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  • Incest and Intertextuality:Female Desire and Milton’s Legacy in The House of the Seven Gables
  • David Greven (bio)

While critics have taken various approaches to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables, this essay highlights what we might call its queer and feminist ethics. Hawthorne’s commitment to undesirable characters—the elderly brother and sister Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon; the would-be reformer and dilettante Holgrave, a young daguerreotypist; the Pyncheons’ country-cousin Phoebe; the lively and cheerful old neighbor Uncle Venner; the historical Alice Pyncheon; and even the novel’s villain, the outwardly gregarious and smooth-talking but almost transparently malevolent Judge Pyncheon—evinces the author’s interest in the marginalized and the silenced. His concerns include not only the novel’s personae but also its affective dimensions, specifically how it evokes and explores desire’s transgressive forms. In my book The Fragility of Manhood, I discuss Hawthorne’s frequent depictions of male narcissism and an agonized gendered relationship to vision. Here, I argue that female, queer, and incestuous desires centrally inform how The House of the Seven Gables depicts various strategies the abject devise for deriving pleasure despite a repressive social order. This essay also reinserts [End Page 39] Hawthorne’s work within transatlantic Romanticism and explores his intertextual dialogues with literary tradition.

Hawthorne’s engagement with John Milton’s writings, specifically his epic, Paradise Lost (first printing 1667), informs how Hawthorne treats gender and sexuality, and suggests that the author invoked representational patterns that English Romantic writers regularly used, particularly their preoccupations with the incest theme and Milton’s work. Hawthorne evokes and reinterprets his predecessor repeatedly in tales such as “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1837), “The New Adam and Eve” (1843), and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) and his novel romances (for example, Hester Prynne recalls Milton’s Eve in The Scarlet Letter [1850]; the felix culpa, or fortunate fall, theme resurfaces in The Marble Faun [1860]; and the 1634 masque Comus informs the The Blithedale Romance [1852]). Moreover, Milton’s own intertextual writings (inflecting Ovid, Virgil, Spenser, Shakespeare, and other key precedents) offered later authors such as Hawthorne a crucial archive of images, themes, and structures that enabled him to develop a literary art sensitive to gender and sexual identity dynamics.

romantic poetics: incest and narcissism

Incestuous desire, prominent in Milton as well as other earlier writers, features among the most important Romantic tropes, a crucial allegorical and, occasionally, material figure in works by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville.1 Critics such as Diane Long Hoeveler, James D. Wilson, and Edwin Haviland Miller among others have argued the same of Hawthorne.2 The House of the Seven Gables specifically employs Hepzibah’s feelings for Clifford to foreground the incest theme. [End Page 40]

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Raphael Warns Adam and Eve. Artist, William Blake, 1808.

Illustrations to Paradise Lost, object 6 (Butlin 536.6). {{Pd-1923}}

[End Page 41]

Incest preoccupied American Romantic writers as it did their British counterparts; notable examples include Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), and Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun (1860). Using incest as a literary figure allowed nineteenth-century authors to register unrepresentable and unimaginable affiliations. Incest functions both allusively, signaling intersubjective dynamics among fictional characters that authors cannot explicitly name, and allegorically, suggesting other dynamics, such as the political and the social. As I will show, it also figures the practices of literary romance and literary intertextuality.

Gillian Harkins notes that literary depictions of incest helped consolidate “an early Anglo-U.S. national literature.” The subject usefully encoded the U.S. as a divided family “whose racial and territorial boundaries were perceived to be terrorized” by menacing external and internal forces. “Twinned with ‘miscegenation,’ incest figured the dangerous intersection between family and nation across literary genres and periods,” emerging in works such as Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 Wieland, Melville’s Pierre, Pauline Hopkins’ 1903 Of One Blood, William Faulkner’s 1929 The Sound and the Fury, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible...


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