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The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

When the prominent Colonel Pyncheon is found dead during a housewarming party at his new mansion, the official cause of death is given as a stroke. The townspeople suspect something different.

Colonel Pyncheon acquired the land for his new homestead only after its owner, a poor man named Matthew Maule, was hanged during the Salem witchhunts in 1692, for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Until the end, the innocent man suspected Colonel Pyncheon of encouraging the persecution in order to obtain the Maule property. With the hangman's noose around his neck, Maule cursed the Colonel. The townspeople remembered the words of the wizard: "God will give him blood to drink!"

For some one hundred and sixty years, a long line of Pyncheons struggle to settle their claim to a vast territory in Maine and to preserve their dynasty against as long a line of Maules suspected of inheriting the wizard's powers. The Pyncheon's real struggle, though, is against the sins of their forebears- sins that hang over them like the portrait of their ancestor, the Colonel. The Pyncheons are hobbled by a pride that isolates them from the world. They are undone by a greed that leads to the mysterious sacrifice of a beautiful young woman, Alice Pyncheon, and the framing of young Clifford Pyncheon for murder.

The house of the seven gables, which stands on the site once owned by the Maules, is inhabited by an aging spinster, Hepzibah Pyncheon. Weatherbeaten and crumbling, the house has lost all its former grandeur and presents a dismal appearance.

Seventeen-year-old Phoebe Pyncheon, who comes from the country to live in the house of the seven gables, is like a ray of sunshine flooding a dark corner. The pretty young woman shares the house with her two elderly cousins and a boarder, the young artist Holgrave. Her cousin Hepzibah has recently been forced to abandon her delusions of aristocracy and open a shop to keep from starving; Hepzibah's brother, Clifford, has just been released from prison after serving thirty years for the alleged murder of his uncle- a crime he didn't commit. Holgrave is an attractive young man who, unknown to the others, is a descendant of the wizard Matthew Maule.

A frequent visitor is another cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. Jaffrey inherited everything when Clifford went to prison for their uncle's murder. His greed knows no bounds. He will not rest until he is allowed to speak with his broken cousin, Clifford, who, he believes, alone knows the secret of hidden Pyncheon wealth. Clifford has long since forgotten the secret, but the painting of the Colonel which still hangs upon the wall will play a role in the unraveling of the mystery.

When Jaffrey dies suddenly at the gabled house, of an apparent stroke, just as his uncle and the Colonel before him did, Hepzibah and Clifford flee. Clifford thinks that he may again be accused of murder. Hepzibah doesn't know what to think. Alone in the house with Jaffrey's body, Phoebe and Holgrave are drawn together by this morbid secret. At this unlikely moment the young people discover that they share more than the knowledge of Jaffrey's death- they have fallen deeply in love.

Jaffrey's death is found to be the result of natural causes. This discovery helps clear Clifford of their uncle's alleged "murder," for which he had been framed by Jaffrey himself. Phoebe agrees to marry Holgrave, who discloses his identity as a descendant of Matthew Maule. And the secret of the portrait is explained at last. A hidden spring releases the frame and reveals a hiding place where the now useless deed to the territory in Maine has been for two hundred years. Hepzibah, Clifford, Phoebe, and Holgrave decide to leave the house of the seven gables and live in the country estate they inherited from Jaffrey.

It seems like a happy ending. The two families and the two classes are reconciled. A Pyncheon and a Maule have learned to love each other, and as the feuding families unite and abandon the gabled house, the curse is lifted. But look again. Are Phoebe and Holgrave really starting a new life? They inherit the Pyncheon wealth and go to live in yet another Pyncheon house. Are they destined to repeat the curse that has been the family's downfall for generations?

Let's look at the tale a little more closely. Then you can make your own judgments.

[The House of the Seven Gables Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

The important thing to consider when studying the characters in The House of the Seven Gables is the way Hawthorne develops them in relation to each other. Each character is defined through contrasts with others as Hawthorne develops his themes. Hepzibah and Jaffrey are compared, for example, in Hawthorne's conception of appearance vs. reality. Clifford and Holgrave are contrasted in the theme of isolation.

