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
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
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.
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