Do you believe it is your responsibility to pay for the wrongdoing of your family members before you? Do you think that families can carry curses? These are some notions explored in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). Arguably one of the greatest American fiction writers of his time, Nathaniel Hathorne penned influential novels such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and short stories like "Young Goodman Brown" (1835).
The House of the Seven Gables Genre
Hawthorne began The House of the Seven Gables a few months after completing The Scarlet Letter. In the preface of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne asserts, "the book may be read strictly as a Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex."
But while the author classified it as a romance, The House of the Seven Gables can also be read as American Gothic fiction. American Gothic fiction often employs picturesque scenery, has a sense of mystery, and has odd, supernatural, or remote settings. American Gothic fiction deals with family secrets, curses, and supernatural occurrences.
The family and the story are fictional, but an actual house in Salem, Massachusetts, inspires it. That, paired with the influences of the Salem Witch Trials, leads some to classify this novel as Historical fiction. Historical fiction includes stories that take place in the past during actual events, but the storyline and characters are typically fictional.
Fig. 1 - A defining characteristic of the Gothic novel is the prevalence of death.
The House of the Seven Gables Setting
The House of the Seven Gables is set in mid-nineteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts.
Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, from a long line of Puritan ancestors. The beliefs, history of the town, and culture he was born into are central to much of his writing. The House of the Seven Gables and the issues Hawthorne's characters grapple with undoubtedly stem from Hawthorne's own experiences, background, and worries about his ancestral ties to the Salem Witch Trials.
Fig. 2 - The actual house said to have inspired The House of the Seven Gables.
Hawthorne grounded his work in the mid-1800s in Salem and related it to the mass hysteria of the late 1600s. By doing so, he introduced the idea, as taken from the preface, that " the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief." He grapples with America's changes, racial genealogies, and technological advancements such as trains. The setting helps to surface important questions and even challenges the idea of superstitions, connections between heritage and property, and what role traditions play in the face of a changing society.
The House of the Seven Gables Summary
From the story's onset, Nathaniel Hawthorne prepares his readers for a mix of reality and Fantasy allowed by the romance genre. The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator who immediately introduces the audience to the house of the seven gables. It is a "rusty wooden house" (ch. 1) in disrepair that sits on Pyncheon-street, what was once Maule Lane.
Third-person omniscient narrator: the narrative perspective of an entity outside the story and uses the pronouns he/she/they/them to discuss the characters. Omniscient means that the narrator is all-knowing about the character's actions, feelings, and motives. The omniscient narrator can reveal as much or as little information to the audience.
The reader learns about the house's history. The land it resides on belonged to old Matthew Maule in the 1600s. After he was accused of witchcraft, a wealthy and greedy Colonel Pyncheon took the land. Amid rumors that Colonel Pyncheon was to blame for his conviction, as Maule stood on the scaffold about to be hanged, he cursed Colonel Pyncheon. The arrogant and cruel Pyncheon later hires the dead Maule's son, Thomas, to build a house with seven gables on the ill-gotten land. Colonel Pyncheon is found dead at a party to celebrate the new home, having choked on his own blood.
His will demanded his painting remain mounted in the house, but the deed to his land in Maine was lost. Generations of Pyncheons have failed to find it, but the search continued because the land in Maine would have made the family very rich. Some members of the Pyncheon family researched the property's history, including Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon, who was then randomly found dead after determining the property should be owned by the Maules. Henceforth, the Pyncheon house is said to be cursed with bad luck.
The most recent family member to own the property is Judge Pyncheon. Other family members still alive include the Judge's son, the Judge's cousin Clifford (who is in prison for the death of his Uncle Jaffrey), Clifford's sister Hepzibah, and cousin Phoebe.
Fig. 3 - Prison haunts people long after they're released.
