House Of The Seven Gables Essay Research

House Of The Seven Gables Essay, Research Paper

The House of the Seven Gables

[The] sympathy or magnetism among human beings is more subtle and universal

than we think; it exists, indeed, among different classes of organized life, and vibrates

from one to another (Hawthorne 178). Loosely based on the events of Hawthorne s own

life, The House of the Seven Gables attempts to show the suffering of descendants forced

to repent for the sins of their father , while they are unknowingly renewing the curse by

nurturing the ancestral greed that has passed through the generations (O Connor 6) .

Thus the various themes of the novel reflect the central idea of continued sin through the

greed and guilt of a declining family.

Each generation struggles to escape the sins of the past, only to be thrust

forcefully back to face the offenses of their forefathers. The House of the Seven Gables

is a tale of loneliness and greed caused by the sin of preceding generations. The opening

of the novel is set in puritan times during the Salem witch hunts. The villainous Colonel

Pyncheon wrongly accused the innocent Matthew Maule of witchcraft so that the Maule

land would fall into the Pyncheon family s hands. Upon his death, Maule addressed

[Colonel Pyncheon] from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy…God will give him blood

to drink (Hawthorne 4-5) . The physical wrongdoing of Colonel Pyncheon against

Matthew Maule was avenged at the former s death, with the curse being fulfilled.

However, the essence of the crime lived on through the generations.

By chapter two, the focus of the novel has shifted to the modern generations of

the Pyncheon family. The family has severely declined since the Colonel s time, yet the

curse of greed is as strong as ever. The remains of the family consist of a decrepit

spinster named Hepzibah, now the caretaker of the house of the seven gables; her insane

brother Clifford, who was just recently released from prison; their devilish cousin Judge

Jaffrey, a man fixated upon his own greed; and their distant cousin Phoebe, the sunny

country girl that will be their redemption. Also, the last surviving descendant of the

Maule lineage, the handsome Holgrave Maule, resides at the house.

In a compilation by F.O. Matthiessen, it is stated that the main theme was not the

original curse on the house, but the curse that the Pyncheons have continued to bring

upon themselves . It is not Maule s death which needs avenging, but the anguish caused

by the Pyncheon family s greed. Lust for wealth has held the Pyncheon in its inflexible

grasp . What Hawthorne saw handed down through the generations were not material

unrealities such as gold and family position, but inescapable traits of character (145).

Even in the modern times of the novel, the family is ruled by greed and pride.

The characters are haunted by their own selfish desires; the sin of the past is reborn

through the greed of the family. Only the light-hearted flower Phoebe Pyncheon is

untouched by the family s inescapable destiny. And while Hepzibah and Clifford

Pyncheon suffer from illusions of grandeur, they lack the strength of will to achieve their

ultimate desires.

Hepzibah and Clifford, the child-like inhabitants of the house, suffer from the

iron will of Jaffrey s hunger for more wealth to add to his already abundant supply.

Jaffrey even subjected his own kindred to the harsh hell of prison and destitution just for

the inheritance of an elderly uncle. Even though approaching old age, Jaffrey would still

persecute his cousins for a wealth that would only pass momentarily through his hand

before his own death. He is the reincarnated villain from the past, come to continue the

curse of a bygone generation in a modern day setting. [His] guilt is never rendered in

observable terms; at the moment of his death, he is as imposing and impenetrable as

ever (Crews 177).

But the other characters are not without their faults, though not as tainted with

evil as Jaffrey. Hepzibah would rather think herself better than society rather than be an

actual, participating member. She let her youth and whatever beauty she had slip away in

the dark recesses of the dusty old house, all the while clinging to the notion that she was

a member of the long-dead aristocracy. She also dreamed of the vast fortune she was

bound to receive from the Pyncheon territory , a delusion of family importance each

Pyncheon has clung to from generation to generation (Matthiessen 143). She lived in

solitude for the better part of thirty years, remaining an old maid who never had a

lover . When her finances become dependent on actual labor, she felt that she had

brought an irretrievable disgrace for having to work. Her selfish desire to remain in the

past, in the time when she would not have to soil her hands with the disgrace of actual

labor, is something to which she clings desperately.

The feeble-minded Clifford suffers from a childish need to always be surrounded

by beautiful things. This need leaves little room for the consideration of the other

characters and their feelings. He greedily partakes of anything he finds attractive, and

openly shuns everything else. [Perhaps] the hardest stroke of fate for Hepzibah to

endure, and perhaps for Clifford, too–was his invincible distaste for her appearance

(Hawthorne 136). He somewhat comprehends the hurt he has caused, but can not find

the means to rectify it, partially because of his inability to grasp reality. Clifford has not

yet escaped the prison of his own mind, into which he was forced to flee. His need for

love and warmth are understandable, but he searches for these traits only in beautiful

objects, thus creating a childish avarice.

In almost every generation there happened to be some one descendant of the

family gifted with a portion of the hard, keen sense, and practical energy that has so

remarkable distinguished the original founder (Hawthorne 17). In each generation, one

member, to a small degree, exhibited the habits of the long dead Colonel Pyncheon.

