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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 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.
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.
The following are important themes in The House of the Seven Gables.
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.
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."
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 House of the Seven Gables Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.