Humor as Antithesis in the House of the Seven Gables

By Stephenson, Mimosa | Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Humor as Antithesis in the House of the Seven Gables


Stephenson, Mimosa, Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


In his review of Mosses from an Old Manse, Herman Melville found Nathaniel Hawthorne's work to be "shrouded in a blackness, ten times black" (243). That blackness is often, however, mixed with humor in Hawthorne's work as in Goody Cloyse's calling the protagonist "the silly fellow that now is" (10:79) in Hawthorne's quintessentially dark tale Young Goodman Brown." Indeed contemporary reviewers of Mosses from an Old Manse, the collection containing this story, noted his humor and connected it with his seriousness. A reviewer for Graham's Magazine in August 1846 concluded, "As he is a poet and man of genius in his humor, he is as felicitous in his representation of the serious as of the comic side of things; or rather, he so interlaces the serious with the comic that their division lines are scarcely observable" ("Notice" 104). Writing of The House of the Seven Gables shortly after its publication, E. P. Whipple connected Hawthorne's humor to pathos, finding Hawthorne's description of Hepzibah in her cent-shop "may be placed beside the best works of the most genial humorists, for their rapid alterations of smiles and tears, and the perfect April weather they make in the heart" (199). his mixture pervades The House of the Seven Gables from the first to the last page as the narrator balances opposites, noting, "This contrast, or intermingling of tragedy with mirth, happens daily, hourly, momently. The gloomy and desolate old house, deserted of life, and with awful Death sitting sternly in its solitude, was the emblem of many a human heart, which, nevertheless, is compelled to hear the trill and echo of the world's gaiety around it" (2:295). The narrator insists on the ridiculousness of his characters' behavior, alluding to the archetypal garden story while juxtaposing dark tragic circumstances with humorous pretensions. Hawthorne has fun with his minor characters while wondering if perhaps the major characters' "long and black calamity may not have had a redeeming drop of mercy, at the bottom" (2:112). The antithesis throughout the novel underscores the reality that comedy and tragedy are inseparable, that humor exists in all our human endeavors if seen from an inappropriate angle. The humor of The House of the Seven Gables serves as antithesis to the tragedy at the core as Hawthorne, the observer, examines the human condition.

"Laughter," as John Morreall concludes, "results from a pleasant psychological shift" (133); thus, it is not surprising that Hawthorne's humorous novel relies heavily on antithesis, with entire paragraphs made up of paired opposites. Earl Rovit suggests,

   humor generally exploits a situation of radical disproportion--some
   grotesque discrepancy from an established norm or ideal state
   of affairs which has been tacitly or explicitly embodied in the
   philosophic and ethical perspectives of one's time. Conditioned to
   expect a certain predictably reasonable pattern of "behavior, the
   reader is subjected instead to an abrupt disturbance" in rhythm -a
   sudden deviation from his legitimate anticipations. (239)

Hepzibah considers herself a hereditary member of the New England nobility. The reader expects such a person to live sumptuously, dress" elegantly, and live a life of leisure. The novel opens in a run-down" mansion with Hepzibah in a rusty black dress forced to open a cent-shop in hopes of earning enough by her labor to feed herself and her brother. The comic scene majors in Rovit's deviations. Edward L. Galligan concurs in discussing the comic in antithetical terms: "Comic art, like" all other kinds of art, speaks to and for all of us in every recess of our" lives, and the comic vision is possessed by ordinary, uncelebrated men" and women as well as great artists" (xi). Like many other theorists, Neil" Schaeffer sees that "laughter results from an incongruity presented in a ludicrous context," referring to comedy's great themes as "pleasure" transmuted out of pain, order out of chaos, harmony out of conflict" (17, 121), again resorting to antithesis to explain the comic. …

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