In reputation, The House of the Seven Gables usually stands in the shadow of its predecessor, The Scarlet Letter (1850). It is, however, a rich and solid achievement. Its characters are among Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most complex. The author thought it, in comparison with the earlier work, “more characteristic of my mind, and more proper and natural for me to write.” In his preface, Hawthorne explicitly states his moral: “the truth, namely that the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” This sentiment echoes the biblical adage that “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Hawthorne’s interest in the heritage of sin was probably whetted by the history of his own family. His first American ancestor, William Hathorne (Nathaniel himself added the w to the family name), was a soldier and magistrate who once had a Quaker woman publicly whipped through the streets. William’s son John, having, as Nathaniel said, “inherited the persecuting spirit,” was a judge at the infamous Salem witch trials, during which a defendant cursed another of the three judges with the cry, “God will give you blood to drink!” Thenceforth, as Hawthorne noted, although the family remained decent, respectable folk, their fortunes began to decline.
The fate of the Pyncheon family of the novel is considerably more dramatic. Matthew Maule’s curse on Colonel Pyncheon, who has persecuted him for witchcraft and wrested from him the land on which the seven-gabled house is to be built, is precisely that which Judge John Hathorne had heard in a similar trial. It is apparently fulfilled on the day of the housewarming, when Colonel Pyncheon dies of apoplexy, the hemorrhage rising through his throat to stain his white shirt. Hawthorne would have readers believe, however, that such sins as Pyncheon’s are not so easily compensated. The family occupies the mansion, but misfortune is their constant lot. There are repeated apoplectic deaths, sometimes heralded by an ominous gurgling in the throat; greed leads Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, like his ancestor, to participate in a trumped-up trial, this time against his own cousin; and years of pride and isolation thin the family blood so that, like the...
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