Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote House of the Seven Gables, a dark romance set in mid-19th-century Salem, Massachusetts. The story revolves around a curse that Hawthorne’s own family allegedly suffered during the Salem witch trials.
The novel explores the theme of hereditary sin and the Pyncheon family’s pride and greed that perpetuates the original evil created by Colonel Pyncheon. Gervayse Pyncheon sacrifices his daughter to obtain Indian lands, and Jaffrey inherits the estate by framing his uncle for murder.
The past continues to haunt the present in various symbolic ways, such as the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and Maule’s Well, and in the characters’ everyday lives.
The story concludes with Judge Jaffrey’s death, which finally allows Hepzibah and Clifford to break free from the past and live without fear. Hawthorne’s optimistic ending comes when Phoebe and Holgrave’s love unites the Pyncheon and Maule families, breaking the tradition of evil that has plagued them for generations.
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Table of Contents
Matthew Maule’s long-standing curse on the Pyncheon family is removed only when the young Phoebe Pyncheon falls in love with Maule’s descendant, Holgrave.
The year is 1850, and the House of the Seven Gables has been the ancestral home of the Pyncheon family for 160 years. The rusty wooden mansion, with seven “acutely peaked gables,” is located in an unidentified New England town, on Pyncheon Street, and has an enormous elm tree rooted before the front door. In the late 1600s, Colonel Pyncheon, the proud Puritan founder of the family, had coveted the land and soft-water well on which Matthew Maule’s cottage stood, so he arranged for Maule to be unjustly convicted of witchcraft, then he seized Maule’s property and made plans to build his home on it.
On the day of his hanging, Maule cursed the colonel, saying, “God will give him blood to drink!”
Matthew’s only son, Thomas Maule, was hired to build the Pyncheon mansion. Sometime later, when the House was completed, the colonel was found dead in his study with blood on his beard, a sign interpreted by many as the fulfillment of Maule’s curse.
Over the years, several generations of Pyncheons have maintained the estate, and many of them have questioned their moral right to hold the property that had once belonged to Maule, whose curse seems to plague them with misfortune.
Their claim to the extremely valuable Indian lands in the “east” (i.e., Maine) remains unsettled, since the deed to the property could not be found after the colonel’s death. One Pyncheon adopted the Royalist side during the Revolutionary War, but repented, lest he lose the house.
Another Pyncheon, a wealthy old bachelor who had inherited the house and the rest of the colonel’s estate, was apparently murdered by his nephew, Clifford Pyncheon, for trying to restore the House and land to the Maules.
It is later revealed, however, that the uncle, Jaffrey Pyncheon, died of natural causes and that Clifford was framed by one of the uncle’s greedy heirs, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who had arranged the evidence to make it appear that Clifford had murdered the uncle (his reason is explained later).
As the novel begins, Clifford has served 30 years of his lifetime prison sentence and is about to be paroled. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who now owns a large estate outside town and is the leading political figure of his village, has arranged the parole, since he believes Clifford knows the location of the deed to the Indian lands.
The House of the Seven Gables is presently inhabited by Jaffrey’s 60-year-old spinster cousin, Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, who inherited from her uncle the right to live in the House for the duration of her life.
Because of poverty, she has had to swallow her aristocratic pride and reopen the cent shop (i.e., a sundries shop) that had been operated there 100 years earlier by a financially troubled Pyncheon. To earn additional income, Hepzibah rents out a room in one of the seven gables of the House to Holgrave Maule, a 21-year-old daguerreotypist (photographer).
Having refused the selfishly motivated “generosity” of Judge Jaffrey, Hepzibah determines to open the cent shop because she will need the revenue to care for her brother, Clifford, whose years in jail have left him a broken man.
Her first customer is Holgrave, and her second is the young child Ned Higgins, whom she reluctantly charges one penny for a Jim Crow gingerbread cookie. (Jim Crow was a black dancer for whom the famous Jim Crow laws were named.) Hepzibah is a good woman, but life’s hardships have brought a permanent scowl to her face.
When the wealthy Judge Jaffrey grins at her while passing her window, a humiliated Hepzibah retreats to her dusty parlor and scowls at the portrait of the cursed founder of the House, Colonel Pyncheon, whom Jaffrey seems to embody in the present generation.
The philosophical old Uncle Venner, a poor man and a family friend who has lived for years on Pyncheon Street, comes to the shop and advises Hepzibah not to frown so much at the customers, since it is bad for business.
