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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and 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.)
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The House of the Seven Gables!