The House of the Seven Gables
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Sins of One Generation Are Visited on the Next
This theme is the “moral” of The House of the Seven Gables, as Hawthorne states in the Preface, and he takes many opportunities to link the misdeeds of Colonel Pyncheon to the subsequent misfortunes of the Pyncheon family. The Colonel’s portrait looms ominously over the action of the story, and the apoplectic deaths of three separate Pyncheons clearly fulfill Matthew Maule’s curse on the Colonel: “God will give him blood to drink.” Old Jaffrey Pyncheon and his nephew, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, are both found dead with blood coating their shirts and beards, linking their deaths to that of the Colonel. Aware that the notion of an inherited curse is fantastic and perhaps inappropriate for an otherwise realistic novel, Hawthorne breaks literary convention just so that he can pursue the idea that the crimes of one generation can have awful repercussions for succeeding ones. In the Preface he emphasizes that The House of the Seven Gables is a “Romance” rather than a “Novel,” allowing him to include the fantastical elements that pervade the novel. Hawthorne portrays the disastrous results of sin as indelible. Even centuries cannot make the stain of the Colonel’s sins go away: though the primary action of the novel takes place almost 200 years later, the Pyncheons still feel the effects of their ancestor’s crime.
Hawthorne has less faith in the power of curses, however, and while Maule’s warning from the scaffold sets the story in motion, the novel does not suggest that a curse alone can punish a whole family. On the contrary, the Pyncheons’ misery seems to be brought about largely by their own greed and overreaching ambition. Colonel Pyncheon brings about the curse while trying to steal land; Gervayse Pyncheon’s life, once quiet and peaceful, takes a tragic turn when his attempt to recover a missing land deed results in the death of his daughter, Alice; and even old Jaffrey Pyncheon dies as a result of seeing his young nephew rooting greedily through his papers. The simple fact that a curse hangs over the family is not enough to damn them all; only when a Pyncheon grasps for excessive wealth or power is he or she brought down. Since the family’s greed brings about its demise, Maule’s curse, while certainly a warning against avarice, may in fact be no more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Class Status in New England
Hawthorne satirizes nineteenth-century New England society’s preoccupation with class status in The House of the Seven Gables. His critique of class distinctions becomes most pointed when Hepzibah frets over opening the store and when Holgrave proclaims his revolutionary ideology. The feud between the Maules and the Pyncheons is a class conflict of its own—a modest farming family pitted against elite Puritan followers of the church, the law, and the army. Matthew Maule is a poor farmer sent to the gallows with relative ease by Colonel Pyncheon, a wealthy landowner and, as implied in his name, a onetime army man. The interaction between the younger Matthew Maule and Gervayse Pyncheon makes this class distinction even more evident, for the young Maule first refuses to enter the house of the seven gables from the back, as would befit a member of the working class, and then is disturbed by Alice Pyncheon’s apparent disdain for his workman’s status. Even lineage fails to prevent class discrimination: Hepzibah knows that the Judge’s status makes his threat to send Clifford to an asylum very real. The scenes where Hepzibah sets up shop read like a humorous mockery of the aristocratic class, but in the case of Matthew Maule, and later of Clifford, New England society’s preoccupation with class is clearly shown to be no laughing matter.
The Deceptiveness of Appearances
The House of the Seven Gables frequently uses the Judge’s infectious smile to demonstrate that appearances can mask underlying truths. Even as his cruelty becomes apparent, Judge Pyncheon’s brilliant smile continues to dazzle almost everyone. Hepzibah’s scowl, which results from a physical impediment (nearsightedness), keeps customers away from her store and even repulses her beloved brother, Clifford. While authors often focus closely on the physical appearances of characters, Hawthorne makes physical appearance the defining feature of these two characters: the Judge’s smile seems to take on a life of its own, and Hepzibah’s scowl becomes her most identifiable trait. That Hawthorne chooses to put these features on such prominent display, and then to contrast them so sharply with the personalities behind them, seems to illustrate that he is making a point about how easily a person’s appearance informs judgments about them. Other examples, such as the popular opinion that the wise Uncle Venner is actually a simpleton, further demonstrate Hawthorne’s view that outward appearances are often misleading.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The House of the Seven Gables deals frequently with reveries and trances, as the Maules have an unusual ability to mesmerize others. Franz Mesmer was an eighteenth-century doctor who believed patients could be cured with psychological or even magical methods; “mesmerism” was the term given to his unique brand of hypnosis-based treatment. The most noteworthy instance of this phenomenon in The House of the Seven Gables occurs when Holgrave tells Phoebe the story of the younger Matthew Maule’s mesmerism of Alice Pyncheon, which in turn puts Phoebe into a trance. The Judge’s smile has a sort of narcotic effect, too, seeming to draw people in, even against their will. The motif of mesmerism allows Hawthorne to accomplish the objective he so plainly stated in his Preface: to introduce a fantastic element into the story without completely sacrificing its realism. The presence of mesmerism also allows for other fantastic phenomena to appear in the novel: when Phoebe finds Hepzibah alone in a room yet hears the murmur of voices, this episode requires no substantive explanation and can be cast as yet another offshoot of this nontraditional science. Clifford phrases it best when he enthusiastically endorses mesmerism, which he says will fling “the door of substance . . . wide open” to a spiritual world. In the case of Holgrave’s hypnosis of Phoebe, mesmerism also comes to stand for the power of fiction, where the right fiction can grab the audience and hold it in a trance.