She despairs of ever running the shop successfully, and dreams of being rescued by the family’s successful acquisition of the Indian land. While closing shop at the end of a harrowing day, Hepzibah is surprised by the unexpected arrival of Phoebe Pyncheon, her beautiful 17-year-old cousin from the country who has come to live with Hepzibah for a few weeks; the girl’s widowed mother has remarried and Phoebe believes it is now time to establish her own life.
The next morning, Phoebe, a practical “little country girl” and a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy house, cheerfully takes charge of the shop. The next afternoon, when Phoebe goes out to the garden, she meets Holgrave and discovers that he is curious about the evils that have been brought upon the Pyncheons by pride and greed.
He shows her a tintype (photograph) of Judge Jaffrey, who bears a strong resemblance to Colonel Pyncheon, and he warns Phoebe against washing in Maule’s well or drinking its water, which he claims is “bewitched.” When she enters the House, she sees the outline of Hepzibah’s figure in the shadows, but is vaguely aware of another presence in the darkened parlor.
She asks Hepzibah if there is someone in the room with them, but Hepzibah hastens her off to bed. Phoebe does not sleep well, because she hears footsteps on the stairway all night.
In the morning, while Phoebe helps an agitated Hepzibah prepare breakfast, she hears the same footsteps on the stairs. Moments later, Clifford—who has been released from jail—enters the room, and the cousins meet for the first time.
Clifford, a gray-haired, weary man whom the narrator calls “the guest,” instantly feels more at ease with the lighthearted Phoebe than with the frowning Hepzibah. After entering the room, he asks Hepzibah to cover the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, since it horrifies him.
The shop bell rings, announcing the arrival of young Ned Higgins, followed by the hypocritical Judge Jaffrey. When Jaffrey realizes that Phoebe is the daughter of his cousin Arthur Pyncheon, he tries to acknowledge her with a kiss on the cheek.
But something aggressive in his manner causes her to draw back, perhaps because he reminds her of the colonel’s portrait. The judge demands to see Clifford, but Hepzibah, who has heard the judge’s voice, refuses to let him, since she feels the sensitive Clifford needs protection from the world.
The judge then invites Hepzibah and Clifford to come live with him in the country, but Hepzibah steadfastly refuses. The judge leaves, knowing that he will come back another day.
As Phoebe and Clifford get to know each other, they spend hours in the garden, reading, watching hummingbirds, and talking to Uncle Venner and Holgrave. More than anything, Clifford longs to escape the past and the doom imposed on him by Judge Jaffrey, whom he fears. He enjoys looking down into the water in Maule’s well, but frequently calls out, “The dark face gazes at me!”
One Sunday, when Phoebe goes to church by herself, Clifford and Hepzibah, yearning for social contact, resolve to follow her. But they quickly change their minds when Clifford announces that they are “ghosts” and “have no place among human beings.”
Phoebe, influenced by her new surroundings, begins to show signs of change. Her former girlish cheerfulness disappears, leaving “moods of thought” and eyes that seem larger, darker, and deeper.
Almost daily she meets with Holgrave, a calm, cool man who holds progressive ideas about the “united struggle of mankind.” Phoebe learns that he became independent at an early age, working as a schoolmaster, salesman, newspaper editor, world traveler, and mesmerist (hypnotist) before becoming a photographer.
One afternoon, Holgrave expresses surprise that Phoebe has not tried to “fathom” Clifford’s soul. Holgrave gradually becomes more intimate with her and confides in her as if she were his closest friend. He speaks of the need for change in the world, arguing that the “moss-grown and rotten past is to be torn away … and everything to begin anew.”
Buildings, he claims, should be designed to crumble after two decades, since that would cause people to “reform the institutions which [the buildings] symbolize.”
After mentioning the curse of Matthew Maule, the “wizard,” Holgrave protests that the House of the Seven Gables has harbored “a constantly defeated hope, strife amongst kindred … a strange form of death, dark suspicion, [and] unspeakable disgrace.”
He then reads Phoebe a story that he has written about one of the Pyncheon ancestors. Gervayse Pyncheon, the old colonel’s grandson, became heir to the House 37 years after it had been built. Anxious to know the location of the missing deed to the Indian property, Gervayse summoned Matthew Maule—the carpenter son of Thomas Maule, who had built the House—to ask him some questions, suspecting that Matthew might know where the document was.
Eager for revenge against the Pyncheons, Matthew agreed to reveal its location, provided the Pyncheons surrender the House and Maule’s homestead land after gaining possession of the Indian property. Gervayse consented, but was alarmed when Matthew announced that the information about the deed could come only through the “clear, crystal medium” of his daughter, Alice Pyncheon (i.e., Alice would have to be hypnotized and would serve as a “channel” for the information).
