Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

“The House of Cobwebs” is in part a portrait of the optimism of youth. Goldthorpe has the courage to succeed not because of naïveté but because of his firm belief in his goals, a belief that a more experienced person could not have maintained. Such optimism is also present in the older, but even less worldly Spicer, who combats his loneliness with thoughts of everything turning out for the best. A potentially maudlin story is presented, however, with little sentimentality and subtle irony.

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Goldthorpe and Spicer are parallel personalities. Spicer is what the younger man might have become had he not aspired to the literary life. The two are also similar in being solitary figures relatively comfortable with spartan existences. Spicer shares Goldthorpe’s passion for literature, though on a more limited scale, and his evolving skills as a gardener are meant to mirror Goldthorpe’s writing talent.

Spicer combats loneliness with literature, having inherited from his father thirty volumes, none published in his lifetime, which he reads over and over. He speaks of Lord Byron as if they are contemporaries and has little understanding of the modern ideas Goldthorpe, who hopes to be the leader of a new school of fiction, expresses in his novel. Nevertheless, the importance of literature to Spicer helps emphasize the significance of Goldthorpe’s achievement. Creating art is far from a selfish act meant merely to assuage the artist’s ego.

As with much of his fiction, Gissing explores the inequities of life in Victorian England and the unfairness of the way most people live. Spicer’s sole ambition is to have a house of his own, a place of any size in which to live and die, and after working hard for twenty-five years, suddenly he is presented with three houses. However, they are in declining condition and his only for a brief period. Spicer says he was bitterly disappointed on seeing them.

Property remains a powerful weapon not only in the distinctions between the working class, the middle class, and the aristocracy but within each class level as well. Ownership is the stuff both of dreams and nightmares. Goldthorpe declares that fate has played a nasty trick on his friend, yet Spicer remains optimistic and accepting of the law even though it has dealt him an injustice. Goldthorpe truly admires Spicer’s response to his fate. As does Charles Dickens, Gissing attacks the inequities of the British legal system.

“The House of Cobwebs” reflects Gissing’s concern with the hardships, especially economic ones, of the literary life. As such, it is a companion piece to his best-known novel New Grub Street (1891). It resembles his other short fiction in presenting, with a lightly ironic tone, the ordinary events in the lives of undistinguished people.

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