The Bug in the Seven Modules: About Nathaniel Hawthorne

Enjoyed the story? This document briefly describes the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The House of the Seven Gables, and explains how I adapted his themes and philosophy to a modern subject.

Sin and denouement

Hawthorne was above else a moralist. Sins (and even minor lapses) inevitably lead to ruin in his writings. And what fascinated him most was the sin that was so small as to be hardly noticeable, certainly forgivable, but that festered for years and years and blighted everything it touched. This was the theme for his major works (Dimmesdale’s adultery in The Scarlet Letter, Judge Pyncheon’s involuntary contribution to his uncle’s death in The House of the Seven Gables) and appears most starkly in the short story Roger Malvin’s Burial, where a man is destroyed by his guilt over abandoning a companion. The one, small sin that can be covered over but never purged - what better metaphor could exist for software bugs?

The obsession with sin begins in Hawthorne with the personal and the individual, but the social is not far behind. Nowhere is the link so strong as in The House of the Seven Gables. The Pyncheons’ ill-founded success spills out on the community as a whole. In gaining Maule’s land for the Pyncheon house, the original Colonel Pyncheon added fuel to the Salem witch trials (which terrified and weighed heavily on Hawthorne generations later). The last representative of the predatory Pyncheons becomes a Judge and is well on his way toward becoming Governor when his life is cut off. Hawthorne’s sophistication comes through in a remarkable passage that could apply to our own political environment (even though we’ve extended suffrage far past the affluent white males of Hawthorne’s time):

They are practiced politicians, every man of them, and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures that steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers. The popular voice, at the next gubernatorial election, though loud as thunder, will be really but an echo of what these gentlemen shall speak, under their breath…

So a cry for justice in our time would resonate well with Hawthorne, who supported progressive causes like the abolition of slavery in his own day.

The Bug in the Seven Modules is very Hawthornian in another way: the attempts of the sinners to expurgate and compensate for their fall ends up ruining them even more than the fall itself. Thus, Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt leads to an illness for which he unknowingly recruits his worst enemy, the husband of the woman he wronged. Moreover, by refusing to take responsibility for the adultery and the child that came of it, he cuts himself off from the community (not a community that we would particularly feel comfortable in nowadays, but the one chosen by the Puritans in the novel!) and makes his whole existence a lie. This too kills him. One of Hawthorne’s stories, The Birthmark, is entirely devoted to the tragedy of a man who causes his wife’s death because he cannot tolerate the one thing in her that is imperfect.

The cover-up in The Bug in the Seven Modules starts with Third Eye Software itself (in the “work-around” voted by the managers) but involves the whole programming community. Without the fixes proposed in folklore and passed around even through technical books and programming courses, the buggy NIP protocol would never have lasted so long. Guilt touches everyone - a moral that Hawthorne definitely loved, as one can tell from such short stories as The Minister’s Black Veil, The Artist of the Beautiful, and Young Goodman Brown.

Like the Pyncheon family in The House of Seven Gables, the corporation that perpetuates sin in The Bug in Seven Modules prospers for a long time. The decades of growth for Third Eye Computers is even more remarkable for the fast-moving computer field than the 150 years of the Pyncheon’s riches. But like the Pyncheons, Third Eye’s transgressions are more varied and complex than one early compromise they made for the sake of a release schedule. The degeneration documented in the the story’s last setting, so unaesthetic and soul-deadening, is evidence of many poor judgements taken for financial or bureaucratic reasons. Like the Pyncheons, Third Eye never really found the true way; their whole existence was predicated on anti-social and inhumane premises.

The rest of the computer field must shoulder its blame for Clyde’s failure too. The false idol of adherence to specifications that kills creativity, shown explicitly in the Demand Instruments company that Clyde briefly worked for, clearly is more widespread.

In a field of harshly chiseled evils scattered throughout Hawthorne’s works, one stands out as more subtle: the plight of Beatrice Rappaccini (the model for Betty Rapini) in Rappaccinni’s Daughter. Beatrice is essentially a pure and good person. But through exposure to poisons over the years, she has become poison to others. But when she dies, she is shown to be a victim, not a perpetrator of evil. This ambiguity attaches to Betty in my story too - she certainly suggests the work-around that allows the bug to remain in NIP, but is a principled person motivated by the best motives.

Inspiration yields to conformity

Can true appreciation for beauty last for long in our imperfect society? Hawthorne does not truly believe so, despite his own success as a supremely individualistic and uncompromising artist. (He was the first American author to write any fiction of lasting interest, and set American literature on a new path.)

Hawthorne’s cynicism probably appears most clearly in The Artist of the Beautiful, whose title I parody in my own story. Here a sensitive (but not overly fragile) mechanic is trapped in a career as a watch-maker, but manages to make a working mechanical butterfly of stunning beauty and to show it off for a few moments before it is crushed.

Clyde plays out this theme in The Bug in the Seven Modules. While he was partly based, of course, on Clifford Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables, he is a far better person; he is actually half based on Owen Warland, the hero of The Artist of the Beautiful.

Clifford is a useless, weak personality, representative of one half of the Pyncheon dynasty. (The other half, represented by Judge Pyncheon, consists of those that appear to be strong and recognize no moral limits on their ambitions but succumb to a deep danger inside.) Clifford clearly would never have produced anything of value or note, even had he not been psychologically broken by an unjust arrest and 20 years’ imprisonment.