Some new member gains his essence and thus rekindles the curse of the family. The

Colonel s cold-hearted, tyrannical personality survives the ages, emerging anew to

commit the sinful act again. In the novel, the Colonel is reborn as Gervayse Pyncheon

and, two generations latter, as Jaffrey Pyncheon. But the reincarnation of the Colonel no

longer terrorizes the Maule family, instead he abuses the children of the Pyncheon name.

Gervayse Pyncheon subjected his daughter to the cruel whims of a skillful wizard,

Matthew Maule–the grandson of the before mentioned Matthew Maule. Gervayse

allowed Maule to hypnotize his daughter, Alice Pyncheon in hopes that she would know

where to find the deed to the Pyncheon territory . But Maule took control of Alice,

forcing her to obey his shameful commands, thus ruining her publicly. Alice, whose only

sin was pride, died shortly thereafter. Gervayse loved his daughter, but he loved himself

twice as much. The Colonel s ancient tyranny had led to Alice s disgrace and death.

In the modern era of the novel, the Colonel has reemerged once more as the

cold-hearted Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. Time and time again Hawthorne states that Jaffrey

is the Colonel come again . Hawthorne goes to great lengths to state the resemblance

between the Judge and the Colonel (121-126). And Phoebe repeatedly mistakes Jaffrey

for being the long dead Colonel. Again, the evil Genius of the family is in search of

the legendary deed. But, unlike Gervayse, Jaffrey does not truly care for his symbolic

children , Hepzibah and Clifford. He offers Hepzibah smiles and promises of riches

until she refuses, at which time his true nature emerges. He threatens his children with

imprisonment and destitution, reminding them that it is his house in which they live.

Jaffrey can be compared to Midas, the mythical king whose touch was a golden death.

Jaffrey s social countenance is the beautiful quality of the Midas touch. The stern,

granite-hearted man beneath is the death.

Jaffrey hides his tyranny beneath a mask of good will. To the public, he is

considered an honor to his race ; displaying every virtue…befitting the Christian, the

good citizen, the horticulturist, and the gentleman (Hawthorne 21). But, when he is

exposed to the sunlight–like his picture through a daguerreotype–a harder, colder, more

malicious judge is revealed. However, every tyrant is psychologically at the mercy of

his victims Crews (179). In the end, Clifford will be Jaffrey s undoing.

Two lines of a familiar triangle are observable as an underlying theme. An

overbearing, terrifying, and guilty father is matched against innocent but emotionally

withered children . The third line of the triangle is incest fear, this fantasy terror

revolves around the very idea of an all-forbidding and self indulging Jaffrey Pyncheon

(Crews 182). However, Jaffrey is not the main character to which these incest feelings

are projected.

The real significance of the hints of incest are to show the reader the emotional

starvation that arises from a morbid dread of incest. The most obvious case is found in

the decrepit siblings Hepzibah and Clifford. Hepzibah is the classical old maid who is

repeatedly characterized as having the feelings of an old virgin. It is suggested that the

reason she has remained unmarried is because she harbors deep feelings for the Portrait

of the Pyncheon family s cursed father, Colonel Pyncheon. Another dim suggestion is

her absorption with a small portrait of Clifford as a young man. Hepzibah only wanted

the opportunity to devote herself to this brother, whom she had so loved (Hawthorne


Clifford is likewise attached the images of his mother, which he is said to

resemble. Clifford is also taken with Phoebe, but in a child-like manner. He loves her as

a child might have a crush on one his own age, despite his notice of her blossoming

virginity . He finds in Phoebe motherly comfort and a loyal playmate. And unlike

Hepzibah, Clifford does not seem to regret his inexperience with adult love.

Another hinted theme involving the family s incest revolves around the theory of

evolution (Male 119). This theme is basically the idea that unless hidden streams run

through the Pyncheon bloodline, the family will eventually die out. Hawthorne spent a

great deal of time discussing the chickens which run through the yard. Interbreeding

since the Colonel s era, to keep the line pure, has destroyed the lineage of the barnyard

fowl. The first generations of the fowl were large and healthy, capable of laying eggs an

ostrich would not have been ashamed of. The descendant chickens are no larger than

quails and very rarely lay eggs of even one quarter the original s quality. Holgrave states

that the chicken itself was a symbol of the life of the old house , or rather he meant the

life within the house (Hawthorne 88).

Hawthorne s true theme may have been impotence rather than guilt. Impotence

both socially and sexually (Crews 179). Socially, with the loss of the Pyncheon

territory deed, the family begins to lose power. The once aristocratic family now lives

in dilapidation and must work for a living, save for the reincarnated Colonel who always

has wealth but longs for more. Sexually, the family line becomes diluted with each

successive generation. Very few of the descendants have the Colonel s wit or instinct.

Also, the remaining members of the family, again save for Jaffrey Pyncheon, are of either

diluted blood–such is the case of Phoebe who is on the border of the Pyncheon gene

pool–or are ignorant of ever having experienced passionate love–such as Hepzibah and

Clifford. While Jaffrey was entirely too prominent , there is no real mention of his

continued lineage save for the brief mention of a son.

