Dr Grimshawe’s Secret: A Critical Analysis by Gloria Erlich
An excellent analysis of Doctor Grimshawes Secret was authored by Gloria Erlich1 as part of a more comprehensive work on Hawthorne published in 1984. Chapter 5 of her book, which focuses on the unfinished romance, is provided below, beginning with the contents.
Doctor Grimshawe and Other Secrets
Such whenas Archimago them did view, He weened well to worke some uncouth wile, Eftsoones untwisting his deceiptfull clew, He gan to weave a web of wicked guile.
The Faerie Queene , II, 8
[Doctor Grimshawe] must have the air, in the Romance, of a sort of magician, without being called so; and even after his death, his influence must still be felt. Hold on to this. A dark, subtle manager, for the love of managing, like a spider sitting in the center of his web, which stretches far to east and west.
Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret
Until the very end of his life, perhaps especially at the end of it, Hawthorne struggled with unresolved feelings about his guardian. Of all his works, Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret contains the most autobiographical material and is the most preoccupied with father substitutes. Feeding into this unfinished work are materials drawn from the author’s own life experiences-his emotional return to the land of his fathers, his early reading in Spenser, and residual feelings about his own childhood. All four of the late romances deal with personal preoccupations of the sick and aged author. To a greater or lesser degree, these works focus on a central set of symbols and situations that Hawthorne seemed unable to discard even when he was unsure of their meaning and value. Among these are the scientist whose demon or familiar is an enormous spider, an American claimant to an ancestral English estate, and the legend of the Bloody Footstep.
Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret is really a fuller version of The Ancestral Footstep, abandoned when Hawthorne decided to write The Marble Faun after his visit to Rome. The major difference between the two English romances is that The Ancestral Footstep begins in England, with the American claimant to an ancestral English estate wandering on the grounds of the family mansion, whereas Grimshawe starts with the orphaned hero’s childhood in America. The American opening provides two important elements absent in the earlier version – the figure of the spider-cultivating guardian, Doctor Grimshawe, and a transatlantic basis for satirical American-English contrasts that were part of Hawthorne’s original intention.
Both grew out of Hawthorne’s experiences in England. As American consul to Liverpool, he met many deluded Americans who thought they had claims on English estates and titles, even one who thought he was related to Queen Victoria. Although Hawthorne had no such delusion, he was greatly moved by the thought of having returned to the home of his ancestors and even played with the notion that he was a reincarnation of the first emigrant to America, now returned to join the broken thread of family history. He recorded this idea in his notebook of October 9, 1854,
My ancestor left England in 1635. I return in 1853. 1 sometimes feel as if I myself had been absent these two hundred and eighteen years-leaving England just emerging from the feudal system, and finding it on the verge of Republicanism. It brings the two far separated points of time very closely together, to view the matter thus.’
Asking James T. Fields to inquire of an antiquarian from just what part of England the first Hathorne had emigrated, he wrote: “Of all
things, I should like to find a gravestone in one of these churchyards, with my own name upon it, although for myself, I should wish to be buried in America.” The phrasing indicates that thoughts of his own death accelerated his lifelong search for origins, a combination that surfaces in Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret. For both the hero of this book and its author, the approach to death and to ancestral origins leads back to a reexamination of the meaning of childhood experiences.
As this chapter will show, there is a good deal of disguised autobiography in the Salem childhood of Ned Etherege, brought up by a bachelor foster-father who educated him conscientiously but unlovingly. Hawthorne wrote the childhood section twice, reworking and expanding what was to have been a mere preliminary to the English part of the romance, and in the process he reexamined the determining power of childhood relationships. As the protagonist comes to realize the extent to which his whole life was dominated by his foster-father, the book loses its satirical purpose and becomes a psychological study of the process of enthrallment. Doctor Grimshawe’s pseudoscientific obsession with spiders evolves into the symbol of the enmeshing web of ever larger extent, while the Doctor himself becomes the epitome of all Hawthorne’s wizard figures who control the destinies of his characters and often the plots of his tales. Some of Doctor Grimshawe’s fictive predecessors are the wizard who stage-manages the plot of “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” the sorcerer Chillingworth who manipulates the soul of Arthur Dimmesdale, and Doctor Portsoaken, who directs the Faustian endeavors of Septimius Felton.
The device of the controlling wizard may appear to be derived from Hawthorne’s interest in the Salem witch trials or from Gothic romances, but its most direct source is probably Hawthorne’s early reading of and lifelong interest in Spenser’s Faerie Queene
. In this work Archimago, or the ruling magician, is the protean source of delusion whose powers are unlimited by time and space. In Book 11 Spenser calls the arch enchanter’s guile a web, the leading metaphor of Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret. In fact all the central symbols as well as aspects of characters in this uncontrolled romance can be found in Book II of The Faerie Queene – the magician’s web, the casket of golden treasure, an orphaned child born after his father’s disappearance bearing on his hands blood that cannot be washed away, the vine covered entrance to the Bower of Bliss, and descent into the underworld. Although Ned Etherege is not an allegorical figure, he is, like Sir Guyon, engaged in a quest involving sequential experiences leading to the climactic one of entering a tempting and forbidden place. Like Sir Guyon, Ned Etherege is guided in his English experiences by a kindly old man, the Palmer, later called Pearson and the Pensioner.
One may well wonder why use of an allegorical model should have produced so unmanageable a book that the author constantly struggles to locate his theme, to define his symbols, and to portray characters who finally escape all coherent formulation. Certainly Hawthorne does not use Spenser as James Joyce uses Homer. Employing the pattern of quest romance, Hawthorne depicts a failed search for an unmentionable goal, setting up expectations of circular fulfillment that he cannot realize, utilizing symbols like a casket
full of golden hair that he cannot connect to his plot, and creating characters who refuse to maintain the needed archetypal and dialectical clarity. The quest of Sir Guyon underlies Grimshawe but does not help Hawthorne master his materials.
Like Septimius Felton, Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret was left uncompleted at Hawthorne’s death; both were abandoned in a fragmentary
state that mingles narrative portions with the author’s working notes. Septimius, which was edited by Una Hawthorne with the help of Robert Browning, contains a few bracketed passages that show how the author intended to amplify or change certain parts. In editing Grimshawe Julian Hawthorne also retained some of the author’s working notes, smoothed out the names of the characters (Grimshawe is variously named Etherege, Ormskirk, Archdale, Gibbiter, and Norman Hanscough), and selected one of the two versions of Ned Etherege’s childhood. In addition to bestowing on the manuscript the title Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret, Julian made a great many other changes that render the text far more orderly than it was. In 1954 Edward Davidson published a reconstruction of the original manuscript with all its variants, errors, recapitulations, and lengthy working notes.’ In 1977 Davidson, along with Claude M. Simpson and L. Neal Smith, issued a revised edition as part of volume XII of the Centenary Edition. The reconstructed manuscript alternates narrative with the author’s brooding meditations on his fictional problems, revealing Hawthorne struggling to order his material, a process that earlier was not difficult for him. Material that he considered the very backbone of Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret, such as that on the secret prisoner, remains in the notes and scarcely enters the narrative at all.
With its interrupted narrative, lengthy authorial meditations, and prevailing dream-state, the reconstructed manuscript of Grimshawe
is a text overrun with interpretation, the author constantly commenting on the process of writing it, searching for meaning among fictionalized shards of his own childhood experiences, trying sometimes to evolve meaning and sometimes to evade it. It contains a collection of characters whose motivations are as puzzling to the author as they are to his hero. With the exception of Elsie they are a fixed constellation of older men who dominate the hero’s consciousness successively yet in a sense simultaneously. These men are extremely important in defining the meaning of his life. Their influence vacillates continually between beneficent and destructive, with all but one of these older men bifurcating at some point in the story into good and evil before finally collapsing into hopeless ambiguity. Even though trying hard to assess the precise value to the protagonist of each of these older men, Hawthorne was unable to decide on their character or motivation. The interest and the problem of Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret lie in the fact that the quest is the same for both hero and author.
The protagonist, Ned Etherege, is at a point of stasis in his life. He has behind him achievements of a political nature and ahead of him a choice between an American diplomatic future and an English title. Before he can choose he must find out who he is, what his roots are, what values he places on his American and his English origins. In other words, he seeks his future in his past. This is where the second or English section of the romance opens-at a point of stasis or stocktaking during which Etherege must clarify to what extent he is determined by his orphaned childhood, whether he is a free American with no past at his back-or whether he is bound by blood ties to a static but restful English title. Is he free, or is he determined by his childhood relation to Doctor Grimshawe, whose long arm seems to reach beyond death and across the ocean?
