Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The House of the Seven Gables is a colonial house built in the English style of half-timber and half-plaster. It stands on Pyncheon Street in quiet Salem. The house was built by Colonel Pyncheon, who wrested the desirable site from Matthew Maule, a poor man executed as a wizard. Colonel Pyncheon was responsible for the execution, and he takes the doomed man’s land, so Maule, at the moment of his execution, declares that God will give the Pyncheons blood to drink. Despite this grim prophecy, the colonel has his house, and its builder is Thomas Maule, son of the old wizard.
Colonel Pyncheon, dying in his great oak chair just after the house is completed, chokes with blood so that his shirtfront is stained scarlet. Although doctors explain the cause of his death as apoplexy, the townsfolk had not forgotten old Maule’s prophecy. The time of the colonel’s death is auspicious. It is said that he just completed a treaty by which he bought huge tracts of land from the Indians, but this deed was not confirmed by the general court and was never discovered by any of his heirs. Rumor also has it that a man was seen leaving the house about the time Colonel Pyncheon died.
More recently, another startling event occurred at the House of the Seven Gables. Jaffrey Pyncheon, a bachelor, was found dead in the colonel’s great oaken armchair, and his nephew, Clifford Pyncheon, was sentenced to imprisonment after being found guilty of the murder of his uncle.
These events were in the unhappy past, however, and in 1850, the House of the Seven Gables is the home of Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly, single woman who rents one wing of the old house to a young man of radical tendencies, a maker of daguerreotypes, whose name is Mr. Holgrave.
Miss Hepzibah is about to open a shop in one of the rooms of her house. Her brother Clifford is coming home from the state prison after thirty years, and she has to earn money in some way to support him. On the first day of her venture as a storekeeper, Miss Hepzibah proves to be a failure. The situation is saved, however, by the arrival of young Phoebe Pyncheon from the country. Soon sheias operating the shop at a profit.
Clifford arrives from the prison a broken man of childish, querulous ways. Once he tries to throw himself from a big arched window which affords him almost his only contact with the outside world. He is fond of Phoebe, but Miss Hepzibah irritates him with her sullen scowling. For acquaintances, Clifford has Uncle Venner, a handyman who does odd jobs for the neighborhood, and the tenant of the house, Mr. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist.
The only other relative living in town is the highly respected Judge Pyncheon, another nephew of old Jaffrey, for whose murder Clifford spent thirty years in prison. He is, in fact, the heir of the murdered man, and he was...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The House of the Seven Gables is based upon another of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” To illustrate his thesis, Hawthorne drew upon another verse from the book of Exodus, which reads in part: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Hawthorne’s scope in this work was considerably more ambitious than that of The Scarlet Letter, a story which covered a time span of less than ten years.
In The House of the Seven Gables, the author tries to show how Old Maule’s curse afflicts his false accuser and all his descendants for two centuries. In this, Hawthorne is not entirely successful, but his was a gallant effort. Henry James said of this novel:[I]t has always seemed to me more like a prologue to a great novel than a great novel itself. I think this is partly owing to the fact that the subject . . . of the story, does not quite fill it out, and that we get at the same time an impression of certain complicated purposes on the author’s part, which seem to reach beyond it.
To deal with all the descendants of the greedy and malicious Colonel Pyncheon over a period of two hundred years would require several thick volumes. Hawthorne attempted to cope with this artistic problem by dramatizing the plight of the last few descendants and referring to the others in expository flashbacks. As James suggests, however, this does not give satisfactory proof of his proposition that a curse could affect every member of a family for such a long period of time.
In The Scarlet Letter it is quite easy to see how the sin of adultery can be “punished” through natural laws. The minister succumbs to passion and then feels guilty when he is forced to witness the suffering he has caused. The biggest question raised by the story of The House of the Seven Gables, on the other hand, is whether a house can carry a curse for two hundred years, and, if so, how. Furthermore, if Matthew Maule had the power to invoke such a curse, then Colonel Pyncheon was not bearing false witness when he caused him to be hanged for witchcraft.
The writer William Faulkner was obviously influenced by this novel. Many of Faulkner’s works deal with the theme of how entire Southern families were cursed for the sin of exploiting black slaves. In his famous novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), he shows the degeneration of an old Southern family in a manner echoing the degeneration of the Pyncheon family in The House of the Seven Gables. In Faulkner’s long story “The Bear” (1942), the protagonist gives up title to the land he inherited from his slave-owning ancestors to get rid of the curse he feels he inherited along with it.
Faulkner’s treatment of the theme of succeeding generations being visited with the iniquity of their forefathers seems more plausible than Hawthorne’s; it is easy to see how white aristocrats would be forced to perpetuate their unjust treatment of blacks in order to maintain their status. Each generation would be morally weakened by the parasitical dependence on exploited labor and at the same time forced to see the visible...
(The entire section is 1346 words.)