Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
House of the Seven Gables
House of the Seven Gables. Colonial house built in the English style of half-timber and half-plaster on Pyncheon Street in an unnamed town in Massachusetts. The house had been built by Colonel Pyncheon, who had wrested the desirable site from Matthew Maule, a poor man executed as a wizard. Colonel Pyncheon was responsible for Maule’s execution and took the doomed man’s land. At the moment of his execution, Maule declared that God would give the Pyncheons blood to drink. Despite this grim prophecy, the colonel had his house, and its builder was Thomas Maule, son of the condemned wizard.
Just as the personality of a character evolves over the course of a story, the personality and appearance of the house change as the narrative unfolds. In the late 1600’s, when Colonel Pyncheon first erects the building, it is the most opulent structure in the town. Located on the outskirts, it reflects the colonel’s wealth, social position, and love of fine things. However, because he swindled Maule out of the land on which the house stands, it is also a symbol of the colonel’s cold, greedy, and dishonest nature.
In the years that follow, Gervayse, the colonel’s grandson, and Gervayse’s beautiful daughter, Alice, occupy the house, and it again reflects the character of its occupants. The narrator points out that, although the dwelling is beginning to show its age, it is still a solid, pleasant mansion,...
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The United States: The Mid-Nineteenth Century
At the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, Americans were optimistically looking forward to the future. Opportunity was the buzzword of the day as territorial expansion and the industrial revolution continued to sweep the nation. The gold rush was on in California and with such economic opportunity feeding their dreams, Americans continued to seek land, wealth, and individual success.
Despite such hope and enthusiasm, the country was becoming increasingly divided on the issue of slavery. The debate about abolition was closely linked to the issue of territorial expansion. During President James K. Polk’s term in office, the United States nearly doubled in size, but with this expansion came questions of the status of blacks in the new territories. With the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the United States as a “free” state, yet other territories were allowed to decide whether they wanted to permit slavery or not. Also in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect, which stated that fugitive slave commissioners could issue arrest warrants for fugitive slaves and order their return to their masters. The act enraged anti-slavery states, and also in 1850, states like Vermont began to pass their own personal-liberty legislation. This legislation stated that fugitive slaves who escaped to free states did not have to be turned over to federal officers for return...
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The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic novel, which is a type of novel that was popularized in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Gothic romances trace back to Horace Walpole’s 1765 novel, The Castle of Otranto and were often mysteries that involved the supernatural. Characteristically, novels of this type take place in haunted castles or other remote and isolated locations. Often, gothic romances involve a heroine in peril and are peppered with horror and violence. The House of the Seven Gables clearly takes after this genre. Though not a castle, the House of the Seven Gables is a desolate home that has a seemingly ongoing history of violence within its walls. The house is haunted by the curse that Matthew Maule (the elder) placed on Colonel Pyncheon in 1692 just before the former’s execution for witchcraft. The mysterious deaths of Colonel Pyncheon, Jaffrey Pyncheon, and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, along with Matthew Maule’s alleged witchcraft, his grandson’s ability to mesmerize Alice Pyncheon, and later Holgrave’s ability to do the same with Phoebe all can be seen as supernatural elements within the text.
Third-Person Omniscient and First-Person Plural Point of View
The House of the Seven Gables is told primarily in the third-person omniscient point of view. This means that the narrator, who is not a character in the story, tells the events of the story...
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In his celebrated Preface to the novel, Hawthorne makes a point of calling The House of the Seven Gables a romance. Intent on distinguishing it from the novel, which he asserts is bound more closely to tenets of verisimilitude, the novelist insists his work is less concerned with representing with exactitude the everyday life of the people he writes about than it is with offering readers a portrait of human nature that is psychologically true. Hawthorne makes use of the intrusive and omniscient narrator, who comments on the actions of the men and women in the story and directs readers to an understanding of both character and theme.