In this book, as in The House of the Seven Gables, there are forces pulling in contrary directions. The protagonists keep exclaiming, “Onward, onward,” but are palpably urged backward, toward the past. The urge toward the past, felt in the very blood, is a pull to ward identification with the dead fathers, toward peace, rest, home, whereas the onward urge is treated as the manly, normal, optimistic American thrust into the unknown and unmastered future. In Grimshawe the author repeatedly reminds himself, “Try back, try back again,” whereas his protagonist repeatedly tries to counteract the backward tug with Holgrave’s words, “Onward, onward.” Thus in both late English romances, the two countries, England and America, take on symbolic values, and the frequent debates between the heroes and representative Englishmen about the respective merits of the two countries involve the author’s inner debate between two forces within himself. The two countries represent past and future, parent and child, restful return and onward striving, giving in to a predetermined destiny and manfully forging one’s own. It is not surprising, then, that the debate is so often taken up in Grimshawe and so often ends in a draw, one statement canceling out another.
The two forces coexist in genuine tension. “America” is the conscious drive to be free, not only politically but psychically. The orphaned Ned Etherege acts out the dangerous dominance of the past, while his creator, though emotionally bound to him, effectively bars him from consummating this return. The author plans two routes of return to the past and then closes them off. Violating the romance pattern on which the book was to be based, he forbids the marriage to Elsie and invalidates Ned’s claims to nobility. The almshouse foundling is not, after all, a nobleman in disguise; he does not marry the heroine; either he dies or remains on the road. Despite heroic attempts at circular closure, Hawthorne is unable to complete the pattern of quest romance.
What started out as a satirical international novel ridiculing Americans trying to claim hereditary English estates becomes a psychological study truly remarkable for its time. In it a man on the balancing point between past and future enters a time interval during which his mind relinquishes rational control and moves dreamily backwards, forwards, and sideways, making connections among various aspects of his life. Wandering blissfully around the part of England to which he was brought up to believe he is the claimant, he is shot by what he thinks is a stray bullet. This injury, which turns out to be intentional, frees him from all purposeful activity for a long period of recuperation during which his mind wanders uncontrolled. For the duration of the romance, Etherege’s actions and thoughts remain dreamlike, directed by his psychological needs rather than by conscious purposes. He experiences strange recognitions and affinities generating a compulsion to reenter the family mansion at any cost, to reclaim the estate to which he believes he was born, to relinquish his American striving and rootlessness, and to find rest in English peace and ancestral soil.
Having been brought up on the edge of an American graveyard by a demented scientist, he finds England to be what it was to Hawthorne himself, “our old home.” Etherege seeks in England both his origins and a peace like unto death. The grave dominates both his childhood and his English experiences. Etherege insists on entering the ancestral mansion despite frequent passionate warnings that to do so is to risk death. Although the forward action of the book points toward losing himself in the past, toward annihilation by the master of the estate whom he more and more wishes to displace, the effective force is the backward one of reevaluating his personal past with his father-surrogate, Doctor Grimshawe. As he moves deeper and deeper into the dream-state he finds that his personal past is the determinant of whatever future he has. Despite his patriotic declarations that he is a free, unfettered American, his life has been controlled by the spider-loving Doctor. The young man is, in fact, enmeshed in his guardian’s enormous web.
Of the two version’s of Ned Etherege’s childhood with the grim Doctor, Julian used the second in his edition of the book. In both versions the Doctor’s character and the nature of his relationship to the two foundling children evolve gradually. In general, the first draft, entitled “Etherege” in the Centenary Edition, depicts a kindly but eccentric doctor whose motives are on the whole benevolent, who responds amiably to the inquiries of the visiting Englishman seeking an ancient grave, and who wishes only to educate Ned as conscientiously as possible. In the second draft, the Doctor becomes coarse, animalistic, hostile to the visiting stranger, and interested in Ned primarily as an instrument of revenge against the English holders of the estate and title. Grimshawe’s relation to Ned and Elsie shifts constantly; sometimes he loves the girl and not the boy, sometimes the boy and not the girl, and most often he loves neither. Always he is seen as the educator of the boy, although with varying intentions and attitudes.
The Doctor is both benefactor and destroyer, a combination maddening to character and author, both of whom struggle to define the precise nature of that benevolent despotism. Ned’s Salem childhood with Doctor Grimshawe shares certain parallels with that of Hawthorne, but never exact ones. The most important difference is that Ned and Elsie are orphans, Ned having been salvaged from an English almshouse. The origins of his foster sister Elsie are kept vague because the author was saving her for a later marriage with Ned, although ultimately he changed his mind. The absence of a mother serves to intensify the decisive role of Grimshawe in Ned’s inner life as well as the boy’s urgent need for contact with his origins. Most of all it allows for a more poignant expression of maternal deprivation, as in the following:
Then growing up without a mother, to cultivate his tenderness with kisses and the inestimable, inevitable love of love breaking out on all little occasions, without reference to merit or demerit, unfailing whether or no … mother’s generous interpretation of all that was doubtful in him … mother’s deep intuitive insight, which should see the permanent good beneath all the appearance of temporary evil. (XII, 429)
Death dominates the childhood of Ned and Elsie. Their cobwebfilled home is on the edge of Salem’s Charter Street cemetery and they play among the remains of the first English settlers. The very dust of the house is described as the decomposed substance of England, so that the first of many English-American correspondences is set up at the beginning of both drafts of the book. Death permeates the air that the children breathe. It is the sign under which this book is written, recapitulating a life dominated by the awful emblem – the grim reaper, the grim shaver, Doctor Grimshawe – death. The father-surrogate leads Ned to seek the true father, who is dead, and in his mind may even be death itself
Nevertheless, Ned feels that his death-dominated childhood had beneficial effects upon him, that “the mild, gracious, genial, though sad paternity of the old Doctor . . . had fostered everything deep, sweet, and high in him, and rooted out, so far as it could, all evil weeds” (XII, 119). In this draft, the childhood period is treated less extensively and less negatively than in the second. It seems that only after Hawthorne had brought the narrative to conclusion, though not to completion, he felt called upon to reexamine the childhood in the light of what he discovered in the process of writing. In this later version of the American childhood, Doctor Grimshawe becomes brutish, drunken, coarse, and cruel enough to use the boy as an instrument of vengeance. In both drafts, however, the relation of Grimshawe to Ned is one of bachelor father-surrogate whose principal activity is to educate, and to provide education for, the orphaned boy. In both drafts, the Doctor is a benefactor to a child who would otherwise have been destitute and uneducated, and in both drafts the boy feels that whatever the negative aspects of his rearing, the Doctor helped him to become a sensitive, proud, imaginative person. The boy Ned, like the boy Nathaniel, was handsome and aristocratic in person, apt in learning, imaginative, and given to literary pursuits.
Even in the sunnier first draft, however, ambivalence creeps into the depiction of the Doctor as educator; we see that he teaches the boy dutifully and conscientiously, but without real paternal love. We see also a rivalry with Elsie for the Doctor’s love and the pride with which the boy hides this feeling. We sense also in the following passage that the boy believes himself to have a soft effeminate nature, which his educator wisely intends to toughen.
[The boy], as we have already hinted, was not apparently a favorite with his guardian; not that Dr. Etherege [sic) did not act towards him with even paternal care and consideration; with even more, indeed, than towards the girl. gut there was a character of carefulness and study, a lack of spontaneity in this. There were no kindly impulses; all was a well-planned, wise, and kind order of education, independent of f~eling, and such as a tutor, if a man of conscience and sagacity, might have instituted for the education of a boy. . . . The boy had pride, too, as well as sensibility and affection; and he seemed to make no effort to win the demonstrations of tenderness that flowed spontaneously towards Elsie. . . . Doubtless, this coldness, as respected him, in the temper of his patron, was of no real disadvantage to the boy. It gave him, perhaps, an energy which the softness and impressibility of his nature needed. (XII, 95-96)
Much of Hawthorne’s feeling about his childhood is reflected in this passage and in the modifications of it that he made further on in the book. Here we see a reflection of Uncle Robert’s probably salutary efforts to toughen up an overly soft boy. We catch, too, a reflection of the differing attitudes that Uncle Robert manifested toward his nieces and his nephew. Although he felt that the nephew was of more importance to the family, being at that time the only male descendant, he felt more comfortable with and affectionate toward his nieces, especially Maria Louisa.