Currently, Hepzibah Pyncheon lives in the house with a lodger, Holgrave. Hepzibah is nearly destitute. Although ashamed about it, she has opened a small store in the house to try and make a living as she awaits the return of her brother, Clifford. Clifford has just been released from prison after serving 30 years. On the first day of her new store, her cousin Phoebe arrives. Phoebe is kind and bright and convinces her cousin to let her stay. While Hepzibah initially worries that Phoebe's presence will trouble Clifford, Phoebe's kindness puts that worry to rest. When Clifford arrives, he is suffering from his time in prison and appears boorish. He is troubled by the family's financial hardship but charmed by Phoebe. "Uncle" Venner (as the town calls him) also comes to the store since he lives nearby. He's quite poor and does odd jobs to get by, but he comes across as very wise.
Much to their dismay, their affluent and successful cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, arrives for a visit. Although he has an infectious smile and is well-liked in the community, Hepzibah and Clifford keep him from entering the house, asking him to leave. Phoebe, welcoming to most, is also repulsed by him. Although he offers to pay them some money to help their financial status, they refuse.
The Judge and Clifford remain enemies throughout the novel. The Judge let Clifford take the blame for Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon's death.
Phoebe and Holgrave begin spending time together gardening and tending the chickens. Holgrave tells her about his daguerreotype, a novel form of picture-taking that will replace portraits. Holgrave also shares his views on politics and that one generation should undo the previous generation's work, so they're not encumbered or shaped by it. They begin to develop an affinity for one another.
Holgrave shares a short story he wrote about Alice Pyncheon becoming entranced by an ancestor of the original Matthew Maule, who goes by the same name. Young Alice was the daughter of Gervayse Pyncheon, who asked Matthew Maule to visit with him to find the deed to the land in Maine. For his help, Gervayse agreed to give up the land in Maine and the house of the seven gables.
Maule hypnotized young Alice to try and communicate with the deceased ancestors but to no avail. The ordeal ends with Gervayse and Maule arguing and Alice permanently under Matthew Maule's control. Out of malice, Maule uses the power of hypnosis to shame Alice any chance he got. Sometimes he makes her dance a jig, laugh, cry, or do as he wishes, no matter how near or far he is. After making her grovel for his soon-to-be-wife, Alice is forced to walk home in the cold snow and catches pneumonia. She dies from the illness, and Maule is tormented with guilt. Holgrave finishes his story but realizes in the process he has hypnotized Phoebe. Unwilling to abuse his power, he releases her.
Fig. 4 - Death looms over the characters throughout the novel.
Phoebe leaves to visit her home in the country, and Judge Pyncheon arrives at the house of the seven gables to speak to Clifford. He believes that Clifford knows where the long-lost deed is and wants to claim the land in Maine for himself. Judge Pyncheon forces Hepzibah to call Clifford by threatening to commit him to an asylum. She calls Clifford and leaves him with their cousin. Upon returning, Hepzibah discovers Judge Pyncheon dead and slumped over in a chair. Fearing Clifford will be blamed, they flee the house in a panic.
When Phoebe returns to the house, she only finds Holgrave. He shows her his snapped image, daguerreotype, of a dead Judge Pyncheon and exclaims that the curse is lifted. They both profess their love for one another, and then Hepzibah and Clifford return before the body is discovered. Once dead Judge Pyncheon is found, Clifford is no longer suspected of murder. One of Holgrave's friends comes forward with information that Judge Pyncheon was also indirectly responsible for Uncle Jaffrey's murder, and Clifford's name is cleared.
They then discover that Judge Pyncheon's son has died in Europe from cholera. Holgrave reveals he is a descendant of the Maule family, and Thomas (who built the property) passed down the whereabouts of the deed to the land in Maine through the generations. It was hidden behind the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and given to Clifford. Freed from the curse, Clifford, Hepzibah, Phoebe, Holgrave, and Uncle Venner move to Judge Pyncheon’s estate in the country and abandon the house of the seven gables.
What do you think lifted the Pyncheon family curse? Was it Holgrave's love for Phoebe that brought the Maule and Pyncheon families together?
