Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
Although essentially a realistic story about an unusual friendship, “The House of Cobwebs” also offers some gothic elements that would ordinarily appear in much more melodramatic works. The abandoned houses with their overrun gardens establish a mood of foreboding. Gissing creates a sense of mystery by having Goldthorpe, on first seeing them, spot something he cannot identify at a window of the top story of one of the houses. Gissing’s atmospheric touches add another layer of texture to what could have been merely a story of an odd friendship.
As the title suggests, the story is replete with cobweb imagery. Wherever Goldthorpe goes in Spicer’s house, the windows and walls are covered in cobwebs. Every angle and projection is draped in cobwebs, and the stuffy, musty air smells of them. Although other writers might use cobwebs similarly to establish a milieu in which melodramatic events are likely to unfold, Gissing uses them to emphasize the stale aimlessness of Spicer’s life before Goldthorpe’s arrival.
In a more positive sense, the energy of the spiders corresponds to Goldthorpe’s work on his manuscript. The spiders and their webs also point out the persistence of nature. Spicer observes that even if the houses are pulled down after he leaves, the spiders and their creations will remain and continue. Only the insects are really at home there. Nature outlasts humankind’s laws and possessions.
Spicer’s is a disused life; except for playing the only three songs he knows on his concertina, he does nothing until the young novelist spurs him into activity in the garden. The pride he takes in his Jerusalem artichokes makes these vegetables symbolic of the transformation of both men’s lives. They will not be ready to eat until the first frost of autumn, about the same time Goldthorpe’s book is judged by the publishers. Both the artichokes and the novel are their great hopes for the future.
Social criticism and examination of unfulfilled lives are not Gissing’s only goals in “The House of Cobwebs.” He also distances himself from didacticism by observing that Spicer judges literature solely from a moral perspective and is incapable of understanding any other. (It is interesting that Spicer is suspicious of Dickens.) Gissing intertwines strong characterization, theme, and a vividly descriptive style to achieve his desired effects. Without the painstaking attention to detail in depicting the milieu of the two protagonists, “The House of Cobwebs” would not have the same impact. Aesthetics is as significant as social criticism.