An Analysis of the Symbols in The House of Seven Gables Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Categories: Literature

American Literature reflects life, and the struggles that we face during our existence. The great authors of our time incorporate life’s problems into their literature directly and indirectly. The stories themselves bluntly tell us a story, however, an author also uses symbols to relay to us his message in a more subtle manner. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The House of Seven Gable’s symbolism is eloquently used to enhance the story being told, by giving us a deeper insight into the author’s intentions in writing the story.

The book begins by describing the most obvious symbol of the house itself. The house itself takes on human like characteristics as it is being described by Hawthorne in the opening chapters. The house is described as ‘breathing through the spiracles of one great chimney'(Hawthorne 7). Hawthorne uses descriptive lines like this to turn the house into a symbol of the lives that have passed through its halls. The house takes on a persona of a living creature that exists and influences the lives of everybody who enters through its doors.

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‘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.’ (Hawthorne 27). Hawthorne turns the house into a symbol of the collection of all the hearts that were darkened by the house. ‘It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences’ (Hawthorne 27).

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Evert Augustus Duyckinck agrees that ‘The chief perhaps, of the dramatis personae, is the house itself. From its turrets to its kitchen, in every nook and recess without and within, it is alive and vital.’ (Hawthorne 352) Duyckinck feels that the house is meant to be used as a symbol of an actual character, ‘Truly it is an actor in the scene'(Hawthorne 352). This turns the house into an interesting, but still depressing place that darkens the book in many ways. Hawthorne means for the house’s gloomy atmosphere to symbolize many things in his book.

The house also is used to symbolize a prison that has darkened the lives of its inmates forever. The house is a prison because it prevents its inhabitants form truly enjoying any freedom. The inhabitants try to escape from their incarceration twice. Initially, as Phoebe and Clifford watch the parade of life in the street, Clifford ‘realizes his state of isolation from the ‘one broad mass of existence-one great life, – one collected body of mankind,’ and he cannot resist the actual physical attempt to plunge down into the ‘surging stream of human sympathy” (Rountree 101).

Dillingham believes that ‘Hawthorne clearly describes Clifford’s great need to become reunited with the world and hints that this reunion can be accomplished only by death’ (Rountree 101). However, Clifford inevitably fails to win his freedom, and he returns to the solace of his prison house. Clifford and Hepzibah attempt once more to escape their captive prison, but the house has jaded them too much already (Rountree 102).

This is apparent when Hepzibah and her brother made themselves ready-as ready as they could, in the best of their old-fashion garments, which had hung on pegs, or been laid away in trunks, so long that the dampness and mouldy smell of the past was on them – made themselves ready, in their faded bettermost, to go to church. They descended the staircase together, pulled open the front door, and stept across the threshold, and felt, both of them, as if they were standing in the presence of the whole world. Their hearts quaked within them, at the idea of taking one step further.

(Hawthorne 169) Hepzibah and Clifford are completely cut off from the outside world.
They are like prisoners who after being jailed for decades return to find a world they do not know. (Rountree 101). Clifford is deeply saddened when he says, ”We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings – no right anywhere, but in this old house'(Hawthorne 169). The house has imprisoned their souls and trapped their lives. Hence, the house symbolizes a prison for its inhabitants.

DuBoiss collapse in A Streetcar Named Desire takes place because she cannot cope with the clashing of her fantasies vs. Stanleys realism, old South vs. new South lifestyles, and her oldfashioned perception of romance and sex.

Blanche DuBois has a problem accepting the realities posed by those she lives and interacts with in her new home. She will not come to terms with the changes associated with her aging because she does not want to lose her youth and beauty. Her appearance is changing from the young, ideal Southern Belle she once was.

Blanche cannot even look in a mirror any more, lest she end up breaking it in anger of her appearance (151). Blanche also has a grave fear of a naked light bulb as it exposes her aging face, and metaphorically, reality (60). She is also afraid Mitch will lose his desire for Blanche if he knew her true age (60). Blanches failure to accept reality creates conflict in her new life.

A major part of Blanches problems result from her failure to deal with fantasies clashing with reality because she fears losing her mental and social security. She purposely misrepresents things to people through her intentional lies such as the fib she told Mitch about her age(60).