In the second draft Hawthorne repeats this image of conscientious, untender education but very quickly cancels it out.
One effect of his zealous and analytic instruction of the boy was very perceptible. Heretofore, though enduring him, and occasionally making a plaything of him, it may be doubted whether the grim Doctor had really any strong affection for the child; it rather seemed a self-imposed task, which, with his strong will, he forced himself to undertake, and carry sedulously forward. All that he had done – his rescuing the bright child from poverty, and nameless degradation, ignorance, sordid life, hopeless of better fortune, and opening to him the whole realm of mighty possibilities, in an American life – did not imply any love for the little individual whom he thus benefitted. It had some other motive. (XII, 377)
The seclusion from society in which the children are brought up creates in Ned a paradoxical sense of himself very like Hawthorne’s own.
It had made him think ridiculously high of his own gifts, powers, attainments, and at the same time doubt whether they could pass with those of others; it made him despise all flesh, as if he were of a superior race, and yet have an idle and weak fear of coming in contact with them, from a dread of his incompetency to cope with them; so he at once depreciated and exalted, to an absurd degree, both himself and others. (XII, 426)
At this point in the second draft comes an interchange between the Doctor and Ned that in no way furthers the purposes of the narrative, but instead voices Hawthorne’s inner debate about the true feelings of his own benefactor toward him. The Doctor confronts Ned suddenly with misgivings about the boy’s manliness. This confrontation and its amorous reconciliation break through the surface of the narrative in an embarrassing manner. It causes the grim Doctor to conclude that Ned has been brought up in too much isolation from his kind and to take him off to an academy or boarding school.
“Ned,” said the Doctor to him one day, in his gruffest tone, “you are not turning out to be the boy I looked for, and meant to make you. I have given you sturdy English instruction … I looked to see the rudiments of a man in you, by this time; and you begin to mope and pule, as if your babyhood were coming back to you. You seem to think more than a boy of your years should; and yet it is not manly thought, nor ever will be so. What do you mean, boy, by making all my care of you come to nothing, in his way?”
“I do my best, Doctor Grim,” said Ned, with sullen dignity. “What you teach me, I learn. What more can I do?”
“I’ll tell you what, my fine fellow …. You disappoint me, and I’ll not bear it. I want you to be a man …. If I had foreboded such a fellow as you turn out to be, I never would have taken you from the place where … I found you the almshouse!” . . .
“There is nonsense that ought to be whipt out of you, Sir,” added the Doctor, incensed at the boy’s aspect.
“You have said enough, Sir,” said the boy. “Would to God you had left me where you found me! … It was not my fault that you took me from the almshouse. But it will be my fault if I ever eat another bit of your bread, or stay under your roof an hour longer.” (XII, 426-427)
Perhaps all this is inspired by the Doctor’s earlier discovery that his introspective ward wrote poetry, with which the Doctor was accustomed to light his pipe, but the confrontation leads to a scene of passionate reconciliation, a renewal of love, which is of great moment to this orphan hungry for tenderness: “Doctor Grim, in his way, had the same kind of enjoyment of this passionate crisis; so that though the next day, they all three looked at one another a little ashamed, yet it had some remote analogy to that delicious embarrassment of two lovers at their first meeting after they know all” (XII, 428). The analogy is odd and rather embarrassing.
Had the presentation of the boy’s youthful relation to his bachelor-benefactor been merely a preparation for the events later to occur in England, there would have been no need for such complicated assessment and reassessment of the Doctor’s emotional vagaries with respect to the children. Were the book a purely conventional romance we would need only be told of the Doctor’s education of the almshouse boy to noble accomplishments and a sense of noble destiny. The vacillation about the degree and kind of the Doctor’s
paternal feelings, between true and adoptive paternity, between harshness and passionate love, advance no narrative goals. They are- instead a quest for understanding on the part of an author still tortured by ambivalent feelings toward a long-dead father-surrogate who was indeed his benefactor, but whose benefactions left a residue of lifelong resentment.
Of course the varied portraits of Doctor Grimshawe are not literal portraits of Uncle Robert, who certainly was not cruel, drunken, rude, nor vengeful. The book depicts childhood feelings rather than actualities, the benevolent tyrant as experienced by the child’s emotions and thus become monstrous. Parallels between the actual. and the literary father-surrogates abound. We may start with the obvious fact that Dr. Grimshawe is a scientist of a bizarre sort. Even the early description of his scientific activity in the first draft reveals parallels with the pornologist uncle; not only did Grimshawe fill his house with domestic spiders and cobwebs, “he even sent to some torrid region or other to obtain a spider such as heretofore had only been seen, dead and dry, in the collection of naturalists” (XII, 93-94). He wished to benefit society by making a life-saving extract of cobwebs and had specimens sent him from all over the world.
The spider’s web is the Doctor’s emblem throughout the many drafts and studies of the book, but it takes the author a long time to grasp the significance. The man and his symbol are firmly connected, as firmly as is anything in this variable work, but the meaning of the symbol is only gradually revealed to both protagonist and author. At first it is only a semi-ludicrous pseudoscientific obsession, but gradually the great spider acquires demonic significance as the Doctor’s familiar. Even in the first draft, before the Doctor is viewed as vile and vengeful, Hawthorne is groping toward significance in the conjunction of man, spider, and web. Ut us follow some part of this process in sequence as it occurs in the working notes.
It shall seem as if the great spider’s web were a charm, by means of which the Doctor is enthralling his enemies. (XII, 128)
The Doctor must have a great agency in these doings, both of the Pensioner and Etherege, making tissues of cobwebs out of men’s life-threads; he must have the air, in the Romance, of a sort of magician, without being called so; and even after his death, his influence must still be felt. Hold on to this. A dark subtle manager, for the love of managing, like a spider sitting in the centre of his web, which stretches far to east and west. (XII, 224)
The great spider shall be an emblem of the Doctor himself; it shall be his craft and wickedness coming into this shape outside him. (XII, 226)
This old Doctor’s spider’s web must of course have a signification; it signifies a plot in which his art has involved the story and every individual actor; he has caught them all, like so many flies. (XII, 287)
Even by the last of these statements, Hawthorne has not yet really evolved the plot in which the Doctor has enthralled his enemies. In the first draft narrative, the Doctor has only unintentionally and without clear purpose given Ned an intimation of his descent from a noble English family, whereas in*the later authorial meditations and in the narrative of the second draft, Grimshawe is consciously and intentionally misleading the boy by training him to depose the present holder of the estate. The element of enthrallment occurs in the authorial meditations in draft one and not yet in the narrative, where Doctor Grimshawe is still a benefactor. In this draft Grimshawe has not yet enslaved the man whom he saved from hanging to act as foreign agent to fulfill the Doctor’s purposes in England. The web is the Doctor’s sign, but it has not yet a material counterpart in the form of characterization and plot. That does not come until Hawthorne rewrites the childhood episode in the light of the conclusion in which Etherege turns out after all not to be the missing heir. In the second version of Ned’s childhood, he is deluded all his life and it is the wicked benefactor who created the delusion.
But the wickedness of the benefactor does not dawn completely on either character or author until Ned’s conscious control is weakened by his injury. In the dream-state of the final section of the English part of the book, Etherege fully realizes his enthrallment by his childhood guardian. In an intervening period of relative sanity spent in the home of the Warden, the only unambiguously generous man in the novel, Ned returns to thinking of the Doctor as his kindly benefactor. In this lucid interval between residence with yet two more ambivalent father-figures, Ned reveals to the Warden that he came under the Doctor’s care at the age of four, the very age at which Nathaniel Hawthorne lost his father and moved with his family into the Manning home.
Another reflection in Grimshawe of Hawthorne’s early family constellation is the ghostly influence of a missing sailor-relative, who appears to have been linked in Hawthorne’s mind to his sailor-father. The homes of both Etherege and Hawthorne were overcast by a missing brother of the father-surrogate. John Manning never returned from the War of 18 12, his death was never reported, and throughout the years there came rumors of his appearance here and there. Grandmother Manning never accepted the idea of his death and always awaited his return. So, too, the Doctor had a missing brother who is gothicized in the first draft into the Expected One, for whom a room is always kept in readiness:
But it was said that the Doctor always kept a chamber in the house ready for the occupancy of the brother when he returned; a fire burning, a meal, some say, prepared, a pair of slippers and a night cap by the bed. : And this was said to have been the custom of the family from time immemorial . . . a fire in winter, in the chamber, a fresh arrangement every morning through the year, a plate always at the board, for some shadowy guest, who had never yet appeared. (XII, 112-113)
Ned begins to wonder whether his family is strange in its dedication to the memory of the Expected One and queries the Doctor whether others have such customs:
In every house, is there a chamber for some guest that never comes; at every table, a plate for a person who never sits down to eat a mouthful?