To test whether Gervayse’s avarice for the Indian land was stronger than his love for Alice, Maule asked him to choose between Alice’s soul and the deed. Out of greed, Gervayse sacrificed Alice to the carpenter, who then hypnotized her to make her his “slave.” On the cold and stormy night that Maule was to marry a laborer’s daughter, he called the still-hypnotized Alice to the laborer’s house. At the moment of Maule’s marriage, Alice awoke from the trance, but died the next day from a cold caught during the storm.
At the end of the reading, Phoebe is so enchanted by Holgrave’s manner that she, like Alice, is in a trancelike state. But Holgrave refrains from fully hypnotizing her. The two are attracted to each other in the moonlit, Edenic garden, and Holgrave explains that Hepzibah and Clifford are in essence already dead, living only through Phoebe. Committed to helping them, Phoebe decides to continue living with her cousins, but must first return to the country to put her affairs in order.
Several days later, Judge Jaffrey returns to the House and again demands to see Clifford, explaining that, 30 years earlier, he had inherited most of his wealthy Uncle Jaffrey’s estate, but that after the uncle’s death, he was unable to find the deed to the eastern lands.
At that time Clifford had boasted of knowing where it was, and for this reason the judge has now arranged Clifford’s release from prison. But he threatens to send Clifford to an insane asylum if he refuses to cooperate. Hepzibah, in terror, rushes off to find her brother. Meanwhile, the judge enters the parlor and sits in the ancestral chair, beneath the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon.
After finding Clifford’s room empty, the frantic Hepzibah hastens back to the parlor, where she finds Clifford laughing and pointing his finger scornfully at the rigid Judge Jaffrey, who has died in the ancestral chair. Overjoyed at the death of his enemy, Clifford shouts out, “We can sing, laugh, play…. The weight is gone!” Without any immediate purpose other than to “leave the old House to our cousin Jaffrey,” he urges Hepzibah to put on her cloak, find her purse, and take flight with him.
A feeling of unreality hovers over Hepzibah as they rush through the center of town, but Clifford is excited to be back in the tide of life again, near other human beings. He glows with energy as they board a train, and chatters to a gimlet-eyed man about the dead weight of the past.
But before long, his energy fails and he asks Hepzibah to guide him. They get off the train at the next station and see an uninhabited farmhouse, but since Clifford’s energy is now completely gone, he asks Hepzibah to take the lead. She prays to God for assistance.
The deceased Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon remains seated in the ancestral chair, open-eyed and with a red stain on his shirt from the blood he choked on. The narrator mockingly asks why the judge lingers in the chair and neglects the many important engagements he had planned for this day.
The next morning, the sun shines and the Pyncheon House seems brighter than ever before, with Alice Pyncheon’s posies in full bloom. When Uncle Venner and Hepzibah’s customers knock on the cent shop door, no one answers. One neighbour claims to have seen the judge enter Seven Gables the day before, and people whisper that he may have been murdered.
Phoebe returns from the country with “a quiet glow of natural sunshine over her.” After knocking twice, she is finally greeted by Holgrave, who tells her that Hepzibah and Clifford have departed. He prepares Phoebe for the news of the judge’s death by showing her a photograph he has made of the old man.
Holgrave worries that the sudden flight of Phoebe’s relatives will throw suspicion on them, and after explaining to Phoebe that his interest in the House is more than mere curiosity, Holgrave reveals that the judge—like the colonel before him, and the old uncle whom Clifford supposedly killed 30 years earlier—died of a hereditary illness. He also believes the judge framed Clifford for the uncle’s murder.
Holgrave feels joy in Phoebe’s presence and confesses his love for her. Phoebe reciprocates his love, knowing that “the flower of Eden” has blossomed in their hearts. Suddenly they hear footsteps in the hallway and are overjoyed to see Hepzibah and Clifford, who have returned, weary, from the country to deal with the reality of the judge’s death.
A few days later, the judge’s death is ruled a natural one, thereby exonerating Clifford. It becomes generally accepted that, 30 years earlier, old Jaffrey Pyncheon died of shock when he surprised young Jaffrey rifling through his papers. Young Jaffrey had found two wills of the bachelor uncle, one favoring himself, and a later one favoring Clifford.
