Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 5, 2021


 "The Great Carbuncle" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, 1837; included in Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, 1837)

Subtitles "A Mystery of the White Mountains," this basically a quest story, an allegory, and a satire on human greed all at once.  Eight people in search of the Great Carbuncle, a legendary jewel, meet and share a camp on night along the Amonoostuck River by the side of one of the Crystal Hills.  The Great Carbuncle is a large, elusive jewel that shines brighter than the moon, almost as bright as the sun.  Indian legend has it that a spirit watches over the jewel and either moves it from place to place to avoid its being found or calls up a mist to hide it from seekers.

The eight adventurers searching for the jewel are a varied lot.  One, the eldest, known only as the Seeker, has been searching for the jewel most of his life.  The search has turned him into a solitary mountain man, clad in furs.  Another, a stooped old man from England, was Dr. Cacaphodel, wasareasearcher in chemistry and "alchymy."  A third was Master Ichabod Pigsnort, a wealthy merchant and selectman from Boston and a member of "the famous Mr. Norton's church;" supposed after morning and evening prayers, Pigsnort spent his time naked wallowing in his vast amounts of pine-tree shjillings.  A fourth was unnamed, a thin man wearing a sneer and a large pair of spectacles that deformed and discolored the whole face of nature.  And then there was another man, also unnamed, a poet; according to rumor, his "ordinary diet consisted of fog, morning mist, and a slice of the densest cloud within his reach, sauced with moonshine."  The sixth man was Lord de Vere, a haughty fellow in a plumed hat who sat sat apart from the others.  Lastly there was a young couple, Matthew and Hannah, married for just one week.

Over a campfire, each explained why they were searching for the Great Carbuncle.  The Seeker had been looking for it for so long that it was the search that consumed his life -- if he ever found it, the search would be over and he would just die.  Doctor Cacaphodel wants to take the jewel back to his laboratory in England, where he will grind parts to a powder and submit the rest to acid into to determine its makeup; he will then write a large scientific tome about his researches, even though he would destroy the carbuncle in the process.  Pigsnort stated that he would take the jewel around the world to the richest potentates he could find and sell it to the highest bidder.  The poet would take the Great Carbuncle to his meager attic lodging where he would absorb its radiance as a muse.  Not so Lord de Vere, who would take the jewel to hang in his family estate and bring additional glory to his noble line.  The young bridegroom Matthew stated that he would bring gem to their small cottage, where they will need the light during the dark winter months; plus, should he wake up in the night, the light from the carbuncle would allow him to gaze upon his wife's face.  The remaining man, a cynic, said simply that he does not believe the Great Carbuncle exists, that it is his desire to prove this by searching everywhere and not finding it.

The eight retire for the night, with Matthew and Hanna of in a corner protected from sight by a blind.  In the morning, Matthew awakes and discovers the others have already risen and left, each on their separate way in search of the jewel.  Matthew wakes his bride, they dress, hastily say their prayers and wash themselves in the waters of the Amonoosuck, and start off, climbing a nearby mountain.  The climb is hard but they feel they can survey the area best from the summit.  A mist soon enshrouds them.  It thickens so they cannot see and the way becomes treacherous.  Finally, they see a bright light through the mist, which at first they thought might be the sun.  As the mist clears, they find themselves beside a mountain lake and the bright light from the other side is the Great Carbuncle.  Near the Great Carbuncle lies the body of the Seeker, who, having found the jewel, died.  There is a noise behind them.  It is the cynic, who turns his back toward them and the jewel, because he cannot admit the Great Carbuncle existed.  Matthew turns him around to see the gem and the cynic is blinded.  Matthew and Hannah decide that the Great Carbuncle is not for them, despite being so bright it just is not worth it for them.  They head back down the mountain, leading the now-blind cynic.

In a coda, we learn the fates of the other searchers.  Master Ichabod Pigsnort gave up his quest and through a series of disastrous events and decisions soon lost his fortune.  Doctor Cacaphodel returned with a piece of granite, which he subjected to all the tests he had planned for the great Carbuncle, and published a large, meaningless tome.  Lord de Vere returned to his estate and, in time, joined his ancestors in the ancestral vault; the Great Carbuncle was not needed "to shew the vanity of earthy pomp,"  The poet returned with a chunk of ice that he felt had all the characteristics of the Great Carbuncle.  Critics said that "if  his poetry lacked the splendor of the gem, it retained all the coldness of the ice.  The cynic wandered the world and eventually died in the Great Fire of London, hoping to catch "one feeble ray from the blaze."

Matthew and Hannah?  They spent many peaceful years together.  Years later when people scaled the cliff, they found only a rock embedded with mica, until one day the rock broke loose and fell into the lake.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


  1. Finally, a story I've actually read! I took a HAWTHORNE course when I was working on my PhD. We read a ton of Hawthorne's short stories and "The Great Carbuncle" was one of them. I enjoyed the course and had to do a class presentation on Hawthorne's THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.

  2. I don't think I have read a Hawthorne short story. This sounds like it could easily be a novel.

  3. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" are the two most famous Hawthorne shorts, I'd say...the former is shorter and witty, while the latter is more's odd I never picked up a copy of TWICE TOLD TALES...I should recify...'s%20Experiment.pdf