“I know not how that may be, my boy,” said the Doctor. “But in most hearts, there is an empty chamber, waiting for a
guest.” (XII, 115)
The legend of the Expected One, doubled by different versions on either side of the Atlantic, suggests that Hawthorne was in some sense expecting, or fearing his father’s return, a ghostly sense stimulated by residence in the ancestral country.
Grimshawe contains other parallels with Hawthorne’s own experience, some of them quite minor. The housekeeper, Crusty Hanna, starts out as a portrayal of Hannah Lord, both a relative and a servant to Miriam Lord Manning, Nathaniel’s grandmother. Hannah evolves, however, into something bizarre in the second draft, “a mixture of Indian and Negro, & as some say, Monkey” (XII, 344). Like other characters drawn from life, she bifurcates during the course of composition, but in this case, to no discernible purpose.
In addition, there are several minor bits of self-reference in Grimshawe. For example, Ned passes his time in the Warden’s house reading county history and genealogy. One work “seemed particularly full … and contained many incidents that would have worked well into historical romance” (XII, 15o). The Warden’s view of this book seems an unmistakable comment on Hawthorne’s own practice as a historical romancer:
“My old friend Gibben, the learned author of this work (he has been dead this score of years, so he will not mind my saying it) had a little too much the habit of seeking his authorities in the cottage-chimney corners. I mean that an old woman’s [tales] were just about as acceptable to him a~ a recorded fact; and to say the truth, they are really apt to have ten times the life in them.” (XII, 150)
Like Hawthorne, Gibben had a preference for the pretern.4tural rather than the natural explanation of legendary events: “there- was an odious rumour that what was called the Bloody Footstep was nothing miraculous, after all, but most probably a natural reddish stain in the stone door-step; but against this heresy the excellent Dr. Gibben set his face most sturdily” (XII, 151). Hawthorne’s notebooks record the skeptical and rational view of the Bloody Footstep that Dr. Gibben rejects, but his four late romances utilize the preternatural version.
The English section, part of the first draft, introduces the adult Etherege without transition, walking about the very part of England that he was led to think of as his ancestral estate. Once arrived there he lives successively in the homes of three older men, the Pensioner, the Warden, and the master of Brathwaite, each of whom leads him a step closer to his goal. Of these three older men, only the Warden is treated consistently; the characterizations of the Pensioner and the Italianate master of Brathwaite, like those of most father-surrogates in Hawthorne’s fiction, bifurcate into good and evil. ,
Ned’s first view of England is a vision of paradise, but in the course of a few pages it turns out to be a dangerous domain, containing not a serpent, but hunters pursuing human game. A jealous master who does not welcome the return of a possible usurper to his rights presides over this family estate. The English section of Grimsbawe opens very much like the beginning of The Ancestral Footstep, revealing something important about the quests of both Americans, Etherege and Middleton, for their places of origin. The first paragraph of The Ancestral Footstep concludes thus:
In all his life, including its earliest and happiest days, he had never known such a spring and zest as now filled his veins, and gave lightsomeness to his limbs; this spirit gave to the beautiful country which he trod a still richer beauty than it had ever borne, and he sought his ancient home in it as if he had found his way into Paradise and were there endeavoring to trace out the signs of Eve’s bridal bower, the birthplace of the human race and all its glorious possibilities of happiness and high performance. (XII , 3)
In both books the ancient home is felt to be a paradise because it is the long-lost origin, the birthplace not so much of the human race
as of the orphaned wanderer, a place to which he longs to return. The gateway to the paradise of the human race is guarded by cherubim and a flaming sword that none may reenter. The ancestral home in these two romances is guarded by a jealous master who is ready to destroy any usurper who seeks to displace him. This original home symbolizes the orphan’s mother, his own birthplace. Guarding it is the jealous father of tradition. The Bloody Footstep points away from the threshold of the mansion, not toward it. The proper direction for the son of the house is away from the mother; reentry is forbidden and dangerous. As Hawthorne says just before Etherege is shot while blissfully wandering near the mansion, “there is a foreboding, a sense within us, that the traveller is not going the right way” (XII, 131).
Ned awakens from this gunshot injury in an ancient hospital donated to the care of impoverished aged family descendants by the founder of the Brathwaite family as atonement for his sins. Still delirious, Ned regains consciousness in an antique chamber in the presence of the venerable Palmer dressed in the style of three hundred years before. He awakens, in other words, into the past and in the kindly company of a figure of the past who is all paternal solicitude. At this point in their acquaintance, the wise old figure suggests the ideal father to attend a wounded orphan in a state of enforced passivity. He talks in a “grave, impressive voice of authority, not unmixed with a paternal sort of kindness” (XII, 134), gives the patient soothing potions, bids him rest, and seems to be present even in his sleep and dreams. The Pensioner is benign, “thoughtful, speculative, commanding” although a beneficiary of the hospital’s charity. In some versions of the narrative this old Palmer, as he is sometimes called, is the same person as the Alcott-like tutor who bdck in America had taught Ned in the Doctor’s house. In a late authorial recapitulation of the plot “Etherege vaguely recognizes the holy presence that has never quite died out of his memory” (XII, 232).
For Etherege the approach to death and the slow recovery in an almshouse tended by a kindly pensioner are like a rebirth into his own past. For a while the Pensioner is a kindly father and the hospital a sheltering
“Be weak, and be the stronger for it,” said the old man, with a grave smile. “It is not in the pride of our strength that
we are best or stronger. To be made anew, the man must be again a little child, and consent to be enwrapt,quietly in the arms of Providence, as a child in its mother’s arms.”
“I never knew a mother’s care,” replied the traveller, in a low, regretful tone Since my boyhood, I have lived among hard men – a life of struggle and hard rivalry. It is good to find myself here in the long past, and in a sheltered harbor.” (XII, 455)
In numerous authorial meditations Hawthorne tries desperately to objectify in plot and characterization what he so strongly feels in the image of the Palmer-Pensioner. The man is saintly but somehow suspect, benevolent but somehow infuriating; sometimes he is said to be preserving the title for Ned but, in the end, is himself the holder of the title. Hawthorne strives to formulate what becomes over the course of the meditations an impossibly mixed personality. Every time he posits a saintly character, it bifurcates into something dubious or deadly.
A study of the characterization of the old Pensioner shows just how complex is the question of literary models. As a Palmer he resembles the aged guide who accompanied Spenser’s Sir Guyon through his temptations. In the working notes, Hawthorne mentions both Emerson and Alcott as models, and Alcott was most probably the model for the Pensioner in his earlier incarnation as the excessively mild tutor in Ned’s childhood. Edward Davidson makes a very convincing case for the use of George Bradford as model for the old Pensioner by setting side by side very similar descriptions of the Pensioner and Bradford, the latter taken from the English Notebooks, showing Hawthorne’s exasperation at the minute conscientiousness and excessive scrupulosity of both.
Mr. Bradford has the blood of martyrs in him, through two channels; – and I doubt not there is the substance in himself to make a martyr of; and yet he is a wonderfully small pattern of a man. He has a minute conscientiousness which is continually stumbling over insignificant matters; and trifles of all kinds seem to be matters of great moment with him. There is a lack of strong will, that makes his conduct, when not determined by principle, miserably weak and wavering . . . He is always uneasy what to do next; always regretting the last thing he did.”
This passage certainly corresponds remarkably well with the saintly religious character of the Pensioner and with the scene in which Etherege suddenly becomes wildly inflamed at the old man’s overscrupulosity in gardening. If saintliness and excess of conscience were the entirety of the characterization, Davidson would have made his case-Bradford, along with a touch of Emerson and Alcott, would be the model. But Davidson does not account for either the feeling associated with the Pensioner or the complex, infuriating, self-canceling process by which Hawthorne was trying to depict a presence that he felt but could not objectify.
The notebook portrait of Bradford is complex but cool, objective, and discerning, with no signs of struggle. In contrast, Etherege’s reaction to very similar personality traits in the Pensioner is homicidal fury followed by his characteristic attitude of appreciation for the old man’s benevolence. This complexity delays and obfuscates the action, seemingly more an eruption of irrelevant feeling than a functioning part of the story. The very benevolence of the Pensioner, disturbing to both Etherege and author, points behind Bradford to a source of genuine emotional confusion.