After the uncle’s death, Jaffrey stole money and other valuables from his uncle’s apartment, then smeared blood on his uncle’s linen. He used this evidence to frame Clifford for murder, then destroyed the later will, making himself the sole heir.
Since the judge’s only son has recently died, Clifford and Hepzibah inherit his wealth. They decide to move into the judge’s large country estate, along with Phoebe and Holgrave, who intend to marry. They also invite Uncle Venner to join them.
Holgrave gives evidence of a newly adopted conservatism by proclaiming that he wishes the estate were constructed of stone rather than wood; that way, it would be more permanent. He then presses the secret spring mechanism that Thomas Maule had affixed to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon.
When pressed, the portrait falls to the floor, revealing a “recess” in the wall of the House that hides the deed to the Indian lands; but it proves to be a legally invalid document. When Phoebe asks how Holgrave knew about the spring, he confesses that he inherited the “secret” from his ancestors—the Maules.
He is the descendant of the old wizard, and Phoebe’s love for him has now redeemed the Pyncheon evil. A carriage pulls up in front of the House, and after the five take their places inside it, they bid an unemotional and final farewell to the House of the Seven Gables.
Hepzibah Pyncheon: Clifford’s sister and cousin of Judge Pyncheon, aged 60. She is a fragile, scowling spinster who lives a reclusive life. She dreams of her genteel past but resents her diminished economic status. Hepzibah has lived in the Pyncheon House for 30 years but is forced to abandon her aristocratic pretensions to pay for the care of her enfeebled brother.
Clifford Pyncheon: Hepzibah’s brother who lives with her after spending 30 years in prison. He is broken, hypersensitive, and retains only his love of beauty. Clifford lives in a world of illusions until the judge’s death, when he rejoices and comes alive again.
Phoebe Pyncheon: A country cousin of the Pyncheon family, aged 17. She is optimistic, practical, and well-liked. Phoebe runs a cent shop, tends a garden, cares for Clifford, and falls in love with Holgrave. She is cheerful and girlish in the beginning but later becomes “graver, more womanly, and deeper-eyed.” Phoebe is described in images of sunshine and light. Her love for Holgrave brings an end to the Maule curse.
Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon: A judge, politician, and “upright” citizen of the community who is a cousin of Hepzibah and Clifford. Beneath his smiling, benevolent exterior lurks a conniving, selfish man. Like the colonel, he dies of a seizure.
Holgrave Maule: A photographer aged 22 who is calm and intelligent. He has deep inner strength and great hopes for the future of humankind. Holgrave is guided by his conscience and liberal/progressive ideas.
Themes and Ideas
1. Sins of the Fathers
In Hawthorne’s novel, the effects of past mistakes are felt for generations to come. Colonel Pyncheon’s evil deeds continue to haunt his family, as they become entangled in their own greed and pride. The characters are not only symbolically linked to their past (through portraits and ancestral possessions), but are also trapped by their present circumstances.
It is only through the death of Judge Jaffrey that the characters can finally break free from the past and find hope for the future. Hawthorne ends the novel on an optimistic note by bringing the Pyncheon and Maule families together through the love of Phoebe and Holgrave, thus ending the cycle of evil that has plagued them for so long.
2. Equality of Human Beings
Hawthorne suggests that the only way to combat the destructive effects of aristocratic pride is through the recognition of the worth of all people.
Holgrave’s “radical” philosophy emphasizes the value of every human being, while Clifford believes that true freedom comes from immersing oneself in life. Phoebe, in her unassuming way, embodies the goodness of humanity.
Through the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave, the novel suggests that the aristocratic pretensions of superiority can be replaced with a belief in the equality of all people.
3. Redeeming Power of Love
Phoebe’s faith in humanity, her nurturing care for Hepzibah and Clifford, and her growing maturity have a redemptive effect on the House and its inhabitants. Her love for Holgrave leads him away from his radical pursuits and towards a life of domestic happiness.
Hepzibah’s love for Clifford leads her to open the cent shop and to take in Holgrave as a tenant, rather than accept charity from Judge Jaffrey.
The Pyncheons’ love for Uncle Venner prompts them to care for him in his old age. Finally, Phoebe and Holgrave’s love breaks Matthew Maule’s curse and restores Holgrave’s ancestral home site. Love is the key to redemption in Hawthorne’s novel.
Symbolizes the arrogant pride of the Pyncheon family as well as their isolation and futile ambitions. Clifford and Hepzibah are “inmates” in the house, unable to escape the past or face the reality of the present. For them, the house represents the evil, greedy, dark side of life, as personified by a succession of Pyncheon family members and by the many emblems of the past: Portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, Ancestral Chair, Hidden Deed.
