[T]hey . . . hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. . . . The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.
By building his house on land stolen from Matthew Maule, Colonel Pyncheon has purportedly cursed himself and his family line for as long as they live in the house. This passage from Chapter 1 illustrates how deeply the curse and the house are intertwined. The crime is depicted as actually affecting the house’s infrastructure—it works itself into the house’s very fabric. These rumors are of course only murmurs from the village gossips. Hawthorne makes sure to attribute the speculation only to gossips, so that he will later remain free to explore the notion that the Pyncheon family, rather than the house, is responsible for the curse that plagues them.
The passage also sets up some of the book’s most important themes and stylistic traits. First, it provides the groundwork for the idea that each generation inherits the vices and misdeeds of its predecessors. Hawthorne repeatedly links the many awful misfortunes of the Pyncheon family to Colonel Pyncheon’s crimes. Hawthorne can make claims about curses and haunted houses, as he does in the quotation above, because by choosing to write a “romance” rather than a “novel” he has free reign to combine the mystical and fantastical with the bloody truths of reality. Hawthorne presents the disastrous results of sin as strong enough to pervade both time and space: sin’s effects persist centuries after Pyncheon’s wrongdoing, and they are severe enough to stain the very walls of his family’s home. Hawthorne conveys the intensity of sin’s effects with ominous eerie language characteristic of the Gothic style in which he writes. Many words in the passage above evoke this ominous tone, such as “grave,” “terror,” “ugliness,” “wretchedness,” “darken,” “infect,” “old,” and “melancholy.”
This being, made only for happiness, and heretofore so miserably failing to be happy . . . this poor, forlorn voyager from the Islands of the Blest, in a frail bark, on a tempestuous sea, had been flung, by the last mountain-wave of his shipwreck, into a quiet harbor. There, as he lay more than half-lifeless on the strand, the fragrance of an earthly rosebud had come to his nostrils, and, as odors will, had summoned up reminiscences or visions of all the living and breathing beauty, amid which he should have had his home.
Throughout the novel, Clifford is a difficult, sometimes unpleasant character, and this quotation from Chapter 9 conveys how his once beautiful mind has so thoroughly gone to waste. The quotation beautifully and tragically chronicles how thirty years in prison have caused his mind to degenerate. The image of Clifford “half-lifeless” on the sand, captivated by the scent of a rose, illustrates the terrible suffering that accompanies his return and his sense of having missed out on his youth. The tone is one of exhaustion, but it is also one of recovery, for the image does not end with Clifford’s drowning but with his slowly coming back to consciousness. As we have seen in other aspects of the novel, in the chickens returning to health and the garden’s restoration, decay and renewal are linked. Hawthorne’s poetic portrayal of Clifford’s degeneration makes us inclined to sympathize with Clifford and helps us to understand why his recovery moves at such a slow pace.
Hawthorne’s language makes Clifford’s incarceration seem like a violent, almost overwhelming struggle rather than merely an extended absence. His use of words like “forlorn,” “frail,” -“tempestuous,” and “miserably” helps to convey the severity of the tribulations that Clifford has endured. He has been delivered from a “shipwreck” to a “harbor.” The passage ends with words that conjure pleasure, comfort, and hope: “living,” “breathing,” and “beauty.”
“[I]t will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word! . . . We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!”
In Chapter 12, Holgrave utters these words with revolutionary fervor, as he outlines the folly of humankind being slaves to the past and to the future death that awaits us all. Here Holgrave proposes that society’s very foundations are made up of the works of dead men—that the modern world is shaped by people who no longer inhabit it, stifling all contemporary urges and desires. These laws and theories, Holgrave says, are smoothed and rectified by later generations, but this is not enough, and he advocates tearing down all of society’s institutions—from the courtroom to the home—and beginning again with a clean slate. Holgrave’s politics nicely echo the novel’s theme of the tyranny of the past, where Pyncheons and Maules are unable to escape the influence of their dead relatives. Holgrave, himself a Maule and a possessor of both the Maules’ secret and their formidable power of mesmerism, argues that it is foolish to accept fate passively, that legacies like his need to be overthrown and rebuilt from scratch.
[A]n individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man’s character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!... [I]n some low and obscure nook . . . may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it; for it has long been his daily breath! . . . Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses, to his life.
This passage from Chapter 15 addresses the complex character of the Judge, who is charming and self-assured on the outside but thoroughly rotten on the inside. Hawthorne does not attempt to understate the power of the Judge’s station and charisma; on the contrary, he likens these to a “palace,” a building of noteworthy opulence and splendor. The secret, this passage implies, is not that this palace is a sham, but that it has been irrevocably corrupted by a rotting corpse locked deep inside, hidden so completely that even the Judge has forgotten that it exists. This gloomy Gothic portrayal helps to establish the theme that the current generation inherits the flaws and errors of past generations. Here the rotting corpse becomes a physical embodiment of the perils of legacy. The palace is infested with the smell of a rotting ancestor, and no one even notices or thinks to root out the problem.
“A man will commit almost any wrong—he will heap up an immense pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, and which will weigh heavily upon his soul, to eternal ages—only to build a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for his posterity to be miserable in. He lays his own dead corpse beneath the underpinning, as one may say, and hangs his frowning picture on the wall, and, after thus converting himself into an Evil Destiny, expects his remotest great-grandchildren to be happy there!”
This dialogue, spoken by Clifford in Chapter 17, neatly sums up the “moral” of The House of the Seven Gables, which states that the sins committed over the course of constructing a family fortune will bring the sinner and the sinner’s descendants more misery than wealth. In identifying the builder of the house as the cause of the misery the house has perpetuated, Clifford leaves no doubt that Colonel Pyncheon is to blame for the family’s misfortunes, and that his unchecked desire to accumulate wealth has brought him misery instead. This passage insinuates that the Colonel may not be motivated exclusively by selfish greed. The idea that the Colonel may have built the house “for his posterity to be miserable in” is certainly a pessimistic interpretation, but it raises the idea that the Colonel acts with future generations in mind. Obviously, the Colonel’s intentions go horribly awry, but the generous notion that he is building for someone other than himself does give him a glimmer of paternal appeal and serves as a testament to Hawthorne’s willingness to lend even the most villainous characters a touch of moral ambiguity.