Hawthorne sought by an agonizing process to convey a presence that he felt psychically but could not formulate. We have already seen that at the opening of the English section, the Palmer or Pensioner is a wise, kindly, benign figure. Ambiguity creeps in almost immediately and is full-blown in a long authorial meditation that recapitulates the whole story once more.
[Etherege] is taken up by the old pensioner, as before, who must be drawn with traits of a deep, sad tenderness, which makes a profound impression on Etherege. It shall be shown, however, that he is an object of vague suspicion and dislike among his associates in the Hospital, and even the Warden shall not have escaped this influence. It spreads, in some degree over Etherege, in spite of his gratitude to the old man. (XII, 205-206)
What shall be his distinguishing trait; – merely, a conscience, and the inveterate habit of acting on it. . . . Perhaps the moral may be, that there is nothing so disorganizing-so certain to overthrow everything earthly, if it can only have its own way, as conscience. . . . Let the weakness of too much conscience be fairly brought out; – the indecision, the incapacity, of action that must result from it; the inability for anything but suffering. (XII, 207)
At this point Hawthorne determines that this petty, feeble yet strong, sublime, meek martyr of an old man should be the true heir of the Brathwaite family. Suddenly he resumes the narrative with Etherege watching the old man gardening, an activity associated with someone far older to Hawthorne’s acquaintance than George Bradford. The overscrupulosity of conscience attributed to Bradford and quoted above is now applied to the old Pensioner as gardener, an absurd but potent combination.
[Etherege) could not help being struck by the scrupulous care with which he attended to the plants; it seemed to him that there was a sense of justice – of desiring to do exactly what was right in the matter, not favoring one plant more than another, and doing all he could for each…. Then he was so minute; and often, when he was on the point of leaving one thing to take up another, some small neglect that he saw or fancied, called him back again, to spend other minutes on the same task. He was so full of scruples. It struck Etherege that this was conscience, morbid, sick, a despot in trifles, looking so closely into life that it permitted nothing to be done. . . . Here was a lily that had been neglected, while he paid too much attention to a rose; he had set his foot on a violet. (XII, 208-209)
Etherege then expostulates with the old man, telling him that the ability to act is more important than minute matters of conscience, becomes abashed at the gardener’s humble demeanor, and finds himself unable to continue. Suddenly, and for no reason that either the character or the author can give, Etherege now breaks out into a homicidal rage against his gentle benefactor.
But he was surprised to find how he had to struggle against a certain repulsion within himself to the old man. He seemed so nonsensical, interfering with everybody’s right in the world; so mischievous, standing there and shutting out the possibility of action. It seemed well to trample him down; to put him out of the way – no matter how – somehow. It gave him, he thought, an inkling of the way in which this poor old man had made himself odious to his kind, by opposing himself, inevitably to what was bad in men, chiding it by his very presence, accepting nothing false. You must either love him utterly, or hate him utterly; for he would not let you alone. Etherege, being a susceptible man, felt this influence in the strongest way; for it was as if there was a battle within him, one … party pulling, wrenching him towards this old man, another wrenching him away; so that, by the agony of the contest, he felt disposed to end it by taking flight, and never seeing the strange individual again. He could well enough conceive how a brutal nature … might find it so intolerable that it must needs get rid of him by violence – by taking his blood if necessary.
All these feelings were but transitory, however; they swept across him like a wind, and then he looked again at the old man and saw only his simplicity, his unworldliness…. And then Etherege went away, in a state of disturbance for which he could not account to himself. (XII, 211-212)
This is clearly something more than a failed satire on Transcendentalists, as Davidson supposes. Emerson, Alcott, and Bradford may well be involved here as models, but the wild extrapolation from painstakingly slow progress in gardening to “interfering with everybody’s right in the world” is motivated by some emotion more primitive than satire. The battle within Etherege and the murderous rage seem unmistakably to be inspired by a father-figure with whom the character and the author have not yet come to terms.
Only a few pages after the inexplicable outburst of homicidal fury, Etherege returns to his original view of the Pensioner: “I shall find it impossible to call up this scene, any of the scenes hereafter, without the venerable figure of this, whom I may truly call my benefactor, among them. I fancy him among them from their foundation – young then, but keeping just the equal step with their age and decay – and still doing good and hospitable deeds to those who need them” (XII, 217). Not only is the Pensioner again a
good and kindly figure, he is again a paternal figure seeming to belong to the entire lifespan of the speaker. Like Grimshawe, he is described in Ned’s more rational moments as benevolent, a quality linking him to the chain of well-meaning but disturbing father-figures that we have been tracing. Out of many possible passages that show ambivalent feelings toward the Pensioner, I select one that follows hard upon the words just quoted above. The lines come from a long authorial meditation in which Hawthorne tries yet again to define the character of this troubling figure.
His whole life shall have been petty in its means, noble, sublime in its spirit. . . . A certain property shall attend him wherever he goes; a bloody footstep. Pshaw! He shall have the fatality of causing death, bloodshed, wherever he goes; and this shall symbolize the strife which benevolence inevitably provokes, because it disturbs everything around it. . . . Some secret mischief he must inevitably do, immense, of bloody consequences, yet consistent with his mild and beautiful nature. (XII, 220; italics added)
The almost unbearable ambivalence abates for a brief interlude during which Etherege stays at the home of a truly kind and
comfortable Englishman, the Warden of the hospital. Here the American indulges in tourism, recovers strength and lucidity, and prepares himself for his final trial, the assault on the ancestral home. No longer in a dream-state, Etherege discourses with the Warden on his origins, confesses his hitherto unformulated desire to claim his birthright, and manages to speak positively of the Doctor’s benefactions. Etherege says, I have no ancestry; at the very first step, my origin is lost in impenetrable obscurity. I only know that but for the aid of a kind friend – on whose benevolence I seem to have had no claim whatever – my life would probably have been poor, mean, unenlightened” (XII, 149). This is similar to the rational, daylight view of the man who educated Hawthorne; it is the view of Robert Manning’s benefactions taken by Ebe Hawthorne and other members of the family as well as by most Hawthorne biographers. The diabolic view of Doctor Grimshawe appears to Ned only when, in a dreamlike state, his mind wanders out of conscious control. Ambivalence toward Grimshawe and the Pensioner appears in authorial meditations and in Etherege’s mental reflections, but Etherege never speaks of either benefactor in other than favorable terms.
From the respite of the Warden’s hospitality, Etherege moves into the final phase of the quest for which his entire life has prepared him. The special meaning of the ancestral home to this orphan was already present in the early, childhood phase of the book when Ned revealed that England and the house were part of his unconscious mind. At this point in the first draft of the book the Doctor had not yet planted delusions in the boy’s head about the old home. The Bloody Footstep is like a dangerous repressed idea that surfaces only when brought forth by association.
To tell you the truth, Uncle, and Elsie, either my nurse or my mot4er told me the story, when I was a baby, or else I dreamt it; but there is ~ in my mind a thought about this Bloody Footstep, that is imprinted somewhere in England, and which no rain will wipe away. When it happened, or where it is, I don’t know; but I never think of England without seeing that in my mind’s eye; and it seems as if all England was nothing else but the ground sufficient for this great Bloody Footstep to be imprinted in! (XII, 108)
These shadowy intimations, not the Doctor’s diabolical plot, motivate Ned’s passionate determination to enter the house at all risks despite warnings from both Elsie and the Pensioner. Even death, should that be the price of entry, is not too much to pay for a reunion with the source of his being. The most urgent elements of his identity require this material connection to his origins, the maternal and the paternal, now fused into one unfulfilled yearning.
