants for generations more to come. As if he isn't rich enough! (Again, I am not being facetious; Hawthorne himself makes some remark to this effect.)
  • Rich judge quarrels with old, poor woman. She loses the quarrel and leaves to call her poor, half-crazy brother. He is not in his room! He finds her instead, and shows her that the judge is dead, with blood in his mouth! He then takes her out of the city on a cold, blustery day. He is mysteriously joyful and energetic!
  • The judge is eventually found. Murder is suspected.
  • The old pair take a train (a new invention of the time) out of town. The old man praises much technology, such as the train, but curses other technology, such as the telegraph. Why does he curse the telegraph? For making it easier to catch murderers. That robs the murderer of his due chance to make his getaway. (I really am not being facetious! He says this!) He and his sister debark the train early, at a stop where the only shelter from the elements is an abandoned church. He was not, it must be noted, previously a church-goer.
  • SPOILER SPOILER SPOILEREveryone returns to the mansion. It is discovered that the judge died a natural death; that his physique, so common to his family, has this weakness that I didn't quite understand but it runs in the family and all the doctors swear to it. In fact, the poor old man's father died the same way, and people come to understand that the dead rich judge had misled everyone to believe that the poor old man had murdered his own father, when the man had merely died after quarreling with the rich judge (who at the time was a dissipated young man, not an old, rich judge).
  • SPOILER SPOILER SPOILERIt is further discovered that the poor young tenant with the mysterious skill at hypnotism is a descendant of the poor old man whose property had been robbed by the rich old man. How fortunate that the pretty young relative and he had recently declared their love for each other! They can marry and make peace between the families.
  • SPOILER SPOILER SPOILEROh, and it turns out that the missing deed was hidden behind a portrait of the rich, old man.
If you haven't fallen asleep yet: That's it. That's the story. Maybe in Hawthorne's time this was original, but with our modern attention spans the movie version will last all of ten minutes. No explosions, no wars, no revealing outfits. I am being facetious here.

I would be surprised if anyone failed to guess the entire outcome of the story pretty early on. Not only did I guess everything except the part about the deed, I had likewise guessed while reading The Scarlet Letter that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Dimmesdale was the father of Hester Prynne's child.END SPOILER I guessed that back when I had to read it in high school, that is, when I was dumber than I am now. I also guessed it within the first few pages. Hawthorne's record at impressing me with plot devices is, so far, 0 wins, 2 losses.

As I pointed out, however, the strength of this book is not in its plot. Besides, in Hawthorne's time these plot devices might not have become so hackneyed as they are today. In any case I enjoyed the book, and I haven't told you the most interesting parts of the story. Hawthorne explores the characters thoroughly, and once I passed through my annoyance at the excess sweetness, I found myself enjoying the characters. Especially the little devourer of gingerbread elephants, soldiers, and the rest.

Hawthorne also has a wonderful way with words. I enjoyed listening to or reading his descriptions of the mansion, of the weather, of how the characters looked, and so on. Hawthorne invests a lot of effort into scenery, and the reader feels placed into the very location. I like Dostoevsky a great deal, but I'm rereading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment and, to be honest, the same level of detail isn't there.

The point of the story, in case you haven't guessed it already, is made glaringly obvious by Hawthorne by the end:
It is a truth (and it would be a very sad one, but for the higher hopes which it suggests) that no great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our mortal sphere, is ever really set right. Time, the continual vicissitude of circumstances, and the invariable inopportunity of death, render it impossible. If, after long lapse of years, the right seems to be in our power, we find no niche to set it in. The better remedy is for the sufferer to pass on, and leave what he once thought his irreparable ruin behind him.
Hawthorne doesn't score high on the subtlety meter. It's still a good novel, even if Hawthorne insists it's not a novel, but a "romance".

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