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.
In the mid-1600s, the farmer Matthew Maule builds a small house next to a lovely, clear spring in what will become a small, well-to-do Massachusetts town. A local landowner named Colonel Pyncheon, who wants the land for himself, accuses Maule of witchcraft at a time of mass hysteria against witches. Maule is convicted and hanged, but, before he dies, he warns that God will give Pyncheon blood to drink. Undaunted by this curse, Colonel Pyncheon builds a house with seven gables, vertical triangular points on a house that run from the roof’s center to its edge. Maule’s own son helps design and build the house, and on the day of its opening, a great feast is held. When Colonel Pyncheon fails to greet his distinguished guests, they charge into one of his rooms, only to find him sitting dead at his desk. Blood coats his beard and his shirt. There is no evidence of foul play, but no one knows how he died, and rumors of strangulation persist. It is whispered that a mysterious figure was seen fleeing the scene. The narrator goes to great lengths to discount these rumors.
Future generations of the Pyncheon family continue to occupy the house over the next century and a half, but they are never able to claim one of the dead Colonel’s final acquisitions, a gigantic tract of land in Maine. Generations of the family are raised thinking the land is rightfully theirs, and they make unsuccessful attempts to obtain it. The area where the Pyncheon house was built falls out of fashion. Thirty years before the novel is set, a wealthy Pyncheon is murdered by one of his nephews, another Pyncheon. The killer is convicted and jailed for life, but the dead man’s other nephew, an intelligent man who becomes known as Judge Pyncheon, is successful and builds a large house just outside of town. The sister of the jailed Pyncheon continues to live alone in the house of the seven gables. The Maules, on the other hand, have not had such a clear descent through history. Many of them have no knowledge of Matthew Maule or his curse on Colonel Pyncheon, and some are not even aware that they are of Maule descent. Nevertheless, many still retain the Maules’ characteristic alienating reserve, and some are believed by townspeople to have inherited mysterious powers from their forefather.
The chapter ends with a few descriptions. Outside the house of the seven gables stands a gigantic elm planted over eighty years ago by one of the earliest Pyncheons. In a nook between two of the gables grows a cluster of flowers known as Alice’s Posies, named after an old legend that told of Alice Pyncheon flinging up flower seeds for fun; the resulting flowers were said to thrive in the dust and dirt collected on the roof. The house also contains a door on the front gable, leading to a little shop where a Pyncheon family member who found himself in dire financial straits once took to being a merchant.
Hepzibah Pyncheon, the old maid who inhabits the house of the seven gables, awakens. A woman with a good heart but a permanent scowl brought on by nearsightedness, Hepzibah spends quite a bit of time on her appearance, pausing every now and then to sigh over the portrait of a beautiful young man, who we are assured is not her lover. As the sun begins to rise, Hepzibah grows increasingly agitated. She heads downstairs, where we discover that her own financial difficulties have led her to reopen the little shop with the door cut into the front gable. The shop-tending offends her dignity as a member of the aristocratic Pyncheon family line, but it is the only option she has: she is too blind to sew and not educated enough to teach. She has filled the little shop with many goods, such as gingerbread men, children’s toys, and foodstuffs, but she is timid, and she knocks things over as she sets up. Hepzibah delays opening the shop as long as she can, but as the day goes on she can put it off no longer. She opens the store window and quickly runs into the living room of the house, crying.
Chapter 1 provides us with a lurid history of the Pyncheon family rich in symbolic passages. The most explicit of these symbols is Maule’s Well, the cheerful spring whose waters turn brackish after Maule’s death and the arrival of the Pyncheons, a very literal illustration of the land’s deep corruption. It is indicative that the Maule rather than the Pyncheon well should be the one spouting dirty water, as Maule’s curse will prove to be tied to the ill-gotten land rather than to the Pyncheon family itself. Pyncheons who leave the house appear to be the least affected by the curse; some are not affected at all. The murder of old Jaffrey Pyncheon by his nephew is also irrevocably tied to the house of seven gables: after the crime, Judge Pyncheon moves away and soon becomes happy, prosperous, and successful, although his return to the house in later chapters will signify his downfall.
In Chapter 2, we are abruptly pulled from the tabloid history of the Maules and the Pyncheons and introduced to Hepzibah Pyncheon, who becomes a sudden embodiment of all the misery narrated in the previous chapter. An old maid who seems to wear a permanent scowl, she demonstrates the ruin and shame of the life of a fallen aristocrat. At the same time, we begin to see that Hepzibah may indeed have a good heart. Her haughty contempt for her own store is coupled with a very real pain, and she goes about setting up her shop with a rather touching timidity. In the innocence of her preparations, Hepzibah robs the house of some of the mystery the first chapter instilled in it. The house has been presented as a place of great evil, where even the waters now run black, but here we see its sole resident as a miserable but not unbearable character, running around with a frenzy that is decidedly human. Although the fact that Hepzibah’s face has been locked into a frown suggests that she is unhappy at home, all her activities give the place a sense of hope and renewal. As later chapters will show, this paradox is a fitting introduction to the house of the seven gables.