Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described ‘memorist’. From a very early age he had an instinctive understanding that the past was far more important than either the present or the future, and he began to record and replay memories to ensure their indelibility. The more memories one retains, he said, the more substantial one becomes. The present is momentary and the future is only a possibility; but the past – particularly if it is remembered as fully as possible – is who we are.
Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables is not so sure. Many generations of Pyncheons had lived in the house since the patriarch, Colonel Pyncheon, built it in Salem in the early colonial period. He, so the story goes, got the land on which it was built under suspicious and strange circumstances. Matthew Maule who owned the land refused to sell it to Pyncheon, but when he – Maule – was accused of witchcraft and executed, Colonel Pyncheon had little difficulty in acquiring it. Legend had it that Colonel Pyncheon was one of influential burghers complicit in if not responsible for Maule’s death; and Maule’s blood curse remained on the family ever after.
Hawthorne uses this dramatic twist to illustrate how family legacy can be a curse. The Pyncheon family never fully escaped the powerful personage of the the Colonel, nor the imagined malignity of Matthew Maule. The main character, Hepzibah Pyncheon, is the owner of the house at the time the story is told, many generations removed from the mid-1600s, the time of the Colonel.
Her loneliness is alleviated by the arrival of her demented but childlike brother, Clifford, a young, fresh, and innocent distant cousin, Phoebe, and an unrelated lodger.
Hepzibah feels the weight of her family, the burden of carrying such a suspect if not tarnished legacy. She, however, feels the obligation to remain in the house despite the loneliness of her spinsterhood. There is something compelling about the house and those who have lived in it before her. The Colonel’s portrait still hangs prominently in the living room, and Hepzibah can never elude or ignore his presence and his influence. Her cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon looks like the Colonel, and is as smart, canny, and unethical as the old man. There is cyclical nature to the Pyncheon family, and as much as Hepzibah would like to move on and away from her ancestors, every time her cousin comes to the door, she is reminded of them.
Phoebe Pyncheon, the young cousin of Hepzibah comes to live with her, and for the first time in her long spinsterhood and life of seclusion and loneliness she feels lighter and happier. The past does not need to always weigh ponderously. There are Pyncheons who have not inherited the dark and mysterious traits of the Colonel. On the contrary, Phoebe is sprite-like, airy, happy, and beautiful. She transforms the house, the garden, and the gloomy spirit that pervades.
Clifford, Hepzibah’s brother comes to live with her; and she and particularly Phoebe become his caretakers. Clifford not only lives in the past but in the rooms of his childhood. Everything he sees and feels is judged by his childlike memories. He is sensitive, artistic, and values beauty above all things. Phoebe is not only beautiful and a reminder of the beauty of his youth, but she is a healer. She begins to cure him of his melancholy and depression, and gives him some hope that the present and the future hold some promise.
Holgrave, a lodger in the house of the seven gables, is an artist and a philosopher. He, like Hepzibah, is angry and resentful of the past; but because he is not a Pyncheon, his criticism of the family is only a metaphor for his hate of all hereditary legacy.
A dead man sits on all our judgment-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men's books! We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos! We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us! Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man's white, immitigable face encounters them, and freezes our very heart! ... I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!"
"And why not," said Phoebe, "so long as we can be comfortable in them?"
"But we shall live to see the day, I trust," went on the artist, "when no man shall build his house for posterity. Why should he? He might just as reasonably order a durable suit of clothes,—leather, or gutta-percha, or whatever else lasts longest,—so that his great-grandchildren should have the benefit of them, and cut precisely the same figure in the world that he himself does.
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 capitols, state-houses, court-houses, city-hall, 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.
For Hawthorne, the past is far from that of Nabakov who reveled in its richness, pleasures, and satisfactions. Nabokov in Speak, Memory wrote about idyllic summers in pre-Revolutionary, Czarist Russia, a favored and blessed childhood, the awakening of sexuality, the beginning of curiosity, and an awareness of beauty everywhere. Had his childhood been averse or painful, he might well have deliberately expunged or forgotten unpleasant memories; but it was not, and as his store of happy memories increased, he felt more fulfilled, alive, and happy.
