The House of the Seven Gables

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Mesmerism

The House of the Seven Gables deals frequently with reveries and trances, as the Maules have an unusual ability to mesmerize others. Franz Mesmer was an eighteenth-century doctor who believed patients could be cured with psychological or even magical methods; “mesmerism” was the term given to his unique brand of hypnosis-based treatment. The most noteworthy instance of this phenomenon in The House of the Seven Gables occurs when Holgrave tells Phoebe the story of the younger Matthew Maule’s mesmerism of Alice Pyncheon, which in turn puts Phoebe into a trance. The Judge’s smile has a sort of narcotic effect, too, seeming to draw people in, even against their will. The motif of mesmerism allows Hawthorne to accomplish the objective he so plainly stated in his Preface: to introduce a fantastic element into the story without completely sacrificing its realism. The presence of mesmerism also allows for other fantastic phenomena to appear in the novel: when Phoebe finds Hepzibah alone in a room yet hears the murmur of voices, this episode requires no substantive explanation and can be cast as yet another offshoot of this nontraditional science. Clifford phrases it best when he enthusiastically endorses mesmerism, which he says will fling “the door of substance . . . wide open” to a spiritual world. In the case of Holgrave’s hypnosis of Phoebe, mesmerism also comes to stand for the power of fiction, where the right fiction can grab the audience and hold it in a trance.

Decay

The House of the Seven Gables uses physical degradation and decay to mirror the spiritual decay that the Pyncheon family suffers. The house itself has decayed over a century and a half, and the garden is depicted as damaged, overgrown with weeds, its summerhouse crushed and covered with vines, its resident chickens now diminished. Even the neighborhood in which the house resides has become outmoded and unappealing. As the house becomes less pleasant, so do its inhabitants, as evidenced by the scowling, penniless Hepzibah, a sharp contrast to the beautiful, aristocratic Alice Pyncheon. Yet this parallel between property and people allows for renewal as well as decay. Phoebe and Holgrave tend the garden and fix the summerhouse, and even the chickens begin to return to health under their care. The motif of decay clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of families that “plant” themselves in tainted soil, as Holgrave puts it. This perspective is countered by the more hopeful notion that decay can be arrested and turned to growth.

The Judge’s Smile

In The House of the Seven Gables, the Judge’s smile is brandished like a weapon and gives him an almost hypnotic power. The smile seems to function independently of its owner, glowing even when the rest of the Judge’s face burns with rage or anger. The smile masks the Judge’s cruel intentions, but it also serves as a testament to the force of his convictions and self-righteousness. One of the most menacing aspects of the Judge’s character is his arrogance; despite his malicious offenses, he maintains that he has done nothing wrong. His smile helps to establish one of the most haunting themes in The House of the Seven Gables—that an appealing appearance can mask underlying evil.