The House of the Seven Gables uses physical degradation and decay to mirror the spiritual decay that the Pyncheon family suffers. The house itself has decayed over a century and a half, and the garden is depicted as damaged, overgrown with weeds, its summerhouse crushed and covered with vines, its resident chickens now diminished. Even the neighborhood in which the house resides has become outmoded and unappealing. As the house becomes less pleasant, so do its inhabitants, as evidenced by the scowling, penniless Hepzibah, a sharp contrast to the beautiful, aristocratic Alice Pyncheon. Yet this parallel between property and people allows for renewal as well as decay. Phoebe and Holgrave tend the garden and fix the summerhouse, and even the chickens begin to return to health under their care. The motif of decay clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of families that “plant” themselves in tainted soil, as Holgrave puts it. This perspective is countered by the more hopeful notion that decay can be arrested and turned to growth.
The Judge’s Smile
In The House of the Seven Gables, the Judge’s smile is brandished like a weapon and gives him an almost hypnotic power. The smile seems to function independently of its owner, glowing even when the rest of the Judge’s face burns with rage or anger. The smile masks the Judge’s cruel intentions, but it also serves as a testament to the force of his convictions and self-righteousness. One of the most menacing aspects of the Judge’s character is his arrogance; despite his malicious offenses, he maintains that he has done nothing wrong. His smile helps to establish one of the most haunting themes in The House of the Seven Gables—that an appealing appearance can mask underlying evil.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The house of the seven gables is an obvious symbol of the declining Pyncheon fortunes, but it also stands as a more general warning against the dangers of becoming too embedded in the past. Holgrave repudiates the connection of family and property when he explains that true political freedom lies in the ability of each successive generation to tear down the old structures and replace them with its own. When Clifford flees the scene of the Judge’s death and gets his first taste of freedom on the train, he validates this viewpoint by characterizing the house as a dungeon from which he has escaped and touting the railroad as an invention that will bring humanity back to its original nomadic state. Although the novel concludes with its protagonists finding comfort within the walls of the Judge’s country estate, the house of the seven gables lingers as a testament to the incarceration of the human spirit. (Note that the Judge himself is described as a mansion soured by a rotting corpse buried somewhere in its walls.)
The Portrait of Colonel Pyncheon
Of all the symbols in The House of the Seven Gables, none is more prominent than the portrait of the Colonel, who watches generation after generation of Pyncheons fall prey to the same ambitions that brought him down. Judge Pyncheon strongly resembles the portrait, our first indication that he too may be corrupt. Clifford recoils at the sight of the portrait, which may be read as evidence of his more honest, upstanding character. As Gervayse Pyncheon agrees to exchange the house for young Matthew Maule’s help in finding the Maine land grant, he thinks he sees the portrait frown with disapproval, signaling both that Gervayse’s deal may not satisfy the Pyncheon standards for greed and that something awful may be about to occur. That the much-sought-after deed is hidden behind the portrait is symbolic of the frustrations that greed inevitably brings, as the ambitions of the Pyncheons are indirectly stymied by a portrait of their own ancestor.
The Pyncheon chickens are a scraggly bunch, a clear symbol of the waning fortunes of the family that breeds them. Once the size of turkeys, the chickens have shrunk to regular size and now look weak. Their perseverance remains admirable, however. Like the garden and the fortunes of Clifford and Hepzibah, the chickens are also on the mend. Clifford’s declaration that the chickens shall be freed from their coop indicates the importance of freedom and release. The chicken seems like an odd bird for Hawthorne to have selected to represent the Pyncheon family, and his choice introduces a satirical touch to the novel. In using the chickens to symbolize the proud, aristocratic Pyncheons, Hawthorne has in effect denigrated them to a gaggle of constantly fighting, squawking birds.
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