This lie is further evidence of Blanches refusal to accept the truth: she, like the rest of the world, is aging. In fact, she blatantly says that she is more interested in, as Mary Ann Corrigan says, Being forced to face the kind of reality that she refuses to recognize as significant is the cause of Blanches breakdown(54).

W. David Sievers echoes Corrigan, As the various doors of escape are closed to her and she finds Stanley across her one remaining path, her mind is unable to cope with this impossible conflict(460). In her final attempt to hold onto her fantasy world against Stanley, she sees his rape attempt as at first playful, instead of his raw, animalistic want for sex. Reality puts a constant pressure on Blanche but she chooses to ignorantly disregard it.

Tennessee Williams has a flair for writing about reality clashing with fantasy in some of his plays. In The Glass Menagerie, Lauras unrealistic grasp on life clashes with Toms ability to function in the real world. In A Streetcar Named Desire, there is a combination of raw reality and deliberate fantasy between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois (Riddel 24).

Williams throughout Streetcar creates constant conflict between Blanche and either Stanley, Mitch, or Stella. The audience of the play, however, is presented with polar views of the drama (Kernan 17) from the realistic view of Stanley and the non-realistic view of his sister-in-law, Blanche.

Blanches world is filled with illusions including herself, I fib a good deal. After all, a womans charm is fifty percent illusion(41). Blanche has full awareness of her own lies and openly admits it. Fantasy colliding with reality creates a series of conflicts throughout Streetcar.

Blanches old South ideals of gentility, refinement, and etiquette bring forth discord between herself and others when they brush against new South standards. Her former life in the upper crust of society no longer exists because of the epic fornications(80).

Blanche cannot adapt to her new life in the French Quarter like Stella has. As Stanley says to Stella, When we first metl was common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with the columns [Belle Reve] and how you loved it. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going again. (137)

Stanley pulls Stella down socially and metaphorically away from her former life. Blanche, on the other hand, holds on dearly to her memories of Belle Reve and her former life of aristocracy. For instance, after attempting to write a desperation telegram to one of her fantasy-life admirers, Shep Huntleigh, Stella tells Blanche she is not in a situation she wishes to get out of.

Blanche believes she is doing Stella a favor by including her in the telegram draft. In response Blanche says, I take it for granted that you still have sufficient memory of Belle Reve to find this place and these pokers players impossible to live with(80). This prevents Blanche from being able to fit into a common surrounding.

As time goes on, her sisters wanting to live with Stanley increasingly baffles Blanche because she does not view Stanley as much more than a common, animalistic ape. It is a life of landed gentry on the plantation, among the upper class that has put Blanche in such a position. Joseph Wood Krutch expresses similar thoughts, Behind [Blanche) lies a past which, at least in the retrospect seems to have been civilized. The culture of the Old South is dead. Blanche chooses the dead past and becomes the victim of that impossible choice. (462)

Blanche cannot find a new group or clique by which to identify with, leaving her completely alone. Krutch continues, [Blanche) is on the side of civilization and refinement. But the age has placed her in a tragic dilemma. She looks about for a tradition according to which she may life and a civilization to which she can be loyal. She finds none. [Our new society] has lost its shape. (462)

It is a culture shock for Blanche to learn to live with those of a lesser social class. It is this radical adjustment that sparks the initial conflict in the book, beginning as soon as Blanche arrives to Elysian Fields.

Stanley and Stella not only differ with Blanche in their social class, but also with their views of sex and intimacy. To Stanley and Stella, it is about a raw yearning for romance, sensuality, and foreplay, eventually followed by sex. Although Blanche also has a raw desire for sex, it is not of her tradition to succumb to the desires and romance now associated with sex.

Corrigan states, Since the tradition allows no place for the physical and sensual, she rejects this aspect [of sex](56). Sievers shares this view, saying, In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams] has shown Blanche struggling to master her conflicting drives of sex and super ego, to live up to an inner image of a belle of the Old South(46061).

It is the conflicting drives that she cannot control which lead to her downfall. [Blanches] two destroyers, desire and Stanley Kowalski, are thus made to hover like fateful accomplices over Blanche(Quirino 472). Blanches efforts to educate Stanley and Stella in the ancient, old South traditions are violently repelled and denied.

