The House of the Seven Gables begins with a preface that identifies the work as a romance, not a novel. As such, Hawthorne prepares readers for the fluid mixture of realism and fantasy that the romance genre allows. The preface also conveys the major theme of the book, which Hawthorne refers to as a moral: “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and . . . becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.”
A battered house with seven gables stands in a small New England town. (Gables are the triangular structures formed by two intersecting points of a roof.) The house, which belongs to the Pyncheon family, has a long and controversial history. In the mid-1600s, a local farmer named Matthew Maule builds a house on fertile land near a pleasant spring. In the late 1600s, the surrounding neighborhood has become fashionable, and the wealthy Colonel Pyncheon covets Maule’s land. Several years later, Maule is hanged for witchcraft, and rumors abound that Pyncheon was behind Maule’s conviction. Maule curses Colonel Pyncheon from the scaffold, but the Colonel is unfazed; he even hires Maule’s own son to build him a new mansion with seven gables on the property. At a party held to inaugurate his new mansion, the Colonel is found dead in his study, his beard covered in blood. The Colonel has left a will ordering that his portrait not be taken down, but one of his important documents—the deed for a giant land claim in Maine—is missing. The deed is never found, and generations of Pyncheons search for it in vain. From then on, the Pyncheon house continues to bring bad luck, culminating with young Clifford Pyncheon’s alleged murder of his uncle.
Many years later, the old maid who resides in the Pyncheon mansion, a nearsighted, scowling woman named Hepzibah, is forced to open a small store in her home to keep from starving. Hepzibah considers the store a source of great shame, despite the comforting words of Uncle Venner, a neighborhood character, and of Holgrave, Hepzibah’s rebellious young lodger, who practices an early form of photography known as daguerreotypy. Hepzibah remains pessimistic, and though she tries her best, her scowling face continues to frighten customers. The very day that she opens her shop, Hepzibah receives a visit from Phoebe, a young girl who is Hepzibah’s cousin through an extended branch of the Pyncheon family. At first, Hepzibah worries that Phoebe’s presence will upset Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, who is returning home from prison. Phoebe’s charm and diligence prevail, however, and she finally convinces Hepzibah to let her stay. When Clifford returns, battered and almost imbecilic from his time in prison, he is quite impressed by Phoebe. Contrary to Hepzibah’s fears, Clifford is more bothered by their poverty than by her tending to a store.
Even Phoebe’s presence cannot free Clifford and Hepzibah from the terror inspired by a visit from their cousin, Judge Pyncheon. The Judge has a very charismatic smile. He greets Hepzibah warmly and offers her financial support, but she furiously blocks the Judge’s way into the house, while, from inside, Clifford begs him to go away. Even the normally unflappable Phoebe experiences a moment of revulsion when the Judge greets her. Less terrible but equally strange is Holgrave, the house’s only lodger. He and Phoebe spend much time together, tending the garden and feeding the house chickens, a once-mighty breed whose former glory is compared to that of the Pyncheons. Holgrave explains his radical politics, which revolve around the principle that each generation should tear down the work of those before it, and asks Phoebe constantly about Clifford and his past.
Holgrave also tells Phoebe the story of Alice Pyncheon. A hundred years before, Alice’s father, Gervayse Pyncheon, summoned the young grandson of the older Matthew Maule, a carpenter also named Matthew Maule. Gervayse believed that since the younger Matthew Maule’s father built the Pyncheon house, the young man might know where to find the missing deed to the Pyncheon land. The younger Matthew Maule, although bitter at the Pyncheons’ mistreatment of his family, agrees to help in exchange for the house of the seven gables and the land on which it stands. He summons the spirits of his father, grandfather, and old Colonel Pyncheon by hypnotizing Gervayse’s young daughter, Alice. The two Maule spirits prevent Colonel Pyncheon’s ghost from telling Gervayse and the younger Matthew where the deed is, so the carpenter cancels the deal. He is elated to find that Alice has remained under his spell, and torments her in cruel and petty ways. On his wedding night, the young Maule forces Alice to serve his new bride. When Alice awakens from her trance, she rushes home through the snow, catches pneumonia, and dies. Maule is devastated by what he has done.
As Holgrave finishes his story, he realizes he has hypnotized Phoebe, but his integrity prevents him from abusing his power, and he wakes her from her trance. While Phoebe is making a visit to her home in the country, Judge Pyncheon returns to the house of the seven gables and forces Hepzibah to fetch Clifford, saying he will put Clifford in an asylum if Hepzibah does not retrieve him. The Judge explains that Clifford knows the location of their late uncle’s inheritance. Hepzibah cannot find Clifford in his room, but when she comes back downstairs she finds her brother pointing gleefully to the slumped figure of Judge Pyncheon. Worried that Clifford will be blamed for the murder, the brother and sister flee. When Phoebe returns, only Holgrave is home. He excitedly shows her a daguerreotype of the dead Judge and tells her that the curse has been lifted. Holgrave also tells Phoebe he loves her, and she admits to loving him in return. Although the neighbors become suspicious, Hepzibah and Clifford return before the body is discovered. Clifford is not suspected in the Judge’s death, and it is rumored that the Judge himself framed Clifford for the crime for which he served thirty years in prison. News arrives that the Judge’s estranged son has died in Europe, so the Judge’s inheritance goes to Clifford. Clifford, Hepzibah, Phoebe, Holgrave, and Uncle Venner all move to the Judge’s country estate, leaving the house of the seven gables to continue rotting away.