12 August 2013

Dancing to the same tune

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The music box began to scatter its melodies abroad. To complete the sum of splendid attractions wherewith it presented itself to the public, there was a company of little figures, whose sphere and habitation was inside the music box, and whose principle of life was the music which the contraption made it its business to grind out.

In all their variety of occupation—the cobbler, the blacksmith, the soldier, the lady with her fan, the toper with his bottle, the milk-maid sitting by her cow—this fortunate little society might truly be said to enjoy a harmonious existence, and to make life literally a dance. You turned a crank; and, behold! every one of these small individuals started into the most curious vivacity.

The cobbler wrought upon a shoe; the blacksmith hammered his iron, the soldier waved his glittering blade; the lady raised a tiny breeze with her fan; the jolly toper swigged lustily at his bottle; a scholar opened his book with eager thirst for knowledge, and turned his head to and fro along the page; the milkmaid energetically drained her cow; and a miser counted gold into his strong-box—all at the same turning of a crank. Yes; and, moved by the self-same impulse, a lover saluted his mistress on her lips!

Possibly some cynic, at once merry and bitter, had desired to signify, in this pantomimic scene, that we mortals, whatever our business or amusement—however serious, however trifling—all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass. For the most remarkable aspect of the affair was, that, at the cessation of the music, everybody was petrified at once, from the most extravagant life into a dead torpor. Neither was the cobbler's shoe finished, nor the blacksmith's iron shaped out; nor was there a drop less of brandy in the toper's bottle, nor a drop more of milk in the milkmaid's pail, nor one additional coin in the miser's strong-box, nor was the scholar a page deeper in his book. All were precisely in the same condition as before they made themselves so ridiculous by their haste to toil, to enjoy, to accumulate gold, and to become wise.

Saddest of all, moreover, the lover was none the happier for the maiden's granted kiss! But, rather than swallow this last too acrid ingredient, we reject the whole moral of the show.

—Adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables

Painting: Edgar Degas, Dancers in Pink


  1. What an intriguing quote. The only book by Hawthorne I ever read was The Scarlet Letter, which seemed a masterpiece. I once started The House of Seven Gables, then got sidetracked and never got back to it. This makes me want to go give it another try.

    1. As far as story-telling goes, House of the Seven Gables is a better book. The Scarlet Letter, in my estimation, is more of an anthropological piece with the macabre mixed in. I would recommend it only for its value as an academic exercise.


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