All my dreams, all my wishes hitherto, have looked forward to precisely the juncture that seems now to be approaching. My dreaming childhood dreamt of this. If you know anything of me, you know how I sprang out of mystery, akin to none, a thing concocted out of the elements, without visible agency – how, all through my boyhood, I was alone; how I grew up without a root, yet continually longing for on – longing to be connected with somebody-and never feeling myself so. Yet there was ever a looking forward to this turn on which I now find myself. If my next step were death, yet while the path seemed to lead onward to a certainty of establishing me in connection with my race, I would yet take it. I have tried to keep down this yearning, to stifle it, annihilate it, with making a position for myself, with being my own past, but I cannot overcome this natural horror of being a creature floating in the air, attached to nothing; nor this feeling that there is no reality in the life and fortunes, good or bad, of a being so unconnected. There i~ not even a grave, not a heap of dry bones, not a pinch of dust, with which I can claim connection, unless I find it here. (XII, 257-258)
To his disappointment, Ned does not see the footstep when he arrives at the public front door of the family mansion. Only by taking a circuitous route that leads past the place where he had been shot does he find the private family entrance, “a very pleasant entrance it was, beneath a porch, of antique form, and ivy-clad, hospitable and inviting” (XII, 282). This porched private entrance is strikingly similar to the second gate opening into Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, an association that reinforces the sexual symbolism of the private entrance:
Till that he came unto another gate; No gate, but like one, being goodly dight With boughes and braunches, which did broad dilate Their clasping armes, in wanton wreathings intricate. So fashioned a Porch with rare device, Archt over head with an embracing vine, Whose bounches hanging downe, seemed to entice All passers by, to tast their lushious wine.
(Faerie Queene, II, 12:53, 54)
At the family entrance Ned finds on the white marble the emblem that haunted his mind from its earliest days.
For it was the mark of a footstep, very decidedly made out, in red, like blood – the Bloody Footstep – the mark of a foot, which seemed to have been slightly impressed into the rock, as if it had been a soft substance, at the same time sliding a little, and gushing with blood. The glistening moisture, . . . made it appear as if it were just freshly stamped there; . . . It was well that there was no spectator there; for the American would have blushed to have it known how much this old traditionary wonder had affected his imagination. But, indeed, it was as old as any bugbear of his mind-as any of those bugbears and private terrors which grow up with people, and make the dreams and nightmares of childhood, and the fever-images of mature years….
The foot was issuing from, not entering into the house. Whoever had impressed it, or on whatever occasion, he had gone forth, and doubtless to return no more. Etherege was impelled to place his own foot in the track … and befelt a strange, vague, yet strong surmise of some agony, some terror and horror, that bad passed here, and would not fade out of the spot. While he was in these musings … he saw Lord Brathwaite looking at him through the glass of the porch, with fixed, curious eyes, and a smile on his face. (XII, 282-283; italics added)
Even the purest mind could not avoid the implications of forbidden sexual approach. The inviting, porched, ivy-clad private entrance
stained by the blood of a long-past agonizing event surely suggests maternal genitalia. Into the mark of a foot “issuing from, not entering into the house,” Etherege is compelled to place his own foot, glad to think that he is unseen in this furtive act. But in fact he is being watched all the time – coolly and sardonically – by the master of the house. The interchange between master and interloper, though urbane in language, contains a veiled threat. Etherege feigns a skeptical attitude, claiming to believe that the stain is only a natural discoloration in the stone. “‘Do you [think] so, indeed?’ rejoined his lordship. ‘It may be; but in that case, if not the record of an actual deed . . . we may consider it as prophetic; – as foreboding, from the time when the stone was squared and smoothed, and laid at this threshold, that a fatal footstep was really to be impressed here”‘ (XII, 283Y
Subsequent events show that to the master Etherege’s furtive step is a fatal misstep, a trespass punishable by death. The Italianate, Popish master, a Gothic villain and the very image of the evil punitive father, having failed to kill Etherege on his first trespass, has lured him into his web for the final kill. The master’s house, too, contains a giant spider of the same species as Doctor Grimshawe’s pet one. Insofar as the house and its bloody threshold represent the longed-for mother, its proprietor is the castrating father, ever alert to the invasion of his domain by the son who wishes to displace him.
The determination to enter the house represents an incest wish, personal to Etherege but mythic as well:
Was he himself – in another guise, as Lord Brathwaite had been saying – that long expected one? Was his the echoing tread that had been heard so long through the ages – so far through the wide world – approaching the blood-stained threshold?
With such thoughts, or dreams (for they were hardly sincerely entertained enough to be called thoughts) Etherege spent the day; a strange, delicious day, in spite of the sombre shadows that enveloped it. He fancied himself strangely wonted, already to the house; as if his every part and peculiarity had at once fitted into its nooks, and comers, and crannies. (XII, 285)
Undeterred by his lordship’s threat, Etherege passes a strange, delicious day indulging in such sexually suggestive fantasies. Although Hawdiorne finally does not allow him to displace the master, Etherege has stolen some secret satisfaction in placing his foot in the Bloody Footstep and finding that “his every part and peculiarity had at once fitted into [the house’s] nooks and corners and crannies.” This much of the private bugbear of his mind is allowed to attain the fulfillment of circular completion.
Etherege’s incest wishes extend even to his adopted sister Elsie, to whom he proposes marriage, apparently as an alternative to entering the house. From both alternatives the sister recoils with extreme revulsion, urging him to leave her, the house, and England. Says Ned:
“Away with this strangeness that lurks between us. Let us meet as those who began life together, and whose life-strings, being so early twisted in unison, cannot now be torn apart.”
“You are not wise . . . to break the restraint which we have tacitly imposed upon ourselves. Do not let us speak further on this subject…. It is best that we should meet as strangers, and so part.”
“No, no,” cried Etherege. . . . “Circumstances have shown that Providence has designed a relation in my fate to yours. Elsie, are you as lonely as I am?”
“No,” she replied, “I have bonds, ties, a life, a duty! I must live that life and do that duty! You have, likewise, both. Do yours, live your own life, like me.”
“Know you, Elsie,” he said, “whither that life is now tending?”
“Whither?” . . .
“To yonder hall!” said he.
She started up, in wild excitement, and clasped her hands about his arm.
“No, no,” she almost shrieked. “Go not thither! There is blood upon the threshold! Go not thither! Return, return, to the haunts where we erst knew each other. A dreadful fatality awaits you here.”
“Come with me then,” said he, “and I yield my purpose.”
“It cannot be,” said Elsie.
“Then, 1, too, tell you it cannot be,” returned Etherege.
Entering the ancestral mansion and marrying this adoptive sister seem equally horrifying to Elsie and both are clearly linked in the feelings of Etherege. Elsie responds with all the horror that a proposal of incest might evoke, and even the author, who has carefully specified that they are not siblings, draws back from such a union.
Looking up after this intense interchange, Etherege finds that Lord Brathwaite has been observing them unseen, just as he had when
Etherege placed his foot into the Bloody Footstep. At one point Hawthorne even considers creating a rivalry between Etherege and Brathwaite by having Brathwaite fall in love with Elsie. Although the girl has little function in the narrative, she figures frequently in the author’s meditations, where she is connected in turn with Grimshawe, the Pensioner (as a daughter), and finally with Brathwaite. She thus follows more fully than any other of Hawthorne’s female characters in the pattern of a dangerously tempting young woman related to a destructive or punitive older man. In this case, Hawthorne has too many older men and cannot integrate this familiar pattern into his plot.
One puzzling motif runs through the book – the coffer that in the final denouement turns out to be full of golden hair. Nothing in the narrative explains its significance, nor has it any visible relation to the action. Only in one of the authorial meditations does the coffer acquire meaning. “It awakens an unhallowed ambition, and madness of lust for something that ought not to be – cannot be possessed. It speaks of a great beauty to be won; and she is found in the old coffer” (XII, 287). The coffer full of golden hair appears to be a transformation of the caskets of gold in the deepest subterranean chamber of the Cave of Mammon, the final temptation of greed to temperate Sir Guyon. The transmutation of a beautiful woman who ought not to be possessed into golden hair, thus conflating two of Sir Guyon’s temptations, the sexual and the material (both forbidden, but only the sexual truly tempting to Etherege), perhaps tells something of the process by which Hawthorne transformed the Spenserian quest. The golden hair is the lifeless residue of the multiplied temptation.
The tresses are found in a coffer in the chamber of the man imprisoned for seducing the Doctor’s sister, a chamber deep in the subterranean bowels of the house. It is the inmost secret of the mansion and perhaps of the book-a box within boxes, to be opened only on the final pages. It is much like the central ebony cabinet of The Ancestral Footstep, a miniature replica of the ancestral house containing in its secret innermost compartment only a pinch of dust. Both coffers open only to keys mysteriously possessed by the young Americans. The house and the box at its center that opens only to a key held by the long missing son of the house surely symbolize an incest wish.