This technique stresses the psychological aspects of the characters. Because no character is defined in absolute terms, you are invited to make up your own mind about each one. This kind of ambiguity puts Hawthorne close to modern fiction writers in sensibility.

Here is a sketch of each of the main characters. Before you make up your mind, though, review the many possibilities Hawthorne offers in the text for the interpretation of each character.

  • CLIFFORD

    Clifford is not much more than the ghost of a man. Everything about him is shadowy. His steps are muffled. His speech is a vague murmur. His eyes are clouded. His memory is dim.

    There is nothing to him but his love of beauty, a pure sensibility. But his is a frail sensibility. Clifford is the "porcelain vase, with already a crack in it" that was thrown against the "granite column" that is Jaffrey. But what is this crack? What is the source of his powerlessness? And what is it that has made this Pyncheon man so different from the other?

    His life is a symbol for isolation brought to an extreme. And it is only when he runs from the house and out into the world that he is "startled into manhood and intelligence." But he cannot sustain the energy required to become a man of action. It is too late for Clifford. As the narrator tells him, he has no future.

    Clifford and Holgrave have a great deal in common. Listen to their speeches. What is it they both are saying? How is it that both have arrived at this philosophy? What does it mean that a Pyncheon and a Maule share these thoughts? And how is it that Phoebe is so important to both of them?

  • HEPZIBAH

    In her rusty black silks and her hideous turban, the sixty-year-old spinster could strike fear into any heart. Afflicted with poor eyesight, Hepzibah wears a chronic squint that twists her face into a scowl.

    Proud, lonely, and without talent for practical matters, she is the symbol of decaying gentility. For twenty-five years she has lived alone in the house of the seven gables, grieving for her unjustly imprisoned brother, Clifford. Like the house itself, she is a symbol of the ruin brought by isolation. And when she is forced to open a small variety shop to support herself. Hepzibah is unable to reconnect with the world.

    What is it that makes you so fond of Hepzibah, one of the most endearing characters in literature? What saves her in your estimation is what saves her from complete ruin: her fierce love and loyalty. Her suffering on Clifford's behalf "enriches" and "elevates" her life.

  • HOLGRAVE

    What does Holgrave represent? Is he the voice of the future, whose message is the rise of the common man and the demise of the past with its aristocracy? Or is he an echo of the past- descended from Wizard Maule, and invested with all his powers? Or is he, simply, an artist whose agent is sunlight, and whose work is revealing the true nature of people?

    You see Holgrave almost exclusively through the eyes of Hepzibah and Phoebe, but neither woman understands him. Hepzibah, trapped by the past, cannot understand his new-fangled notions. Even when she takes his advice, she doesn't completely trust him. Conservative Phoebe is threatened by his irreverence, by his clinical view of life, and by her attraction for him, as well. In some ways, Holgrave has much more in common with Clifford. The views he preaches to Phoebe in the garden are not far from those Clifford espouses on the train. But whereas Clifford is a dreamer, Holgrave is a man of action.

    The character of Holgrave is a puzzling one, and nowhere is it more puzzling than at the end of the novel. After reading his story entitled "Alice Pyncheon," Holgrave breaks the spell he has unwittingly cast over Phoebe. Unlike a Maule before him, he refuses to exploit the spirit of a young Pyncheon woman. This incident seems to suggest that change is possible, that we are not doomed forever to repeat past sins.

    But by the end of the novel, Holgrave- like all the other characters- undergoes an inversion. In the cases of the others, the inversion is a setting straight, a triumph of reality over appearance. Clifford is shown to be innocent, for example, and the Judge is revealed as an evil man. But in the case of Holgrave, the inversion is completely baffling. In a complete turnaround of his earlier views, he willingly accepts Phoebe's Pyncheon fortune and goes off to live in a Pyncheon house, complaining all the while about its lack of permanence. This is not the same Holgrave whose beliefs have helped to bring about so many other changes for the better.

