The American Class System in House of Seven Gables and Wieland
The Last of a Ragged Line
Americans traditionally think of their country as having a fluid and objective class structure. There are no Indian varnas, native nobility, nor laws explicitly governing upward mobility. A look back in American literature, though, opens a window on a time when class rancor expressed itself in a newly minted country. Readers of Charles Brockden Brown’sWieland, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables will see a subtle shift over time away from a critique of all classes toward a cautious favoritism of an industrious middle-class.
One of the most important considerations for members of an elite class is how they view themselves. In Brown’s novel, the narrator and her upper-class family and friends have an implicit trust in their own powers of reason and perception. When dealing with what seems to be a supernatural experience the narrator discounts the tales of others as “ignorance and folly” but goes on to say, “This incident was different from any that I had ever before known. Here were proofs of a sensible and intelligent existence, which could not be denied” (Brown, 44-5). Her proofs, though, amount to her brother and friend giving their anecdotal account. Since the evidence comes from such esteemed people, she does not bother to investigate or question the matter but accepts their account as objective truth. Her faith in their authority is misplaced. Whatever the qualifications of her brother and Pleyel, neither of them are ever described as men of extensive scientific learning. This unfortunate trust is played out again and again as each character accepts their perceptions as unveiled truth often with such disastrous consequences as Pleyel’s disgust toward Clara for her perceived relations with a criminal (99) and Wieland’s homicidal rampage at the behest of otherworldly voices (150-1).
Along with this trust in their empirical and rational powers is a perverse sense of narcissism. When Carwin offers reasonable alternatives to the experiences of the Wieland family, Clara brushes him aside saying, “I could not but remark that his narratives, however complex or marvellous [sic], contained no instance sufficiently parallel to those that had befallen ourselves, and in which the solution was applicable to our case” (71-2). Clara and her kin are in love with their own singularity; no one anywhere has experienced anything like they have. It is almost as thought they could not suffer to share this seemingly miraculous event with anyone. A similar instance is noted where Hepzibah unlocks the shop door, and “Then—as if the only barrier betwixt herself and the world had been thrown down, and a flood of evil consequences would come tumbling through the gap—she fled into the inner parlor, threw herself into the ancestral elbow-chair, and wept” (Hawthorne, 40). The hyperbolic language matches what Hepzibah feels: a fatal sense of doom and shame. Her feelings though are more than a little ludicrous. While the transition to earning a living may be hard, she behaves as though no one had ever fallen from the upper-class before, that no one ever worked to support his or herself before, that no one else had ever come upon hard times. Even in her misery she must be singular and special just like the Wielands. For Hawthorne, this experience is nothing new or shocking. He tells the reader, “In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning-point. The tragedy is enacted with as continual a repetition as that of a popular drama on the holiday” (36). Hepzibah’s drop on the social scale is not as rare or disastrous as she makes it out to be.
How social elites view other people also plays into their characterization in the novels. When Clara first views Carwin, she immediately judges him by his outward appearance and assumes what intellectual and social features he must accordingly possess:
His pace was a careless and lingering one, and had none of that gracefulness and ease which distinguish a person with certain advantages from a clown [....] There was nothing remarkable in these appearances; they were frequently to be met with on the road, and in the harvest field. I cannot tell why I gazed upon them, on this occasion, with more than ordinary attention, unless it were that such figures were seldom seen by me, except on the road or in the field. (Brown, 49)
This instance is only one example of a habitual condescension. Another example is when Clara returns to her family grounds and visits the tenant farmer’s “Hut” where, “Their homely welcome, and their artless sympathy, were grateful to my feelings. In the midst of their inquiries, as to my health, they avoided all allusions to the source of my malady. They were honest creatures, and I loved them well” (184). These tenants are scarcely human in her eyes; they are crudely fashioned, like primordial beings that require her superior, benevolent guidance and oversight. Other servants are infrequently mentioned or even named, and their safety is rarely a matter for concern as when Clara flees when she thinks murders are in her house (56). Interactions with these lesser folk are always opportunities for the elites to show their qualities.
