Places: The House of the Seven Gables

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1851

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: 1850

Places DiscussedHouse of the Seven Gables

House House of the Seven Gables, Theof the Seven Gables. Colonial house built in the English style of half-timber and half-plaster on Pyncheon Street in an unnamed town in Massachusetts. The house had been built by Colonel Pyncheon, who had wrested the desirable site from Matthew Maule, a poor man executed as a wizard. Colonel Pyncheon was responsible for Maule’s execution and took the doomed man’s land. At the moment of his execution, Maule declared that God would give the Pyncheons blood to drink. Despite this grim prophecy, the colonel had his house, and its builder was Thomas Maule, son of the condemned wizard.

Just as the personality of a character evolves over the course of a story, the personality and appearance of the house change as the narrative unfolds. In the late 1600’s, when Colonel Pyncheon first erects the building, it is the most opulent structure in the town. Located on the outskirts, it reflects the colonel’s wealth, social position, and love of fine things. However, because he swindled Maule out of the land on which the house stands, it is also a symbol of the colonel’s cold, greedy, and dishonest nature.

In the years that follow, Gervayse, the colonel’s grandson, and Gervayse’s beautiful daughter, Alice, occupy the house, and it again reflects the character of its occupants. The narrator points out that, although the dwelling is beginning to show its age, it is still a solid, pleasant mansion, whose interior has been redecorated to reflect Gervayse’s sophisticated European tastes. The presence of the lovely and exotic-looking Alice gives the place a graceful air.

By 1850, when the spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon lives in the house, nature and age have taken their toll on the building. Moss covers its roof and windows, and flowering shrubs known as Alice’s posies grow between two of the house’s gables. The interior of the house is dark and dusty, much like the old woman who inhabits it. Once a public symbol of the Pyncheons’ wealth and power, the mansion now represents decay and physical and psychological isolation, in addition to the family’s material decline. Through most of the novel, Hepzibah never leaves the house. Her pride in her family’s illustrious heritage prevents her from socializing with her middle-class neighbors. When her brother Clifford, who was falsely imprisoned, returns home, he reinforces her reclusive tendencies. The only contact Hepzibah has with the outside world is through the shop she is forced to open because of her extreme poverty.

Meanwhile, throughout the novel, the house stands as a metaphor for the human heart. Animated by memories of generations of Pyncheons, it embodies all human emotion and experience, including joy, sorrow, greed, hatred, and pride. As it ages, the house seems to mellow. Finally, after it is redeemed from its troubling history by the love of Phoebe Pyncheon, a distant cousin who comes to live with Hepzibah, and Holgrave Maule, it becomes no more than an empty shell after the last Pyncheons leave its dark rooms for a brighter mansion in the country.

Various attempts have been made to connect an actual physical place with the novel’s wooden house. The best-known example of this is a brown, gabled mansion still standing in Salem, Massachusetts. Once owned by Hawthorne’s cousins, the Ingersoll family, it is now a popular tourist attraction billed as the “House of the Seven Gables.” Other Salem locales have also been proposed as Hawthorne’s model for the house, including the Curwen mansion and a dwelling belonging to Philip English, another Hawthorne relative. Hawthorne may have drawn his portrait of the fictional house from all three structures. However, in his preface to the novel, he cautions against assigning a real place to the imaginary events of the novel. Hawthorne’s disclaimer frees him artistically to use the house as both a character and as a symbol.

Town

Town. The unnamed town in which the House of the Seven Gables stands is described as orderly and home-loving. The town’s history parallels that of Salem, Massachusetts, especially in regard to the witchcraft trials of 1692. Because Hawthorne does not name the town, he has the freedom to use it as a symbol for the wider world, the human society from which Hepzibah and Clifford are separated by the walls of the house.

Train

Train. Railroad train on which Hepzibah and Clifford take an impromptu ride into the countryside to escape the oppressiveness of the house, which is now Jaffrey Pyncheon’s temporary tomb after he dies. This is the first time they leave the house. Filled with people, the train helps them to reconnect with humankind. “Here we are in the world, Hepzibah!–in the midst of life!–in the throng of our fellow beings! Let you and I be happy!” Clifford exclaims. However, his exuberance is short-lived, for he loses his nerve at the last stop and asks Hepzibah to take him back to the familiar, though repressive, environment of their home.

BibliographyAbel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988. Sees the novel as an allegory about love versus self-love, tradition versus ambition and pride, and imagination versus preoccupation with the present fact.Donohue, Agnes McNeill. Hawthorne: Calvin’s Ironic Stepchild. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985. Calls the novel Hawthorne’s attempt to “gloss over” his basically tragic view that the parents’ sins are visited upon the children. Argues that its dominant symbol, after the house itself, is the garden of Eden, which in turn is connected to the idea of the Fall. Claims the book’s ending indicates that Phoebe and Holgrave will be tempted into another Fall.Male, Roy R. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957. Argues that the book’s theme is the interpenetration of past and present. Breaks new ground in the critical understanding of Hawthorne.Martin, Terrence. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Focuses on ways in which Hawthorne and his characters view the effects of the past on the present. Also investigates the novel’s treatment of Hawthorne’s theme of the relationship between head (Holgrave) and heart (Phoebe).Waggoner, Hyatt H. The Presence of Hawthorne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. Originally an introduction to an edition of the novel, the chapter “From Darkness to Light” argues that the book expresses Hawthorne’s “greatly desired belief in the possibility of redemption from evil.” Also shows that the book is “radically democratic.”
Categories: Places