    What can this change in him mean? And what does it say about Hawthorne's theme?

  • JUDGE JAFFREY PYNCHEON

    When Jaffrey Pyncheon steps into the cent-shop one morning, Phoebe- who has never met the man- is filled with horror. For a moment she mistakes him for her ancestor, Colonel Pyncheon, risen from the dead. With his full beard trimmed into a pair of grizzled whiskers, his sable and velvet cloak changed for a suit and tie, and his sword traded in for a gold-headed cane, the "original Puritan" seems to step forward across two centuries.

    The similarities between the two men go beyond the physical. As the Colonel is remembered as greedy, the Judge is now known to be tightfisted. What was seen as the "grim kindliness" of the Colonel lives on, now, in what the townspeople see as the benevolent smile of the Judge. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is, as the Colonel was before him, the model of respectability.

    But a second glance shows that the Judge is not as beefy as the Colonel, nor does he have the ruddy complexion of his English ancestor. And there is a nervous quality about him: His face changes rapidly and lacks the Colonel's steady expression. Is this merely the difference between an American and an Englishman, or is it something more? In a book so concerned with the repetition of the past in the present, what can these differences mean?

    And what of the face revealed in Holgrave's daguerreotypes? The forced smile creates a stifling and sultry atmosphere. It is a smile that can barely mask the anger and displeasure lurking just below its surface.

    One of the great themes of The House of the Seven Gables is the difference between appearance and reality, and the character of the Judge is central to stating that theme.

    Hawthorne developed his characters in relation to one another, and he developed the character of Jaffrey in relation to both Hepzibah and Clifford.

    When you compare Jaffrey to Hepzibah (especially in the chapter entitled "The Scowl and Smile"), you discover that Jaffrey's smile is as meaningless as her scowl. She is not fierce, and he is not benevolent. Jaffrey's life is full of enough "splendid rubbish" to cover up a more active conscience than his. Jaffrey is the palace built over the stinking, "half-decayed, and still decaying" corpse.

    When you compare him to Clifford, you see two men who were both attractive in their youth. Clifford's beauty still shows through his frail spirit and his old age. Jaffrey's couldn't be guessed at under his portly body and heavy face. Clifford, imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit, has missed out on a lifetime while Jaffrey, who framed him, has had it all- a wife, a son, a career as a public figure, a good reputation, and the Pyncheon inheritance that was meant for Clifford. Clifford appeared responsible for the death of his uncle. In reality it was Jaffrey who brought the death about and covered his tracks.

    The two men, both Pyncheons, could not be more different. And in an unforgettable image, Hawthorne likens the relationship between Clifford and Jaffrey to a porcelain vase being thrown against a granite column.

  • PHOEBE

    Phoebe is a pet name that Nathaniel Hawthorne reserved for his wife, Sophia, the woman who drew him out of his long isolation. It has long been thought that he modelled his character on Sophia as a tribute to her influence in his life.

    The name "Phoebe" comes from a Greek word meaning "radiant" and the Phoebe of The House of the Seven Gables is always described in images that are sunny, bright, and cheerful. She dislikes anything that is obscure- a riddle, a mystery, or the darkness.

    When she comes from the country to live with her elderly cousins at the house of the seven gables, she comes like sunlight to a dark corner. The hearts of those isolated people and the house itself are purified by her influence. And when she leaves for a few days, the house and its inhabitants fall again into darkness and decay.

    Phoebe is not a complicated character, but she has been called "a special kind of reformer." In chapter after chapter you see her influencing the other characters in the novel. For all of them she holds some redemptive power.

    In the chapter entitled "May and November" Phoebe is compared to Hepzibah. They are both women, but their ages, classes, attitudes, and figures are very different. The aristocrat meets- and learns from- the plebian. And yet they are both Pyncheons. How is it that Phoebe has escaped Hepzibah's fate?