An element in Blanches desire for sex is that of a desire for intimacy and security from a man. She is a proven nymphomaniac who has longed for the confidence Allan Grey, her late husband, once provided her. Instead, she has become a whore, though not in her self-image, sleeping with many men to no avail she still remains completely alone.

The genteel Blanche and the raw Stanley ride the same streetcar, but for different reasons. Blanche goes to her sexual affairs to relieve the broken quality of her life, looking for closeness, perhaps kindness, in that physical way. (473)

Sex has become Blanches only way to overcome her ceaseless loneliness. In her essay A Streetcar Named Misogyny, Kathleen Maragaret Lant states, Williams has made it perfectly clear why the [fantasy] deception is necessary: Blanche is alone, vulnerable, penniless, and most pathetic of all desperately lonely(400).

Blanche has nobody in the world that she can turn to and she is completely broke, forcing her to remain with Stanley and Stella. Williams forces Blanche into a never-ending cycle of attempts for social and mental security and stability through sexual means.
Blanches perpetual search for stability comes to an abrupt, decisive halt in the climax of the drama in which Stanley rapes her.

It is here Stanley proves he is a villain, in mindless opposition to civilization and culture the new man of the modern world(Brustein 9). Blanche knows culture, gentility, and high-class living while Stanley knows brutish, animal-like ways. The ultimate blow to her mental steadiness is Stanleys victory over Blanche.

The rape is the culmination and symbol ofvictory. It is the final act of destruction. Stanley destroys Blanche with sex. It has been her Achilles heel(Nelson 396). Although Stanley established his alpha-male-like presence early in the play through his bestial acts of rage, violence, and brutality, Blanche continues in her attempts to instill her ideals.

Stella [needs to make a choice. She stands between the two, for they are the pure products of their respective views while Stella is born kin to the romantic and married to the realistic. (Kernan 19)
Stella does not believe Blanches story of the rape and insists she will continue to live with and love Stanley.

Imploring Stella to leave Stanley, Blanche delivers a harangue which in its cadence and hysterical rhetoric betrays desperation and vulnerability (Quirino 472). Stanley brings about the final triumph over Blanche, her practices, and the Old South in her destroyer scene in which he rapes her. Stanley has lit up Blanches colored lights, and his own victory light.

Blanche simply cannot push herself into reality again. Her fantasy notions cloud her perception of her world. She cannot look at herself in the mirror without turning violent and destroying the reflective evidence of her aging.

She must hide the truth, lest she find herself humiliated by reality. Instead of accepting her image as a whore, she projects her self-image of a Southern Belle. Turning from the harsh realities of her life, Blanche puts herself into a world of fantasy romance. This fantasy world collapses, taking Blanche with it.

Once Blanche has begun to settle into her new domain, she attempts to instill her ideals upon all she interacts with. Since she is of the old South aristocracy, Blanche believes it her duty to instruct the inferior class on the proper ways of marriage, social issues, and etiquette. Instead, her principles are violently rejected by Stanley and laughed off by Stella.

Blanche then looks about for a social class in which she can identify and adhere to its ethics. She does not find a class by which she can hold on to. Her quest for an acceptable group never comes to an end. Blanche is thus forced to be an outsider of this society, something she cannot handle.

Blanche not only searches for her social stability, but intimacy and romance. It is because of her background as the refined Belle that she cannot simply allow her lust and desire to project itself. Instead she bottles up her yearning for intimacy and turns from it. When she can no longer ignore her desires, her futile attempts for romance with Mitch only bring her closer to the fall into dementia.

Blanche is on what seems to be a never-ending search for something to fill the void in her mental stability caused by her sexual inadequacies.
It becomes a combination of conflicts that cause Blanche DuBois into her great plunge into insanity. She will not accept the realities of life, but rather lives in a fantasy world of romance and nobility.

She cannot mesh her old South ideals of etiquette, gentility and refinement with the new South presented by Stanley and Stella turning from what Blanche believes in. This along with her old fashioned view of romance and intimacy in sex creates a harsh recipe for her breakdown. All of her bottled up and hidden away secrets and truths have now surfaced and she will not be able to handle them all at once. Blanches ignorance and ideology force her into a world of mental instability from which she will never return.


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An Analysis of the Symbols in The House of Seven Gables Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2021, Oct 05). Retrieved from

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