The House of the Seven Gables Characters
Here are key characters in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables.
|Hepzibah Pyncheon||She is in charge of the house of the seven gables. Hepzibah is kind, but a hard life and years in the darkness has caused nearsightedness. Her inability to see clearly makes her furrow her brow constantly and leaves a permanent scowl on her face. She looks endlessly angry, although she is not. |
|Clifford Pyncheon||Clifford is Phoebe's cousin and Hepzibah's brother and has been in prison for 30 years. Although he was once young and attractive, his time served in prison for a crime he did not commit robbed him of his youth and his mind. He returns home, and with the support of his cousin and sister, he regains mental clarity.|
|Holgrave ||Holgrave is a lodger in the house of the seven gables and seeks to make a living using an early form of photography. He is a descendant of Matthew Maule, a link that gives him hypnotic powers he refuses to abuse. The romance between Holgrave and Phoebe is a symbol of a better future.|
|Phoebe||With a name stemming from the Greek name "Phoebus" meaning light, Phoebe is a light in the gloom and darkness of the Pyncheons. She is Hepzibah's and Clifford's cousin and is wise and kind, although she was not raised in aristocracy. |
|Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon||Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is attractive and well-liked by the community. However, his appearance betrays his hidden cruelty. He framed Clifford for the death of his Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon, although the Judge is the truly guilty one. He bears a strong resemblance to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, which hints at his true corrupt and greedy Nature.|
|Matthew Maule||A farmer in the 1600s hanged for witchcraft. His land is where the Pyncheon house now sits. He was likely accused by Colonel Pyncheon, who used the opportunity to steal Maule's land and stake his own claim to it. While about to hang, Maule pointed at Colonel Pyncheon and spoke his curse, "God will give him blood to drink!" |
|Colonel Pyncheon||Colonel Pyncheon is arrogant, greedy, and cold. His actions are the source of the Pyncheon family curse, and his painting sits in the house of the seven gables, a steady reminder of his nefarious ways and their lineage. He died with "blood on his ruff" and with his beard soaked in blood, seemingly fulfilling the curse laid upon him. |
|Alice Pyncheon||The young Pyncheon girl who accidentally fell under the spell of the hypnotist Matthew Maule and whose music allegedly haunts the house of the seven gables. |
|Uncle Venner||Uncle Venner is an impoverished optimist in the town. He befriends the Pyncheons and Holgrave. He is wise beyond what he appears.|
The House of the Seven Gables Themes
While The House of the Seven Gables has many noteworthy themes, inherited guilt and appearance vs. reality are prominent.
Perhaps because Hawthorne felt he and his family were plagued by guilt tied to his ancestor's involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, much of Hawthorne's work explores this theme.
Fig. 5 - The Salem Witch Trials haunt people even today.
Can and should the sins of one generation be a mark upon their descendants? Although the characters seem plagued by the sins of their ancestors, as Pyncheon after Pyncheon dies, Hawthorne seems to suggest something else. What leads to Colonel Pyncheon, Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon, and Judge Pyncheon's respective deaths is not the persistence of a curse but their vices. Each of these men would stop at nothing to fulfill their need for the materialistic gain of land and money. Their thirst for wealth led to their thirst being quenched with "blood to drink" (ch. 1).
Appearance vs. Reality
Throughout the romance, Hawthorne also plays with the notion of appearance versus reality. The neighborhood gentleman, Uncle Venner, appears ragged, unlearned, and worse for wear. However, he is continually a source of wisdom and support for Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe.
While Hepzibah often scares people away from her store with her countenance, she is kindhearted and loyal. Judge Pyncheon, a beloved figure in the town who maintains a healthy facade, is corrupt, evil, and greedy to the core. Holgrave, who seems mysterious, is forthright, honest, and kind. The house itself, which is large and expansive to home a large family, is stifling.
The House of the Seven Gables - Key takeaways
- The House of the Seven Gables was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1851.
- While identified as a romance by the author in the preface, The House of the Seven Gables can also be categorized as American Gothic literature.
- The House of the Seven Gables is well known for its mix of Fantasy and reality and its themes of inherited guilt and appearance vs. reality.
- The House of the Seven Gables is about the seemingly cursed Pyncheon family and their ill-gotten home from the Maules.
- It follows the lives of Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe Pyncheon to show how others can overcome the ghosts of the past.
1. Craker, D. Wendel. "Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft, and Confession at Salem in 1692. The Historical Journal. 1997.