Hawthorne also had difficulties with the characterization of Lord Brathwaite, the fourth older man with whom Etherege dwells in the course of the romance. The incumbent of the disputed estate is frankly a villain, stagey and overdrawn, but even so, more suitable to a romance because of the relative clarity of his presentation, than are Grimshawe and the Pensioner. The four or so pages in which Hawthorne tries to locate the right character for this villain are desperate and hilarious; he even mocks his own methods as his imagination searches far and wide for the crime that corresponds to the villainy. The list is so long and thorough that it omits few offenses except incest. A brief sampling should give some indication of Hawthorne’s difficulties in characterization.
The Lord of Brathwaite Hall shall be a wretched, dissipated, dishonorable fellow… He shall (perhaps) be in love with Elsie. Up to his death, he must feel as if this American had come to thwart him and rui.n him in everything, and shall hate him accordingly, and think he is doing well to kill him if possible … a fiend, a man sold to the devil, a magician, a poison-breather, a Thug, a pirate, a pickpocket…. If I could only hit right here, he would be the centre of interest. . . . Nothing mean must he be, but as wicked as you please. . . . A monkey? A Faulkenstein? A man of straw? … Wicked as he must be, there shall still be relations between him and the pauper Saint. . . . What? What? What? A worshipper of the Sun? A cannibal? A ghoul? a vampire? … He has something to do with the old Doctor’s spider-theory…. He has been poisoned by a Bologna sausage. . . . He shall need a young life every five years … and he shall have fixed upon Elsie. . . . At any rate, he must have dreadful designs on Elsie – dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. (XII, 264-265)
On and on goes the author with growing desperation and abandon. Hawthorne’s desire to connect this evil figure to the Doctor and the Pensioner indicates that in a sense all three men are one man, various projections of Etherege’s mind, various visions of the controlling figure who stands between the orphan and his real father.
The first two father-surrogates start out benevolent and then turn diabolical and oppressive. The last one starts out pure villain and bifurcates at the last moment into the ultimate ambiguity, a kindly killer. But this split occurs only in Etherege’s mind after he has come under the influence of the house, when conscious control no longer checks or modifies his wandering perceptions. “The mansion itself was like dark-colored experience, the reality; the point of view where things were seen in their true lights; the true world, all outside of which was delusion, had here-dreamlike as it sometimes seemed-the absolute truth” (XII, 209). Under the influence of this inverting experience, Etherege comes to fear that the place is taking hold of him – “the tendrils of the ivy seemed to hold him” – and that he will never be able to resume his active life among men. As he finds himself coming more and more under the control of Brathwaite and the house, feeling that he will decay there, he discovers just how much he has been under the stealthy observation and control of Doctor Grimshawe.
He looked back through the vanished years to the time which he had spent with the old Doctor, and he felt unaccountably as if the mysterious old man were yet ruling him, as he did in his boyhood; as if his inscrutable inevitable eye were upon him in all his movements; nay, as if he had guided every step that he took in coming hither, and were stalking mistily before him, leading him onward …. So here, in this darkened room, he waited for what should come to pass …. the witchcraft of the place was really to be recognized, the old witchcraft, too, of the Doctor, which he had escaped by the quick ebullition of youthful spirit, long ago while the Doctor lived; but which had [been] stored up till now, like an influenza that remains latent for years, and then breaks out in active disease. (XII, 296)
This remarkable analysis of the cause and process of mental collapse does not prove to be therapeutic. Etherege finds himself becoming a prisoner, a feeling that later materializes as the prisoner in the subterranean chamber. But now, wandering among the dark passages of the house and frightened by his circumstances, he sees only visions of control:
A great disturbance there was in his being, the causes of which he could not trace. It had an influence on his dreams, through which the Doctor seemed to pass continually, and when he awoke, it was often with the sensation that he had just before been holding conversation with the old man, and that the latter – with that gesture of power that he remembered so well had been impressing some command upon him…. It seemed as if he was under a spell; he could neither go away nor rest – nothing but dream troubled dreams. He had ghostly fears, as if someone were near him whom he could not make out; stealing behind him, and starting away when he was impelled to turn round. (XII, 297-298)
These visions of the past are a prelude to Etherege’s growing suspicions that the master of the house intends to poison him, but in a loving, seductive manner. What follows is said to be merely the “dreamy suppositions of Etherege, in the idleness and languor of this old mansion, letting his mind run at will, and following it into dim caves whither it tended” (XII, 300. Sensing danger from the master of the house, Etherege yet
did not think that Mr. Brathwaite had the slightest hostility towards him. It might make the thing more horrible, perhaps; but it has been often seen, in those who poison for the sake of interest, without feelings of personal malevolence, that they do it as kindly as the nature of the thing will permit; they, possibly, may even have a certain degree of affection for their victims, enough to induce them to make the last hours of life sweet and pleasant, to wind up the fever of life with a double supply of enjoyable throbs, to sweeten and delicately flavor the cup of death that they offer to the lips of him whose life is inconsistent with some stated necessity of their own. (XII, 299-300)
Despite his suspicions, the warnings of his friends, and the threats of the master, Etherege makes known to his host the possibility that he will displace him and accepts two glasses of a strange wine that the host himself does not drink. The wine at least will bring matters to a conclusion, prevent his taking up his active life again, and unite his fate to that of the house. Death is one form of the peace that he has been seeking in England and Etherege acts as if he deserves it. Indeed, death by the master’s hand seems like an erotic consummation toward which he is drawn.
The wine brings on the culmination of that truth-revealing dreamstate toward which everything has been tending.
It had, he thought, a singular effect upon his faculties, quickening and making them active, and causing him to feel as if he were on the point of penetrating rare mysteries, such as men’s thoughts are always hovering round, and always returning from. Some strange, vast, sombre, mysterious truth, which he seemed to have searched for long, appeared to be on the point of being revealed to him . . . an opening of doors, a drawing away of veils, a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains, whose dark folds hung before a spectacle of awe; – it was like the verge of the grave. (XII, 307)
This second descent into the valley of death brings Ned’s mind back to his earliest unremembered childhood. In a dim, confining chamber deep in the bowels of the house, a room unknown to all but initiates, he returns unwillingly to life. As in his prior return from a brush with death, he awakens in the presence of an aged man in the garb of centuries before. This time it is the prisoner who, after surviving in the secret chamber deep in the house from youth until old age, dies as soon as he is identified by the awakening Etherege. Who he is and why he was imprisoned are not revealed until after the close of the narrative in a long authorial meditation that reviews the entire action of the romance. It begins, “Try back again.”
In the interest of economy I shall extract those passages in which Hawthorne evolves his conception of the prisoner – a character, let me add, wholly extraneous to the action and serving no apparent purpose other than to embody Etherege’s newly surfaced awareness of the Doctor’s lifelong remote control over his soul. The Doctor employs as his agent in subduing the prisoner “an imperfectly hanged person” whom he had saved from the scaffold and then made into a moral slave. The agent in turn enslaves the prisoner either by drugs or by “some continual operation on his mind” that causes the prisoner to isolate himself from society. The captive depicted below is both self-imprisoned and the prisoner of the Doctor. Hawthorne’s backing and filling on this point indicate that he was portraying psychic rather than physical enslavement and was still unresolved how to assign responsibility for such a situation.
[The agent] does not imprison his foe, but induces him to imprison himself. Lack-a-day! Let it be with his own consent, that he inhabits the secret chamber of the old mansion, and sometimes prowls about the neighborhood. Vastly probable. . . . Try back! What had this gentleman done? He had seduced the young wife of this man? I don’t like that. Or his daughter or sister? not much better, though the sister a little. . What is the crime? Each son murders his father at a certain age; or does each father try to accomplish the impossibility of murdering his successor? [This striking pre-Freudian Oedipal statement and its inversion may shed some light on the shooting of Cyrus in “Roger Malvin’s Burial.”] This is not the right tack…. He secludes himself, from a morbid impulse, and finds himself caught, and can never get back again into society; so that he has given up all the opportunities of life by that one act. The Doctor promotes it in the first instance, and makes it next to impossible for him to return into the world in the next. . . . There must be a motive, in the first place, strong enough to keep him secluded a week; then, let him get out if he can : The fact should show that a strange repulsion-as well as a strong attraction-exists among human beings. . . . It is a very common thing – this fact of a man’s being caught and made prisoner by himself. . . . Now what can be the motive; he has fallen in love with and tried to seduce, the Doctor’s young sister; possibly he has seduced her, and she has died. . . . There must be one [chapter], in which this self-imprisoned man must be described – still young, cherishing purposes of coming out into the world, but deferring it till another day. . .
