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In "The Fifth Gable" by Kay Chronister, the protagonist interacts with the women who live in the four-gabled house. Which, suddenly and inexplicably, at the end of the story finds itself with five gables.

“Where are we going?” said Marigold.

“The fifth gable,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “We’ll need privacy.”

Additionally, it is mentioned that the house formerly had only a single gable:

But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.

I checked with a dictionary to be sure that the word "gable" doesn't have any meaning besides for the architectural one (eg "place where people sleep"); it doesn't.

I do understand that there is magic in this story, so the house could conceivably be a Hogwarts sort of place with shifting architecture, but is there another explanation?

How many gables could there be in a four-gabled house?

Is there a possibility of a gable that isn't counted as part of a set, but is still a gable -- like a house with a peaked roof and four gables that extend from the flat part of the roof (the set of four gables), but the ends of the peaked roof might also qualify as "gables"? Take this picture as an example: are there two gables here, or four? Could the house below be referred to as a two-gabled house, because of the two smaller gables that jut out of the roof?

A house with a peaked roof, with two gables on the side.

  • I may ask another question about the symbology of a house with changing numbers of gables; I'd put it into this post, but I'm pretty sure that would make it too broad/two questions in one. – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 16:27
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    Re your second quote: looks like it's talking about the house where she lived before. The fifth is probably magic *shrug* – Mithrandir Feb 22 '17 at 16:46
  • @mith I'm pretty sure it refers to the house where most of the story takes place. It refers to "the house," which is where all (or almost all) of the story takes place – Shokhet Feb 22 '17 at 16:48
  • Perhaps there's an alternate meaning of "gable" that doesn't relate to roofs? – Catija Feb 22 '17 at 19:38
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    @Catija Yeah, the story was kinda weird. Not my usual fare, but it was being discussed in a group I recently joined, run by Standback – Shokhet Feb 23 '17 at 0:44
10

Probably Four.

A four-gabled house seems to refer to an X-like shape, with a gable extending in each direction:

Four-Gabled House - X-Shaped

Also, take a look at this image and house-plan for a house called The Four Gables.

This is a design where, clearly, there is no possible place for a fifth gable. Each direction of the house is already taken; above the gables, the house ends in a single point.

Hypothetically, you might stretch the house out, add another story above the crossed gables ("Perhaps they would hurt her so deeply that she could at last ascend to the fifth gable"), but that would seen like very odd architecture, and less likely to be described as a four-gabled house to begin with.

Possibly More?

Google shows me that additional configurations with four gables are entirely possible, e.g. this one, in the gardens of Burrswood Hospital:

Four-Gabled building: Burrswood Hospitol

It's conceivable that with a structure like this, it appear to be a four-gabled house from its front facade, but have additional gables in back, obscured from view. That would be a "four-gabled house" with more than four gables.

This doesn't seem to match up with the constant stress that it is a Four-Gabled House, or with the description of "ascending" to the fifth gable, but it's hypothetically possible.

Appearing and Disappearing Gables

All that being said, it seems fairly clear that the story is banking on the reader understanding the house as having precisely four gables, and the fifth gable as being magical (and inaccessible by normal means).

The constant reference to "the four-gabled house", and the matching of four women for four gables, is clear. We're not intended to question the architecture here.

Likewise, the story is titled "The Fifth Gable" -- telling us, right from the start, that there will be a fifth gable. An obvious implication is that the fifth gable is special, remarkable. But then it isn't referenced again until the very end. To me, this omission indicates that the fifth gable is not a mundane part of the house -- if you know there's a fifth gable, but keep calling it a four-gable house, that's because there's a very immediate reason not to count the fifth one.

You call attention to this very interesting snippet:

The women who lived in the four-gabled house found each other in tabloids, then in Sunday papers, then finally in a medical journal that three times failed to pass a peer review. But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.

This could be read simply: before the women convened together, the third woman lived in a different house, and that house had only one gable.

But knowing the story's conclusion, knowing that magically-appearing gables are an option, and knowing the third woman's unique significance, does offer us an intriguing reading: rather than the fifth gable being a magical feature of the house or the coven, each woman brings a gable into existence.

We eventually learn that the third woman is the linchpin; the other women are primarily there to cause enough suffering, that the third woman will be able to give them a child. This casts the above paragraph in a very different light: not that the third woman was one among many, and lived in a different place. Rather, she had a unique ability, and gathered others around her, in order to be capable of actually putting it to use. So there is reason to see this description as significant, see the third woman as she was as being significant, and guess that it might be the same house.