Hawthorne counteracts this view even while his characters engage in it. Hepzibah, destitute and struggling with her store, refuses money from Holgrave because it would not be lady-like to accept money for feeding a friend (Hawthorne, 44). Phoebe, a girl accustomed to work, puts things in perspective. The reader sees where “Hepzibah was well content to acknowledge Phoebe’s vastly superior gifts as a shopkeeper” among other things (72). It is under her efforts that the house and its inhabitants improve, and given the state of the other Pyncheons, it comes as no surprise when Phoebe says, “I mean to earn my bread. You know, I have not been brought up a Pyncheon. A girl learns many things in a New England village” (68). She has no aversion to work or gaining a living through labor, unlike her aristocratic counterparts. It is as though her infusion of working-class blood invigorates the Pyncheon line and keeps it from falling into incestuous disrepair as one often sees in the stories of Poe or Lovecraft. Phoebe, then, and her work ethic are the saving grace of the whole family. Hawthorne does, however, mark out new dangers in such a world, for it may give rise to a new and no less corrupt aristocracy. In this case: Judge Pyncheon. His elitism is based on his wealth, and “as is customary with the rich, when they aim at the honors of a republic, he apologizes, as it were, 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” (117). Even among such people who earn what they have, there is an arrogance which creates distance and likely, resentment.
One of the more startling shifts is the relative value of the elite class to their society. In Wieland, the characters are too remote to be of any real use to the larger civilization. Clara admits, “The sound of war had been heard, but it was as such a distance as to enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison” (Brown, 27). She displays a startling detachment from her country’s concerns, and her attitude gives the reader a good idea of how little positive effect her family would have in regards to a tool of state-craft such as the military. Politics, too, seems beneath their concern. Pleyel suggests Wieland take up his ancestral European estate, but Wieland declines saying, “Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave their possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred” (38). On the one hand, his decision is pragmatic in the choice to keep what wealth he has rather than risk future gain in an uncertain and war-torn Germanic state. There is, however, as sense of selfishness, too, in that he enjoys his remoteness and comfort, and gives no thought to what good he might work in a position of leadership. Likewise, the reader is shocked to learn that these matters of who may govern a European territory is being debated because Pleyel wants to return for a woman he fancies (39). Such frivolity about lordship and the fate of nations suggests a career in politics is not for the social elites seen in Wieland.
If the upper-class is of questionable worth is Brown’s novel, Hawthorne makes them out to be helpless and ineffective. Hepzibah proves she has no skill in commerce. At the end of her workday she earned “perhaps half-a-dozen coppers, and a questionable ninepence” (Hawthorne, 62). Worse than her inept salesmanship, she can hardly feed herself. The author writes, “Hepzibah had no natural turn for cookery, and, to say the truth, had fairly incurred her present meagerness by often choosing to go without her dinner, rather than be attendant on the rotation of the spit or ebullition of the pot” (90). Her helplessness is certainly a factor in her own ruination, but her pride does not allow her to act contrary. The reader learns, “It is very queer, but not the less true, that people are generally quite as vain, or even more so, of their deficiencies, than of their available gifts; as was Hepzibah of this native inapplicability, so to speak, of the Pyncheons to any useful purpose. She regarded it as a hereditary trait” (71). In effect, she justifies her uselessness as a component of her breeding and deportment as a lady of standing. All the while, Phoebe cares for the house, meals, and other duties beneath Hepzibah’s attentions, and Hawthorne comments, “It was a fair parallel between new Plebeianism and old Gentility” (74). Here he does not express his favor for one or the other, but given that Hepzibah as the aristocracy is in an advanced state of decay and that the friendly and hardworking Phoebe is young and not yet at the height of her industriousness, it is not hard to see which way Hawthorne thinks the wind was blowing. Whatever its virtues and vices, the ancient class structure was on its way out and middle and working classes, symbolized in Phoebe and Judge Pyncheon, were in their ascension.
The issue of historical connection and inheritance also becomes less positive issue over time. Clara mentions several times how her “ancestors were noble Saxons, and possessed large domains in Lusatia,” and how “The property which our parents left was by no means inconsiderable” (Brown, 37, 21). It is in keeping with this aristocratic lineage, then, that when Wieland comprehends the disgrace and violence he committed against his family, “he plunged [the dagger] to the hilt in his neck; and his life instantly escaped with the stream that gushed from the wound” (221). Wieland falls on his sword, so to speak, in a Classical mode of punishment that has nothing to do with contemporary laws and legal proceedings.
