“Dr. Joseph Hovaugh sat at his desk and rolled his toes in the soft, deep-pile carpet. The desk was large, one of his wife’s auction discoveries, a rare example of colonial woodcraft. She had had it stripped, repaired, stained blond, and moved into his office as a surprise. He was delighted, he said, and praised her eye for having found so massive a piece of wood. It reminded him of a tree cut down to the stump.” (King, 16)
The passage above is the reader’s first introduction to Dr. Hovaugh, whose name is an allusion to the one of the common pronunciations of the name of the Christian god, Jehovah. Even in this first passage, King makes a subtle reference that places him in the Christian mythological framework; the desk at which Dr. Hovaugh is seated was “stripped, repaired, [and] stained blond,” which brings to mind the Passion and Ascension of Christ, who was stripped and flagellated before Pilate, crucified, and taken bodily into Heaven (where he is usually depicted in Western art as glowing and fair-haired). Dr. Hovaugh in fact has an ongoing relationship with tree and wood symbolism throughout the novel; he later feels “burdened with inexplicable remorse and guilt” as the established trees in his garden fall victim to a blight and have to be replaced with young saplings (King, 73).
Dr. Hovaugh is again associated with Biblical tradition a bit further down the page:
“Dr. Hovaugh sat in his chair behind his desk and looked out at the wall and the trees and the flowers and the swans on the blue-green pond in the garden, and he was pleased.” (King, 16)
This passage sounds very much like the verses in the first book of Genesis, which read:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-31).
Having cemented this biblical allusion, King takes the character of Dr. Hovaugh in an interesting direction. Rather than presenting him as a wise, powerful figure, he presents him as a vaguely confused and rather clueless old man. He seems disconnected from the world around him, unable to interact properly the people around him. For example, while discussing the missing Old Indians, “Dr. Eliot was talking, saying something about the Indians, but Dr. Hovaugh couldn’t quite hear him” (King, 48). This is reflected externally by the death of his garden; there is another reference to its decay on page 96: “The grass near the wall seemed unusually dry and the leaves on one of the new elms appeared yellow and curled. The big oak wasn’t showing any signs of improvement, either.” There is a sense that Dr. Hovaugh is a man whose best years are past, who is ready to fade away into obscurity. His way of life and of seeing the world are passing.
I believe that this characterization of Dr. Hovaugh is a tool that King is using to make a comment about the relationship between indigenous people and the predominantly Christian majority by which they are surrounded. Just as it appears to be time for Dr. Hovaugh to step aside, it is also time for patriarchal Euro-centric society to reevaluate the values that Dr. Hovaugh represents. When that happens, maybe society, like the Old Indians, will be able to set things right this time.