[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.”