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The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Who would you say is the principal protagonist of The House of the Seven Gables? Who is the principal antagonist?

The House of the Seven Gables does not have one obvious protagonist like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Hamlet in Hamlet. Instead, many of the novel’s characters grow and change throughout the novel, all contributing to the plot development. Holgrave fits this description, though his change is somewhat peripheral, almost an afterthought Hawthorne rushes through in the final chapters. Phoebe blossoms into womanhood, becoming wiser as she grows older, but when she arrives at the Pyncheon homestead, she is so removed from the events of the house that the story really cannot be called hers. Hepzibah and Clifford, on the other hand, are rooted in the house’s tradition of misery, and the story focuses extensively on their transition from living in fear and constraint to more sustained happiness and freedom. They are the best examples of protagonists that we meet in The House of the Seven Gables.

The antagonists—the characters or forces who oppose the protagonist and create conflict—are less obvious. Although the menacing Judge Pyncheon provides the clearest conflict and is the most likely antagonist, he is in some ways no more responsible for the troubles of Clifford and Hepzibah than any Pyncheon ancestor. He is certainly the novel’s most tangible villain, but his close ties to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon make him seem more of a figurehead for past evils than an independent operator. Because the Judge’s actions move the novel and drive it forward, we could even consider him the novel’s main protagonist. In naming him the protagonist, we should keep in mind that he stands for 200 years of tainted -Pyncheon history.

2.

In the Preface, Hawthorne claims his book is a romance rather than a novel. Romances need not deal with “everyday, ordinary things” and usually incorporate fantastic elements. Do you think that The House of the Seven Gables is more of a romance or a novel? Should it be classified as another genre altogether?

The House of the Seven Gables is, in fact, a skillful blending of both narrative approaches. The book contains some fantastic elements, but most of these never stray far from reality. Two scenes—the two Maule ghosts restraining the spirit of Colonel Pyncheon and the ghosts parading in front of the dead Judge—are too fantastical to have actually occurred, but one is presented as a vision of Alice Pyncheon’s and the other as speculation on the narrator’s part. The hypnotic powers of the young Matthew Maule and Holgrave are certainly eerie and mystical, but hypnosis does exist, and therefore these scenes are not entirely fantastical. While The House of the Seven Gables does not belong to the horror genre, it does incorporate many elements of horror, sharing with the horror genre the realization that the greatest shock value can be created by making things too horrible to be true but not so awful that they can’t be believed. By straddling the line between the romance and the novel, and by refusing to commit entirely to any genre, Hawthorne makes his work shocking but also thought-provoking. He creates a work of fiction that entertains and teaches with a fantastical plot that is also rich with literary and historical themes.

3.

Discuss the role of “fate” in the novel. How much of the Pyncheons’ bad luck is caused by fate, and how much results from their own actions and choices?

At the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables, fate is believed to direct the fortunes of Hepzibah and Clifford. The novel indulges this belief with its graphic descriptions of a curse that has worked itself into the very walls of the house. As the story progresses, however, we begin to wonder if other elements are not also at work. Holgrave’s revolutionary doctrine of tearing down the houses of the dead implies that Clifford and Hepzibah become complicit in their persecution by being passive. They accept the cruelty they are handed with a meekness that borders on irresponsibility. The rest of the Pyncheons also appear to be partly responsible for their own bad luck: Maule’s curse seems to affect only those who are driven by excessive ambition and greed, while the more docile members of the family seem to lead happy lives. To a certain extent, the novel does put a lot of stock in fate, which is demonstrated by its eloquent passages depicting the house as an inescapable prison. Nonetheless, the story also suggests repeatedly that fate is simply another obstacle to overcome, and that our ultimate destiny always remains ours to determine.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Discuss the presence of decay and decaying things in The House of the Seven Gables. What does decay symbolize in the novel?

2. Can Clifford be considered a good person? How is his goodness or malice reflected in the way he treats Phoebe and Hepzibah?

3. Discuss the role of hypnotism and mesmerism in The House of the Seven Gables.

4. How is Phoebe different from all the other characters in the novel? Does she resemble any one character more than the others? If so, why?

5. Why does Hepzibah continue to refuse the Judge’s offers of financial help? Can these offers be viewed as genuine, or are there by ulterior motives?

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