Probably one of the most noticeable themes was that of the light conquering the

darkness. The House of the Seven Gables is saturated with imagery of sunlight trying to

invade the shadows of the house and the hearts of its inhabitants. The house is

personified as the darkness within nature (Male 119). The imagery of the house as well

as Clifford and Hepzibah is gloomy and ancient. Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon reach

out to their fellow men–longing for connection–only to be cast back into the shadows

by fear of the outside world. The child-like characters try to escape their past and the

society which they feel has abandoned them, but their escape only leads into their own

inner darkness of despair and shame. Deprived of sunlight , they need a catalyst of

warmth and love to help them back into the daylight of humanity.

The imagery of Alice s garden hints to the condition of the characters psyches.

The white roses which had blight and mildew at their hearts , just as the characters do.

Phoebe contrasts these images. When she enters the house, she literally brightens it up

like a ray of sunshine . Phoebe stands for virginal purity about to blossom. She is an

end to the impotence in the Pyncheon family. Her joy and cheer shine through the house

and the hearts of its occupants, bringing to them both much need light. Even the sordid

and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of the house did not

[belong] to her sphere (Hawthorne 68).

Phoebe helps to repel the darkness surrounding the other characters. She is their

protector and will ultimately guide the other characters to their redemption. However,

Phoebe remains ignorant to this notion, stating that she is no angel , but people never

feel so much like angels as when they are doing what little good they may (Hawthorne


Holgrave, the last descendant of the Maule lineage, also represents a force of

nature. Holgrave uses his talent with the daguerreotype to expose the truth. He uses the

sunlight to reflect upon the hearts of men, much as Phoebe uses her inner sunlight to

reflect upon Hepzibah and Clifford s hearts. But Holgrave possesses both positive and

negative aspects of light, unlike Phoebe who only focuses upon the positive. He does not

shun the negative, as Phoebe does, but accepts it as a part of nature. Just as the

daguerreotype contains both a positive and negative image, Holgrave believes it is

capable of containing both the light and dark of the soul. [The] sunshine betrays the

reverse aspects uncovered by the light of Holgrave s art (Noble 72). The best

example of this is in the picture that Holgrave took of Jaffrey. The picture showed the

true Jaffrey, which happened to be the exact resemblance the Colonel.

While the house represents the darkness within us all, Jaffrey represents the evil

of greed and sin. There are no positive aspects to Jaffrey. He is the epitome of terror and

malice; his only purpose is to gain wealth and torment the souls of the suffering house.

The darkness he emits has saturated the forgotten children , making them unfit for

human contact. As Phoebe uses her light to help them, Jaffrey s dark influence threatens

to steal the innocent beauty that Phoebe possesses. In the end, Jaffrey is consumed by the

darkness he created, not within himself, but within Clifford.

In the end of the novel, with the death of the wicked tyrant , the other characters

have found redemption. The death of their symbolic father serves as a release from

past traumas, just as the marriage between Phoebe and Holgrave provide sufficient

compensation done to Matthew Maule. Now, the physical and the psychological curses

have been set right, providing a rather predictable ending to a drawn out tragedy.

Hepzibah and Clifford have finally found solace and wealth–both emotional and

material–and can now attempt to reenter the daylight of the society which they have

avoided for so long. The providential ending amounts to a wistful settling of old scores

on Hawthorne s part (Crews 174).

Each of the novel s themes is a more detailed aspect of the central theme of past

sins coming back to haunt future generations. Each generation suffered from some

morale decline of character, mainly greed. They selfishly cling to an idea of family

importance, long dead with their tyrannical forefather. As the family line deteriorates,

so does the mental stability of the descendants until only lost, motherless children are

left who must wander through the darkness of their own tortured psyches in hopes of

finding some redeeming light. The light comes in the form of a slightly distant cousin,

whose virginal sunshine dissolves the darkness within the house and within their hearts.

But true redemption is not achieved until their symbolic father–the very essence of their

stern, hard-hearted founder–dies from the very evil which he created and the Maule and

Pyncheon bloodline is merged with the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave.

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne s Psychological Themes. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Aerie Books LTD., 1851.

Male, Roy R. Hawthorne s Tragic Vision. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc,


Matthiessen, F.O. The House of the Seven Gables . Hawthorne: A Collection of

Critical Essays. Kaul, A.N. Englewood Cliffs, New York; Prentice-Hall, Inc;


Noble, Micheal Jay Bunker. Hawthorne s The House of the Seven Gables . The

Explicator, Winter 1998, Vol. 56 Issue 2.

O Connor, Evangeline M. An Analytical Index to the Work of Nathaniel Hawthorne

With a Sketch of His Life. Detroit, Gale Research Company, Book Tower; 1967.

Ross, Jeremy. The House of the Seven Gables. ClassicNotes. April 6th, 2000.

Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Leone, Bruno. The Greenhaven Press Literary

Companion to American Authors. San Diego, CA; Greenhaven Press, Inc, 1996.


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