The other component in this reading is: the story is deliberately misleading you. Until the end, the women appear to be of a kind -- all of them barren; none of them able to help; none of them able to carry infants to term. The story appears to be Marigold trying one after the other, all of them inevitably failing, Marigold growing more despairing -- just as the women have. This story pattern, given the title of "The Fifth Gable", might be pointing in a clear direction: that Marigold, too, will despair, and join the women, getting a gable of her own. (On my first readthrough, her constant baked goods seemed like it might make for her eventual modus operendi -- crafting children out of dough, perhaps.)

So that's an example where there's a strong implication that the women create the gables.

Further support for this can be found in the third woman's line:

“He wasn’t really mine. None of them have been.”

There's a stress here -- that even though the four women are doing all of this impossible creation of children, the mother participates as well. So, in a very real sense, the fifth gable is Marigold's -- just not in the way we (might have) expected.

In conclusion, while the simplest reading is that the house has four gables and a magical fifth one, there is also support in the story for a reading where each woman causes one gable to spring into creation. This would address the line saying "the house had only one gable".

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    Great answer, Standback! This is really very thought out, and explained clearly. Thanks!! :) – Shokhet Feb 23 '17 at 14:25
  • @Shokhet Pleasure! It's an impressive story. With several kicks in the gut, too :) – Standback Feb 23 '17 at 14:28
  • I actually pictured the house closer to your second picture, but now I'm no longer sure. – Shokhet Feb 23 '17 at 18:00
5

First of all, thank you for posting this question. I would never have found out about the story "The Fifth Gable" without this question.

The entire story reminds me of the Mayan creation story The Popol Vuh (a literal translation and a less literal translation are available for free online). I don't have any evidence that the author is aware of The Popol Vuh. But there are several clear parallels that need to be considered. I'm going to argue in this answer that the short story draws on Mesoamerican cosmological concepts, which can explain, among other things, the emphasis on the numbers four and five.

Like "The Fifth Gable", the Popol Vuh takes place in a location consisting of four corners:

When will be completed
Germination,

All sky,
Earth.

Its four cornerings,
Its four sidings,
Its measurings,
Its four stakings,

The number four comes from the four corners of the earth. This is a symbol that's ubiquitous throughout Mesoamerica, and throughout the world as well. (We'll return to the number four, and how it relates to the number five, in a few paragraphs).

The descriptions of the births and the deaths of the babies in "The Fifth Gable" are also reminiscent of the descriptions of the creation of humanity in The Popol Vuh. Humanity is created five times, and destroyed four times due to being created with flaws in The Popol Vuh; the exact same thing happens in The Fifth Gable. Here are some quotes of the various creations of humanity from The Popol Vuh. As you can see, there's a lot of similarities between these descriptions and the descriptions in "The Fifth Gable".

Then its framing therefore,
Its making as well.

Earth,
Mud

Its flesh they made.
Not therefore good they saw it.
Merely it would come undone,
Merely crumbled,
Merely sodden,
Merely mushy,
Merely fallen apart,
Merely as well it would dissolve.

Not then set apart its head.
Merely one direction its face,
Merely hidden its face,
Not would it look about.

It would speak at first,
There is not its thought.

Merely straightaway it would dissolve in water.
Not strong.

Here's why the number five relates to the number four. If the earth has four directions or pillars, then there's also a fifth pillar: the central point. In Mesoamerica (and everywhere where the symbol of four corners is used), this center point is given intense political and spiritual significance. The details are way too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that a good portion of Mesoamerican mythology centers around creating the center point, and thus establishing a power that is central to the surrounding forces.

I would say that it would be a pretty good guess that by "fifth gable" the author means "the center".

I have no idea if the author intended any of these connections, or if she based her story not off of the Popol Vuh but similar creation myth from another part of the world. But it's interesting regardless. And the symbol of the four corners has meaning regardless of whether the author intentionally based the story off of the symbol.

  • Very interesting, thank you for this answer! ...my only reservation about your point that the fifth gable is the center of the house are the references to "ascending" to that place, implying that it is actually a gable like the others. I'll have to take a closer look at the text. +1 – Shokhet Feb 26 '17 at 19:46
  • @Shokhet I mean center as in metaphorically. And the word "ascending" seems like another reference to Mesoamerican cosmology: take a look at the wikipedia page for Danza de los Voladores – user111 Feb 26 '17 at 22:42
  • Got it, thanks for clarifying. (Consider adding the ascending bit to your answer; generally, the more things your theory explains, the better it is :) – Shokhet Feb 26 '17 at 22:58
  • @Shokhet yeah I need to edit this post and add a ton of pictures/more evidence. – user111 Feb 26 '17 at 23:10
  • Okay. Please ping me (here, in chat, whatever) when you do that; I'd love to see it :) – Shokhet Feb 26 '17 at 23:16

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