    In "Clifford and Phoebe" you see her simple character contrasted with the complex Clifford. In her naturalness, her femininity, and her beauty, she is a symbol to Clifford of what he lacked on earth.

    And in "Maule's Well," "The Daguerreotypist," "Phoebe's Good Bye," and in "The Flower of Eden," you see her with Holgrave. His radical spirit is tempered and finally tamed by the kind and simple young woman. And when, in the end, Phoebe and Holgrave marry, it is not merely the union of a Pyncheon and a Maule, but the union of heart and head.

[The House of the Seven Gables Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

The opening pages of The House of the Seven Gables chronicle the life of the house for almost two hundred years, and begin in the 1690s- a time of witchhunts. The main action of the story starts in the 1850s, and takes place over the course of one summer, or about three months.

Most of the action occurs in a house on a side street of a coastal New England town. The house has seven gables, all of which point in different directions. (For an explanation of a gable, see the first note in the section of this book on chapter I.) Most of the rooms are occupied by Hepzibah Pyncheon, who has a shop with its own entrance in the front gable. One of the other gables is rented to a boarder. The house also has an enclosed garden.

Hawthorne describes the house using human characteristics: it shows signs of age like a human face; the projecting upper story gives it a brooding look; the clustered chimney in the dark-chambered place is like a human heart with a life of its own.

The interior and the exterior could not be more different or distinct. The interior, which includes the enclosed garden, is a place of darkness, shadow, isolation, and decay. It symbolizes the hearts of the two who isolate themselves there: Hepzibah and Clifford. Their hearts, as well as the interior of the house, are purged and illuminated by the presence of Phoebe, who arrives from the country. The exterior, which includes the street and the train, represents the real world. It is fast-paced and bright, and as massive as the terrible Judge Pyncheon himself.

In between is the cent-shop, a threshold to the world, a transitional place where the world is admitted to the house. The scenes that take place there symbolize meetings between the darkness of the house and the light brought in by customers like Holgrave or reflected by other buildings.

Neither a life lived in the house (Hepzibah's) nor a life lived on the outside (Jaffrey's) is ideal. Neither character can exist in the other's world. Hepzibah is driven back to the house on the two occasions she tries to go out. And when Judge Pyncheon finally reaches the interior of the house, he becomes another shadow, indistinguishable by evening from the others. A healthy balance of the two worlds, achieved by Phoebe and Holgrave, is desired.

Throughout the book, the setting is so closely identified with both characters and themes that many readers have considered the setting a major symbol within the book.

THEMES

The following are important themes in The House of the Seven Gables.

  1. THE SINS OF THE FATHERS...

    The wrong done by one generation of a family is visited upon the generations that follow. The greed that drove Colonel Pyncheon to encourage the persecution of Maule, and then to seize Maule's land for his homestead, brings down a curse upon all of the Colonel's descendants.

    The past weighs on the present like the corpse of a giant. It influences everything the living do. Hawthorne appears to say that we are forever struggling against what has been passed down to us; therefore, we should not be so eager to impose ourselves upon future generations.

    For "...no great mistake, whether acted or endured... is ever really set right." We can never hope to undo what has been done, but we must strive to break the pattern, to remove ourselves from the circle in which we are destined to repeat our mistakes.

  2. ISOLATION

    Hawthorne lived in the nineteenth century, at a time when the Romantic poets stressed the importance of individualism and celebrated the differences between people. But Hawthorne had experienced the isolation of individualism and had found no happiness in his many years of solitude. He believed strongly that a man finds happiness not in his differences from other men but in what he shares with them, in his sense of community with them.

