04 April, 2007

A Couple American Books...

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are two novels very often cited as the greatest works of American literature. Whether or not these two books are greater than other American novels in a simple literary sense, it is nearly incontestable that each one is intensely American in setting, plot, and theme.

The story of The House of Seven Gables unfolds in 19th Century New England. The setting is quintessentially American, evoking the bustling ports, wealthy sea captains, crusty old tars, and Yankee clipper ships for which New England was internationally renowned during Hawthorne’s life.

The theme is even more characteristically American. Essentially exploring the topic of freedom, Hawthorne concentrates outwardly on the conflict between Old World aristocracy and American democracy. The Pyncheon family, around which The House of Seven Gables centers, is almost uniformly distinguished by a ludicrously exaggerated pride. Under the influence of this arrogance, the worst members of the Pyncheon dynasty plunder and prey upon the lower classes of New England.

Ironically, however, this self-aggrandizement makes the Pyncheons the least “free” people seen in the book. The “house” of the title is like a prison for its elderly residents, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon. A dark, dank, oppressive building, the mansion is repeatedly described as a living, growing entity, overpoweringly rank with the presence of previous Pyncheon generations. The building becomes a sort of tangible representation of the sin of the family’s dynastic arrogance; it oppresses the entire clan, and yet, in a grotesque paradox, each Pyncheon is absurdly proud of the edifice. Even Hepzibah, broken and distraught by the house’s darkness, cannot resist taking pride in its history and the legacy of the family’s “original sinner,” Colonel Pyncheon.

In The House of Seven Gables, Hawthorne takes an American setting and uses his plot to explore the theme of freedom on two different levels. The more external investigation centers around the specifically American conflict between aristocracy and democracy, while the deeper study focuses on an aspect of freedom that is more universal, but still especially pertinent to America. This second level throws an interesting light on the theme of class conflict in relation to freedom as Hawthorne reveals that those who oppress others are in fact the least free of all. In this sense, the author’s theme is religious (the sin oppresses the sinner more than the sinned-against). However, for Americans, the message is also partly cautionary. Hawthorne points out that the evils associated with aristocracy are not unique to Europe, contrary to what many Americans assume. Complacency in the face of sin has no place in a free society, for freedom will quickly disappear wherever evil is allowed to take root and produce pride and oppression.

The setting of Huckleberry Finn could hardly be more different from that of The House of Seven Gables, yet it is as emblematically American in flavour as any New England seaport. The action progresses along the banks of the Mississippi, where Huckleberry and his friend, Jim, coming from a peaceful little mid-western town, encounter feuding Southern gentry, a “wild west” shanty village, slippery hucksters, and a plethora of other icons of American frontier lore.

Freedom is a theme of this book as well. Here it is most ostensibly explored in the particular issue of slavery. Huckleberry’s comrade during his travels is Jim, a runaway slave, who plans to escape his pursuers by river. Huckleberry defies the Southern society of the time by choosing to assist his friend, rather than turning him in. Ironically enough, Huckleberry’s misinformed conscience causes his to feel a considerable amount of guilt over this noble decision. His defiant exclamation, “Alright, I’ll go to hell!” uttered when he decides to stay loyal to Jim, underline a theme which, as in The House of Seven Gables, is deeper than the most ostensible theme of the book although closely related to it.

No less than Jim, Huckleberry Finn also finds freedom on the river, though not in a simple physical sense. The Mississippi acts in the book as a sort of no man’s land, uniting a gamut of American ways of life, but participating little in any of them. Unfortunately, society outside the Huck’s and Jim’s raft on the river is rife with hypocrisy. This hypocrisy comes in a variety of guises, but in each instance, it has the inexorable result of repressing the freedom which should have been easily realized along the banks of one of the world’s largest rivers.

A primary example of such hypocrisy in Huckleberry’s own hometown is that displayed by the dreadful Miss Watson. This horrid, puritanical old woman is the one responsible for teaching Huck, among other things, that helping runaway slaves is a sin, and will send one to hell. She (speaking for her community) commits the ultimate hypocrisy of pretending that good is evil and evil good in order to justify the slave-owning lifestyle, and in so doing, not only denies the slaves their freedom, but also corrodes the freedom of Huck’s conscience by misinforming it.

Huck’s adventures involve similar instances of repression of the truth through hypocrisy throughout the novel. The deadly feud of the Grangerfords and Shepardsons, for instance, creates a tyranny of violence for miles around that stifles love by redefining their mutual hatred as noble. Huck encounters the most blatant hypocrisy of all, however, in the characters of the “Duke of Bilgewater” and the “Lost Dauphin of France” – two brazen con men who force Huck and Jim to cooperate with their fraudulent schemes. The interesting twist to this episode is that here the hypocrisy of society on shore (in the form of the con men) creeps onto the raft to tyrannize its passengers. Freedom on the raft is not something Huck and Jim can take for granted, despite the fact that the river had originally been a haven of independence for them. If hypocrisy and evil are allowed to take root, Mark Twain emphasizes, freedom even in traditional strongholds of liberty will soon be destroyed.

The two “great American novels” are so steeped in the flavour of this country that each one can be said to be a veritable icon of American life. From the seaports of New England to the banks of the Mississippi, each is set in an intensely American atmosphere. Even more essentially each book revolves around that same theme on which America was founded: freedom. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain alike emphasize that although this country has the privilege and advantage of being committed from its outset to a desire for true liberty, pride, hypocrisy, and other sins of society will quickly lead to a decline in this gift. Freedom, like any privilege, can never be taken for granted.

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