Every character in The House of Seven Gables deals with the unpleasant past in very tangible, immediate ways. Holgrave, beginning to feel an emotional attachment to Phoebe woos her away from the damaging presence of the house and the Pyncheons, not realizing that his vitriol and unrealistic miserly philosophy pushes her away.
Phoebe tries to bring Clifford closer to the present and away from his childish, regressive habits. Hepzibah fights against the influences of the past, but cannot seem to evade or avoid them.
Henrik Ibsen in Rosmersholm also writes of family legacy and its permanent expression in an old family home. Rosmer, the latest in line of many generations feels the overwhelming weight of his family’s conservatism, officious moral rectitude, and social insularity. He wants nothing more to do with the house and his family and is seduced by an unknown newcomer, Rebekka West, an ambitious young woman who wants to use him and his family name to further her own political ends. He renounces Rosmersholm, its legacy, and his religion.
The Mannon family in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra suffers from the same weight of family history, and murder, incest, and jealousy result. Just like in the house of the seven gables, family portraits are on the wall and the old patriarchs look down with demanding disapproval.
The family estate in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard functions in the same way, as a metaphor for the heavy legacy of family but its importance in the lives of its members. Mme. Ranevsky, the latest member of the family to occupy an old, rural estate, has spent and wasted her money, and as the play begins is faced with having to sell the cherry orchard – the very heart and soul of her life and her childhood. The estate and the orchard are very much inhibitions to change, but Lyuba is torn between leaving (she previously had a French lover) and staying. Chopping down the orchard would be a destruction of her life – re: Nabokov.
The argument of Holgrave is interesting – idealistic, impossible, but compelling. Why preserve a past dominated by dead men, venality, and corruption? By destroying the present – or immediate past – every twenty years, one would be forced to start over, to rethink the past and the trajectory on which we are propelled. The past has no value, says Holgrave, only the present – as transition – and the hopes of the future.
All of us are conditioned in our thinking by the quality of our past. Nabokov would not have been a memorist if he had lived an unhappy childhood. Holgrave would not have been so pessimistic about the past had he not observed first hand (and through historical records) the damaging, destructive Pyncheon family. Hepzibah would not have felt so trapped by the house had she not been a lonely spinster. Phoebe who comes out of the country, pure and simple, cannot help but feel her simplicity and innocence erode.
No one is exempt from the past say Hawthorne, Chekhov, and Ibsen. It takes a great, almost superhuman effort – or the intervention of an independent, willful outsider – to reject the past. It takes effort and a commitment to the belief that the present and future are but meaningless add-ons to the significance of the past, says Nabokov.
It is not surprising that technology is behind the current interest in family history. Up until recently, it was only family lore that counted. If anything, it meant putting up with crazy Uncle Harry and wondering where Cousin Ira could possibly have come from. Now historical records are easily available via Internet searches, and DNA testing can help pinpoint genetic provenance with increasing accuracy.
It is not so much that people want to discover, protect, or preserve the past as Chekhov’s characters did. In an age which prizes diversity, they want to legitimize their race or ethnicity. Black people want to know just how black they are. White people want to rule out Jewish or American Indian origins. Liberals want to trace their lineage back to Quakers and Enlightenment heroes; and conservatives hope that they can hook a Puritan prelate or Salem deacon.
Most of us have enough trouble keeping our own families in one piece, reasonably functional, and out of trouble – all of which takes supreme enterprise and energy. The past is over and done with, the present far too short, and the promise of a better future very limited indeed. Legitimizing family history, establishing links to royalty, or at least determining bloodline purity is of no interest. Besides, it’s more fun to pull out the family albums and to try to figure out exactly where Bad Cousin Ira came from.