    In their isolation, Hepzibah and Clifford might as well be dead. The only strength Hepzibah has is that which she derives from her love for her brother. It is only in the cent-shop- the setting that puts her in contact with the outside world- that she has the courage to stand up to her cousin Jaffrey. It is only when Clifford tries to rejoin the humanity in a pulsing crowd or on a crowded train that he comes alive. Phoebe and Holgrave, on the other hand, are part of the world in which they live. Their integration into human society, as well as their love for each other, gives them an opportunity to break the curse.

  3. ARISTOCRACY VS. DEMOCRACY

    Evil cuts across social class lines in The House of the Seven Gables, but in his characters Hawthorne presents a clear argument for the triumph of democracy over aristocracy. Hepzibah, Clifford, and Jaffrey depend on a past founded on sin to elevate them to social prominence. On the other hand, Holgrave, the modern man, preaches social reform to both Hepzibah and Phoebe. What were once the privileges of class are now its restrictions. To live without battling necessity is to let the blood chill in our veins. Hawthorne leads us to believe that the struggle of mankind should be a united one.

  4. APPEARANCE VS. REALITY

    Hawthorne's fascination with this theme is apparent throughout The House of the Seven Gables. Hepzibah wears a scowl that the world sees as a sign of her wickedness, but she squints only from poor eyesight, and is really a good woman at heart. Judge Pyncheon, on the other hand, wears a beatific smile, which the townspeople take as a sign of benevolence and goodness. Yet this man has framed his cousin for murder and has taken what didn't belong to him.

    The contrast between appearance and reality is most pronounced in the development of these two characters, but it underlies other parts of the book as well. It begins with the discrepancy between what Matthew Maule was and what the townspeople thought he was. For other examples, think of the following discrepancies: between the natural deaths of the Pyncheons and the murders the townspeople suspect; between Clifford's part in Jaffrey's death and Hepzibah's suspicion of Clifford's part in Jaffrey's death; and between the person everyone thinks Holgrave is, and who he actually is.

  5. HEART VS. HEAD

    In a letter to his wife, Hawthorne wrote, "...we are not endowed with real life... till the heart be touched. That touch creates us,- then we begin to be..."

    You first see the theme of the heart vs. the head in the relationships between Hepzibah and Clifford, and between Phoebe and her two elderly cousins. Hepzibah is a groaning wreck until Clifford returns from prison, at which point she springs to life to help him. When Phoebe brings her love and sunny disposition to the house, she warms the lives of her brooding cousins like a small fire.

    But it is in the relationship between Phoebe and Holgrave that this theme receives the most attention. Phoebe is the heart of the house of the seven gables. She warms it and brings it life. Holgrave, an intellectual, is the head. He is the bearer of ideas in the romance his entire life is concerned with philosophies of life. When Phoebe and Holgrave fall in love, heart and head are brought together to form a union that may end the curse forever. Such a union of heart and head, according to one critic, is "as modern as psychoanalysis."

STYLE

Hawthorne's style has been described as "slightly old-fashioned even when he wrote it," and in this regard he is definitely a product of the nineteenth century. For the most part, his formal, careful, well-organized development of ideas are stylistic elements you might think better suited to the essay than to the novel.

Hawthorne relies heavily on the use of symbols in his work, and often includes references to classical and biblical mythology. But he rarely relies on stylistic devices alone (images, symbols, etc.) to present his point of view. Instead, Hawthorne explicitly states his meanings to you. For example, even though his descriptions of the hens clearly draw a parallel to the Pyncheons, Hawthorne has Holgrave say that the hens "betokened the oddities of the Pyncheon family, and... the chicken itself was a symbol of the life of the old house."

Hawthorne employs an interesting stylistic device in The House of the Seven Gables in an attempt to involve you in his story. He begins Chapter II by telling you what happened that morning, and he uses the past tense (Hepzibah "awoke," and "arose," and "began" to dress). He then switches to the present tense, and comments on her actions as they happen (she "prays," she "is almost ready," she "is probably looking at a certain miniature," and she "is standing" before the mirror). His use of the present tense here makes you feel as if you are here as the story unfolds, and gives you the sense of a story so immediate that not even its author knows what might happen next.