Again, at an after period…. the prisoner must be introduced, now some years older; the effect of these imprisoned years must be developed; his growing horror of the world, yet sometimes a passionate yearning to get back into it…. Show him with the marks of coming age, and his faculties, growing torpid through disuse….
His mind, I think, should at all times be full of the Doctor – haunted by some impression of him…. [The prisoner is to be sensitive, poetic, imaginative.] A lack of animal spirits, of active energy. He has books and writing materials. .
This runs through the Romance like the vertebrae of the back-bone. There should be a reference to it in everything, grave or gay. (XII, 324-331)
Of this confusing meditation, we can say one thing that is certain-the prisoner does not run through the romance like a backbone. He is hardly there at all in the narrative as written, although he may indeed be the backbone of the personal romance rising up from the depths. The confusion of pronouns and antecedents that may have disturbed the reader is only partly a result of excision. Primarily, it is Hawthorne’s own confusion of one man with another as principals and agents, enslavers and victims merge. His vacillation about just who enslaved the prisoner runs throughout the passage. We see him move from the idea of purely Gothic revenge on the seducer of the Doctor’s sister, to more and more subtle forms of enslavement – from drops of poison to something far more maddening, inducing the prisoner to enslave himself, and then back again, over and over again. The punishment by the older man is somehow justified by this seduction of a sister, which is mentioned far more frequently than the excerpt indicates. Throughout the passage we see this pattern – seclusion of a young man in a secret chamber by an older man whose sister was seduced or ruined by the younger man, then an attenuation of the punitive action of the older man, so that punishment becomes internalized into self-imprisonment, then again an angry rejection of self-blame and a reassertion of the older man’s punitive and destructive influence.
And far more frequently than our excerpt shows, the crime of the younger man is generalized away from seduction of the Doctor’s sister to the possibility that the Doctor or his agent enslaved the prisoner by an all-inclusive permissiveness. By pandering to “all the desires of his heart,” the agent causes evil desires to become deeds. The author cannot specify these evil desires, but as the young man in the chamber comes more and more to resemble Hawthorne’s descriptions of his own solitude, both in the “haunted chamber” and later, the autobiographical implication is that the self-immured prisoner is suffering profound guilt for “evil” desires for his father-surrogate’s sister, that is, Hawthorne’s own mother. His personal confusion is such that he is not certain just who is punishing whom for what; the prisoner’s own conscience has become indistinguishable from the Doctor’s punitive ire.
Hawthorne reiterates frequently his intention that Etherege must at the end confront this prisoner. This confrontation, which does in fact occur within the narrative, although the nature of the prisoner is given only in the working notes, seems to be a confrontation of the active aspect of Hawthorne’s personality with the withdrawn part. It occurs only after Etherege has r6ached back into his own past deeply enough to realize his enthrallment by the Doctor. At the time of this meeting, just before the conclusion of the narrative, Etherege is near death from poisoned wine administered by Lord Brathwaite, and the prisoner dies. Ned Etherege approaches death twice within the short span of this romance and witnesses the death of the prisoner, an aspect of himself and of the author. It is not clear whether or not Ned dies at the conclusion, but he is found at the end with the dead prisoner “at the bottom of a winding descent, that seemed deep and remote, and far within” (XII, 321- 322) in the presence of the coffer full of golden hair, the symbol of something that should never be possessed. He has carried his quest as far as it could be carried.
When the narrative proper has ended and the nine-page authorial meditation is concluded, the narrative voice suddenly shifts to the first person in a brief passage depicting the prisoner at an earlier time. He is discovered in a narrow, oppressive, unlighted antique chamber in which all the emblems of the romance are resumed. Here, in a chamber likened to Spenser’s Cave of Despair and furnished with instruments of suicide, are the prisoner, his keeper, the ancient coffer, and a plenitude of cobwebs. This hallucinatory section begins:
There is – or there was, now many years ago, and a few years also, it was still extant – a chamber, which when I think of it, seems to me like entering a deep recess of my own consciousness, a deep cave of my nature; so much have I thought of it and its inmate, through a considerable period of my life. (XII, 2 3 5 – 2 36)
This “haunted chamber” deep in the bowels of the ancestral mansion was indeed a chamber of the author’s own consciousness, so much so that in the final words of the manuscript, he suddenly drops the posture of objectivity and lapses into the first person. In this chamber of his consciousness the narrator discovers the secret prisoner as a young man contemplating suicide. The final paragraph of the first draft describes the mental state of this subterranean prisoner, but seems also to describe the condition of Etherege after he has come to a realization of his enthrallment, and perhaps also that of the creator of both these victims of wizard control:
By and by, by what impulse or cause it is impossible to say, he started upon his feet in a sudden frenzy of rage and despair. It seemed as if a consciousness of some strange, wild, miserable fate that had befallen him had come upon him all at once; how that he was a prisoner to a devilish influence, to some wizard might, that bound him hand and foot with spider’s web. So he stamped, so he half-shrieked, yet stopped himself in the midst so that his cry was stifled and smothered. Then he snatched up the poisoned dagger and looked at it; the noose and put it about his neck; evil instrument of death, but laid it down again. (XII, 341-342)
By having both Etherege and the prisoner bound in a “wizard-woven web” Hawthorne reveals the final metaphoric value of the spider’s web. The cobweb is a soft and silken trap seductive enough to paralyze the human victim’s will. Thinking he can always burst such fragile bonds, he reposes in them forever. In 1837, as Hawthorne was just beginning to emerge from his twelve years of seclusion, he wrote to Longfellow of his own sense of self-imprisonment in language less feverish than his depiction of the prisoner, but still reminiscent of it.
You would have been much nearer the truth if you had pictured me as dwelling in an owl’s nest; for mine is about as dismal, and like the owl I seldom venture abroad till after dusk. By some witchcraft or other … I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again. Since we last met … I have secluded myself from society; and yet I never meant any such thing, nor dreamed what sort of life I was going to lead. I have made a captive of myself, and put me into a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out,-and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to let myself come out, . . . I can assure you that trouble is the next best thing to enjoyment, and that there is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in either its joys or sorrows. For the last ten years, I have not lived, but only dreamed of living…. You cannot conceive how utterly devoid of satisfaction all my retrospects are. I have laid up no treasures of pleasant remembrances against old age.’
Elaborate proof is not required to demonstrate that the late romances and Grimshawe in particular were not fully under the author’s control. His own biographical and psychological concerns diverted the work from the circular quest romance pattern that was clearly his model. His hero begins as the typical romance foundling with tokens indicating noble origins. These tokens, however, turn out to be illusory, because in the process of the book’s development Ned becomes a victim of diabolic deceit, the instrument of his educator’s vengeance, and not the true heir. The true heir is finally an aged pauper saint who has only contempt for such wordly vanities as estates and titles. Reinstatement into a noble place in the world is both denied to Etherege and devalued at the same time. If it is just as well to be an American with no past at one’s back, there is no particular salvation in having the tokens that will prove one’s claim to a noble title. Thus the democratic author fails to sustain the goal of his hero’s quest. This quest is informed, then, not by religiously sanctioned fixed values, but by nostalgia for the age of fixed values. For such fixities Hawthorne was too skeptical, too disillusioned, and too late.
Etherege’s quest becomes converted into an inner, psychic drive for reunion with the lost mother and a fruitless search for the true father. Unlike the romance hero, he finds not his true father but only a series of constantly mutating father-surrogates who, despite their differences, are all transformations of the first one. The characters refuse to remain fixed archetypes of good and evil; they split under the psychological pressure of disguised autobiography into complexities that cannot be contained by the format. Paradoxical figures like benevolent tyrants, infuriating saints, and compassionate poisoners are conceivable, and may even be treatable by literary techniques, but they burst apart the seams of a romance. Without quite knowing it, Hawthorne anticipated the modern novel of the inner quest. Had he been aware of the forces propelling him, he could have used the romance quest with conscious irony, as Browning did in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” showing that the quest of the modern hero may wind up in a wasteland. But Hawthorne did not keep up with the direction of Victorian letters. He attempted a traditional quest romance when it was too late in his own and in literary history, and too early for him to control what he really was trying to write, his personal, disguised version of the family romance.
1Erlich, Gloria C., 1984, Family Themes and Hawthornes Fiction the Tenacious Web: New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers Univ. Press, 217 p.
2Arvin, Newton, 1929, Hawthorne: Boston, MA, Little Brown, and Co., 303 p.
3Davidson, Edward H., ed., 1954, Doctor Grimshawes Secret: Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press, unk p.
Webpage posted August 2004.