Clyde, on the other hand, starts out like Owen Warland, although possessing a “softness” that Hawthorne ascribed to Clifford. Like Owen, Clyde is confident in himself and undeterred by the slightings of others. Only a prolonged struggle with the vain (in more than one sense) attempt to commercialize his software defeats him; he then emerges more like Clifford. Even at his lowest point, he indirectly helps to bring down the Visex empire through his software; this perhaps too satisfying, Samson-like ending is not permitted to either Owen or Clifford (or anyone else in Hawthorne’s works, so far as I have seen).

While damnation is a constant fixture in Hawthorne’s work, redemption does not seem to be an option. Characters do not tend to change as much as my Clyde does - whoever is morbid, or cheery, or pensive, or steadfast tends to stay that way regardless of circumstances. Inflexibility is so rampant in Hawthorne that it is quite common to see the word “iron” used to describe a character or social institution, as I’ve used it to describe the quality control measures at Demand Instruments.

Hawthorne is not completely in love with personal inspiration, I should be clear to add. The Puritan in him emerges as he examines people who have a passionate vision and finds them lacking. The Blithedale Romance is the chief forum for this point of view; it makes fun of the failed, quasi-socialistic, back-to-the-land Brook Farm experiment. The story The May-Pole of Merry Mount Hawthorne shows that, no matter how much he may criticize Puritanism, when he comes down to the wire he prefers it to free-and-easy nature love.

Similarly, the forest for Hawthorne was not a glorious work of nature but a dangerous place linked to the Devil, pagan witchcraft, savage Indians, and most of all, the uncontrolled impulses that lie beneath the surface of people’s own psyches. The corrupting forest is where Hester and Dimmesdale surreptitiously meet in The Scarlet Letter. The protagonist in Young Goodman Brown meets the Devil carrying a stick that looks like a serpent when he enters the forest where he later sees his demonic vision; just as I have my Clyde meet Westervale. In The Blithedale Romance, likewise, the narrator first meets the villain Westervelt in the woods.

The world view in the style

The groaning weight of a Puritan sense of retribution in Hawthorne’s philosophy explains the richness and resonance of his style. While some of his idioms and metaphors can be found in standard nineteenth century usage, he definitely chose his words carefully to convey an atmosphere more dolorous than his contemporaries, just as did Edgar Allen Poe (to whom Hawthorne is often compared).

Hawthorne is certainly capable of levity and even sarcasm when he feels it appropriate. But he chooses to state everyday events in terms associated with sin, doom, and struggle in the most serious parts of his work in order to link the casual with the eternal. States of light and darkness are particularly meaningful to him; many of his scenes are lit evocatively like my scenes of Clyde in the woods or his cubicle at night.

Some Personal Relationships

Hawthorne is more concerned with the moral obligations that drive (and usually trap) his protagonists than the bonds of family, love, and friendship. But an interesting grouping appears in The House of the Seven Gables and is reproduced in a less rich form in The Bug in the Seven Modules.

The House of the Seven Gables itself is a large private house (now a museum) located on a side street in Salem, Massachusetts within view of the bay. A gable, incidentally, is a triangular section of a roof that extends all the way to end of the house; the latter characteristic differentiates it from a dormer, which does not reach the edge of the roof. A typical American peak-roofed house has two gables; one with a large addition might have three; but to have seven is quite impressive, and was achieved by the house in Salem only over several generations of building. The person who added the final addition made his money in the China sea trade mentioned in my story.

Hawthorne was a friend of the house’s later owner and a frequent visitor there; his novel reproduces details quite faithfully (although he turned a chestnut tree into the Pyncheon Elm, which plays an important part in his novel). He even hinted at the existence of a secret staircase, which was discovered only in the mid-20th century when the building was turned over to the public as a historical site.

In Hawthorne’s novel, The Pyncheon House is occupied by three residents besides Clifford: Hepzibah, the worn-out mistress of the house, Phoebe, her unspoiled young cousin, and Holgrave, the capable and highly ethical lodger. Their relationship is complex; in my story the corresponding relationship is the thinner one of manager to employees. Indeed, the dynamic I portray - that of dedicated and creative contributors held back by timid and unknowing management - is all too familiar to those who have worked in large companies, and even a cliche since the popularity of the Dilbert comic strip.

Hepzibah is a much more sympathetic character in the novel than I have been able to make Hectora in the small space I had. Both characters are fundamentally incapable of dealing with the world’s complexity and fast-moving demands. But Hepzibah is warm-hearted, a trait that I have unfortunately lost in the few sentences I could devote to Hectora in my story.

I have done better in turning the relatively uncomplicated Phoebe to Polly. Both, while young, have managed to reach a competent stage in life without becoming jaded by experiences of corruption.

My Hollis, like Holgrave, is the critic, the corrective. Holgrave is too capable to be true; he is the very dynamo of modernization that Hawthorne saw at work in America of the mid-nineteenth century. Holgrave will have no truck with the old aristocratic class and their irrational administration of society. My character Hollis takes the same attitude toward management in his own corporation. Hawthorne saw aristocracy as an impedance to be swept away, as he shows in his short story My Kinsman, Major Molineux even more than in The House of the Seven Gables. While the entrepreneurs vaunted by Hawthorne have taken over the rule of society in our day, it is hard to tell whether Hawthorne would see in them Holgrave, or yet another Judge Pyncheon.

Addendum, May 12, 2020: The article How bugs are born: a model to identify how bugs are introduced in software components illustrates how elusive software errors can be. They may not be traceable to any particular code change, and may result from an interaction between a program and a library it invokes.

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