Hawthorne repeats this technique at the end of Chapter X, "The Pyncheon-Garden," after Clifford calls out for his happiness. The narrator answers Clifford, saying "You are old.... You are partly crazy.... Fate has no happiness in store for you." Again, you feel that you and the narrator can see and hear the characters, but they can't see you.

In Chapter XVIII, "Governor Pyncheon," Hawthorne uses this device to great effect, as he writes the entire chapter in the present tense. Through this rather lengthy chapter you examine Jaffrey's body and keep a vigil with the narrator throughout the night. Some readers think this chapter is too long, too silly, or overwritten. Others consider it one of the greatest scenes in American literature. What's your opinion?

As you think about the style of The House of the Seven Gables, try to remember that Hawthorne wrote before a more "modern" style of fiction was introduced- the personal, relaxed, and image-oriented writing with which you are familiar. With this in mind, you will be able to appreciate the fact that- as serious as his writing is- it never lacks a sense of humor or the touches of irony that make his work seem so relevant even today.

POINT OF VIEW

In his cool and critical preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne refers to himself as if he were talking about someone else. He strikes this pose throughout the book, whenever he refers to himself as its author.

In the first chapter, which provides background material for his tale, Hawthorne uses the first-person singular ("I"). Hearing the narrator talk about his personal experience of the town and house in question gives you a sense that he is familiar with his subject and is, therefore, a voice to be trusted.

When the story actually begins in the second chapter, Hawthorne settles down to the first-person plural. When he says "we," he means "you and I" (the reader and the narrator). You are drawn into the story and you become- with the narrator- what he calls the "disembodied listener." You are not only with him at the telling of the tale, you are on the threshold of the story as it happens. You hear what he hears; you see what he sees.

You sometimes hear Hepzibah's thoughts, and sometimes Phoebe's. Sometimes you hear the narrator's own thoughts as the story unfolds. He answers Clifford when Clifford cries out for his happiness; he calls to Judge Pyncheon to rise from the elbow chair and get on with his day as planned; he asks your indulgence when describing life in the Pyncheon garden. This involvement of the storyteller in the story has earned Hawthorne a reputation as "the most intrusive of authors."

FORM AND STRUCTURE

In his preface to the novel, Hawthorne described his work as a romance rather than a novel. He called it a "prolonged legend" that connects the past and the present in a "legendary mist." A romance is a story that contains scenes that you would not expect to find in ordinary life. In establishing his work as a romance, Hawthorne found license to use such devices as a disappearing skeleton hand and a ghost who plays the harpsichord. He says in his preface, however, that an author would be "wise... to make very moderate use of the privileges" and offer the "Marvellous" as a flavoring rather than as the whole meal.

Among Hawthorne's readers there is a great deal of disagreement about the book's structure. Some say that it has none, that it is merely a series of episodes. Others say that it has a beginning and an end, like two halves of a short story with no middle, but a number of character sketches that add nothing to the plot. Then there are readers who see the book as a series of progressions- not in a linear motion- but in an ascending spiral, returning again and again to the same sins and the same themes in one generation after another. Still others view the structure of the work as a series of contrasts (Phoebe vs. Hepzibah, The Scowl and the Smile, for example) that help to develop its themes.

When Hawthorne corresponded with his publisher as he was writing The House of the Seven Gables, he often spoke as if he were a carpenter building a house. Many readers have seized this metaphor as a fitting one for the book's structure. To some the book is a single room, and its elements are furnishings. Others regard the book as a whole house and each chapter as a different room. This is an interesting view. There is, for example, a chapter named for the cent-shop, one for the garden, one for the arched window at the top of the stairs, and one for Clifford's room- all distinct areas of the house of the seven gables. Several of the other chapters also take place in different parts of the house.

You can argue in favor of each of these theories. Keep them in mind as you read, and then decide for yourself which one best describes the structure of the book.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [The House of the Seven Gables Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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