Similarly, ancestral inheritance among the Pyncheons “caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility” though Maule’s curse is inextricably tied to the house, too (Hawthorne, 20). The Pyncheons are haunted by their lust for more. Even the Judge, a new kind of man, claims, “Of my Uncle’s unquestionably great estate, as I have said, not the half—no, not one third, as I am fully convinced—was apparent after his death” (205). If Hepzibah believes uselessness is an inherited trait, then the infatuation for the lost family treasure is a hereditary disease that drives even the more modern Pyncheons back into the family curse. This family cycle, though, is not limited to the Pyncheons. The last Maule—Holgrave—finds himself back at the plot of land where his familial troubles started. Just as Old Matthew Maule is described as “stubborn” and “obscure,” his descendant of the same name shows his inherited contempt for social convention by entering the Pyncheon house through the front door (169). Holgrave is no exception to this seemingly genetic trait. He is a self-made man, a jack-of-all trades who trumps even his ancestors’ anti-social stance by his radical declaration, “It would be better that [every building] 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” (162). Holgrave, a man trying to escape his past, longs to see society remade in his image, where nothing is permanent, bringing an end to all inheritances. Of course, Hawthorne expresses a measure of disapproval at such an outlandish scheme when he has Holgrave domesticated, as it were, by Phoebe’s love to the point where he suggests they build a house of stone, “thus giving that impression of permanence” (274). In House of Seven Gables there is little good that comes from inheritance or by clinging to old lineage, noble or otherwise. The author does not, however, endorse a complete overhaul of society every twenty-odd years. Hawthorne may have an eye to the future, but he does not appear to share in Holgrave’s quasi-anarchist extremism.
Justice and its relation to class is a concern shared by both texts as well. Even as civil authorities tromp in and out of Wieland, there is a serious question if justice is done at any turn. Carwin, to some degree, confesses he is the disembodied voice they have heard from time to time, but he disavows all knowledge of the heavenly voice that commands Wieland (Brown, 188). As noted before, the murderer takes his own life before legal authorities punish him further, and when Carwin owns up to his duplicity, he does so not to any court but to Mr. Cambridge, “who imputed to maniacal illusion the conduct of Wieland, though he conceived the previous and unseen agency of Carwin, to have indirectly but powerfully predisposed him to this deplorable perversion of mind” (228-9). In all of this, the upper-class participants, including the murderous Wieland, are blameless of their beliefs and crimes, but Carwin bears a degree of guilt. The elites are all deceived; Carwin the rustic is the deceiver.
Hawthorne is even more pessimistic. His novel begins with a crime in which lies the root of the Pyncheon fortune. Old Matthew Maule has only God and his magic to call upon to redress his grievances (Hawthorne, 12). Already the poor have no justice from men. The upper-class is not immune to misappropriated justice either as Clifford is wrongly imprisoned for decades while the gasping Judge not only walks free but prospers from the mistake to the point of having a career in the law which he subverted (271). In the end, this injustice is corrected by providence when Judge Pyncheon chokes on his own blood not unlike the baleful demise of his ancestor, Colonel Pyncheon (246, 18). In this the reader sees Hawthorne’s distrust, if not derision, for human institutions of justice; the high and low alike are mistreated by it. God alone, it seems, is the only entity to whom one can appeal for justice, and His designs, while they rectify iniquities, are often delayed until the time is ripe. This remedy may be cold comfort to those like Clifford whose lives are shattered in the long course of divine retribution.
The engine of time staggers forward, and social situations change in the course of American history. Authors, like Brown and Hawthorne, examine their epochs commenting on what they and others deem “progress” or “regression.” In terms of American classism, Brown shows his distrust of the elites and their inflated sense of self worth, but the only alternative he offers is Carwin an aimless, destructive (even if unintentionally) young man who’s trickery touches off a spree-killer. Hawthorne writes about the old privileged class collapsing into ruin just as their mansions and castles are eroded into dust by the press of time and the world rolls oblivious, ceaseless in its orbit. He foresees a new era of meritocracy where workers like Phoebe and Judge Pyncheon prove their worth by deeds rather than bloodlines, but even here horrific crimes and miscarriages of justice go unpunished by a society increasingly devoted to efficient results and prosperity rather than even the old social virtues of hospitality that Hepzibah embodies. Hawthorne’s views may be more accurate and forward-looking, but while the future he forecasts may be different and less class-driven, he does not sketch a picture that is more virtuous or ethical than the age that precedes it. At least Hawthorne finds some hope in the incessant eye and balancing hand of God whereas Brown sees human failing with little hope for timely correction.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. Pleasantville, New York: Reader’s Digest, 1985.
- House of the Seven Gables Book Review and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Among other mysteries, there is a looking glass in the home that has been there since the house was built. It has seen all the Pyncheons for generations and even, at times, the spirits of old Maule and others seem to pass through the glass. What secr