2. Portrait of Colonel Pyncheon
Presides over the Pyncheon family as a symbolic reminder of the colonel’s evil act.
3. Maule’s Well
Symbolizes the spirit, or soul, of the house. The well was a source of natural spring water for Matthew Maule, but became polluted when the colonel built his house near it. In the end, the well throws up a “succession of kaleidoscopic pictures” that bode future happiness and good fortune for Holgrave and Phoebe.
Symbolizes vast wealth and power for the Pyncheons, but proves to be a worthless document, representing no more than the evil influence of the past over the present.
1. Intriguing Exploration of the Past
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables invites readers into a world where the past has a powerful grip on the present. The story revolves around an old house that carries the weight of a dark history, impacting the lives of its current inhabitants.
This exploration of the past adds a sense of depth and mystery to the narrative, encouraging readers to delve deeper into the story’s layers to understand the characters’ struggles.
2. Richly Developed Characters
Hawthorne’s ability to create vivid and complex characters is one of the strengths of The House of the Seven Gables. Each character has a unique personality and background, from the old relatives struggling with the house’s oppressive atmosphere to the cheerful young Phoebe, who brings a fresh perspective and hope to the story. The interactions between these characters add nuance and emotion to the narrative, making it a compelling read.
3. Engaging Writing Style
While The House of the Seven Gables may move at a slower pace than some modern novels, its descriptive and evocative language draws readers in, encouraging them to appreciate the intricacies of the story. Hawthorne’s attention to detail helps create a vivid picture of both the house and its surroundings, such as the garden that serves as a refuge from the oppressive atmosphere within.
His exploration of themes like ancestral legacies and the need to escape from a stifling past is thought-provoking, offering readers a meaningful and engaging literary experience.
1. Overly Detailed Descriptions
While Hawthorne’s descriptive writing can be engaging, it can also become tedious and detract from the story’s momentum. The novel’s pacing suffers from the author’s tendency to go into extensive detail about characters’ thoughts and actions.
This verbosity can make the reading experience feel bogged down and, at times, almost unbearable. A more concise approach to the narrative would have made for a more compelling read, and some readers might argue that a shorter novel or even a short story would have been more appropriate.
2. Muddled Themes and Ideas
The House of the Seven Gables is a novel of ideas, touching on themes like sin, inheritance, and the burden of history. However, these themes can sometimes become obscured or unclear due to the convoluted nature of the plot and the excessive focus on character descriptions.
As a result, it can be challenging to discern the intended message and purpose behind certain plot developments and character actions. A clearer, more streamlined exploration of these themes would have made the novel’s overall message more impactful.
3. Superfluous Romance
The love story in The House of the Seven Gables feels somewhat unnecessary, as it does not significantly contribute to the overall plot or development of the main themes.
The inclusion of this romantic subplot can be seen as a distraction from the more thought-provoking and engaging aspects of the novel, such as the exploration of human nature, social conventions, and the struggle between good and evil. A more focused narrative without the added romance would have potentially made for a stronger, more cohesive reading experience.
The House of the Seven Gables is a classic piece of literature that offers readers a glimpse into mid-nineteenth-century New England. While the novel has its drawbacks, such as overly detailed descriptions, muddled themes, and a superfluous romantic subplot, it also possesses many redeeming qualities. Hawthorne’s masterful use of language, the vivid sense of history, and the exploration of moral issues in the context of the era make it a worthwhile read for those who appreciate the classics.
It is essential, however, to approach this book with an appreciation for its ponderous and preachy writing style. Hawthorne’s ideas of right and wrong are specific, and his storytelling serves to convey his version of good and evil. Despite these potential challenges, the novel remains a compelling read for those who enjoy its unique style and wish to immerse themselves in the culture of the times.
For readers who find value in The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s other classic work, The Scarlet Letter, offers a similar experience of stunning language and a reflection of the era’s societal norms.
Overall, this novel is a must-read for those who love classic literature and are willing to embrace the beauty of its language and the insights it provides into the past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a famous writer born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. He came from a well-known New England family and attended Bowdoin College, graduating in 1825. He spent 12 years living with his mother in Salem, where he honed his writing skills.
In 1842, Nathaniel married Sophia Peabody. He later worked as a customs officer in Salem from 1846 to 1849, but lost his job and became very upset. During this time, he wrote his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, which was a great success when it was published in 1850. Later on, he became a consul to England.
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