A master of the use of symbolism, Hawthorne fills this novel with objects and people who serve to highlight his themes and suggest a greater dimension to his work. Without question, the central symbol is the House itself. Erected by the Pyncheons on the spot of land which the Colonel wrested from Matthew Maule, it represents the decay of a family whose fortunes have been ill-gotten. The elm tree which stands outside its door keeps out the sun and seems to engulf the edifice in a gloom which permeates the lives of the inhabitants of the House.
As he does in many of his other works, Hawthorne also makes masterful use of light and darkness to suggest moral states. Phoebe Pyncheon is constantly associated with the light; she seems to bring sunshine into any place she enters, indicating a wholesomeness and moral...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Critics and general readers alike agree that most of Hawthorne's fiction has a quality of "density" about it; that is, the surface tale is related in such a way as to suggest deeper levels of significance. The House of the Seven Gables is no exception. Although the work has all the trappings of a Gothic romance, the story of the curse on the House of Pyncheon appears to most readers to be more serious than its surface details indicate. Careful attention to parallels established between characters, and between characters and setting, as well as allusions to other literary works and events in history, give the novel a richness of meaning which becomes apparent on repeated readings.
1. Hawthorne takes great pains to describe in detail the physical setting for his story, especially the House and its contents; he is also concerned with the physical setting of the town of Salem. How does he use setting as a commentary on the Pyncheon family and on New England society in general?
2. Although most of the novel is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, Hawthorne occasionally adopts a more limited perspective, relating events through one or the characters in the story. What is the effect of this technique? What is the novelist trying to achieve by shifting his perspective?
3. Hawthorne is a careful novelist, creating details about his characters which reveal something relevant to one of more of his themes. One example...
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Compare and Contrast
1850: The population of the United States is 23,191,876.
2000s: In 2000, the population of the United States is 281,421,906.
1850: Hawthorne purchases a house in Concord, Massachusetts for $1,500.
2000s: In 2004, with prices ranging from $275,000 to $4.8 million, the average home price in Concord, Massachusetts is $600,000.
1850: Working women often work as shopkeepers, seamstresses, domestic servants, teachers, or hat and fan makers.
2000s: Working women can be found in most every occupation, including corporate management, medicine, dentistry, construction, marketing and communications, trucking, accounting, small business ownership, and software programming.
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Topics for Further Study
Much has been said by critics about the ways in which Hawthorne’s life is evidenced in his fiction. Research Hawthorne’s life and discuss which people and events in his life seem to surface in this novel. To what extent do you believe that writing this novel helped Hawthorne explore issues of sin and poverty? After writing this novel, do you think he felt better or worse about his ancestors and current social position?
Some reviewers have been critical of the ending of this novel. Is the pairing of Phoebe and Holgrave believable to you? Does it seem to be too much of a Hollywood ending that neatly cleanses the families of their sordid past? If you could write a new ending, what would you have happen?
Hawthorne states early on that one of the main themes in this novel is that the sins of the past are passed down through generations. Do you agree or disagree? Can you point to any examples in society today where something like crime seems to persist from generation to generation? Can you cite any examples to the contrary where perhaps people have overcome their pasts and made successful lives for themselves?
Hawthorne named this novel after the house in which most of the action takes place. Why do you think he did this? What does the house symbolize? Can you think of any other titles that he might have given the novel?
Watch the 1940 film version of the novel. How does the film differ from the book? If you directed the...
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Like The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables relies heavily on techniques developed by Gothic novelists during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The House, like the haunted castles in the European versions of Gothic fiction, dominates the landscape and serves as the focal point for the series of sinister and terrifying activities in the story. The novelist also includes a heavy dose of coincidence and a cast of characters bordering on stereotypes. He even uses the device of the interpolated tale, the story of Alice Pyncheon, to add a sense of mystery to his tale.
A number of critics have pointed out parallels between the novel and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a seventeenth-century allegory describing the journey of a good Christian to heaven. As he does in much of his other work, Hawthorne makes frequent allusions to Biblical figures and events; these add resonance to the text and suggest a wider range of significance for the events of the tale.
The House of the Seven Gables is also heavily reminiscent of Greek tragedy. The Pyncheon family, like a number of Greek families represented in the dramas of Sophocles and Aeschylus, suffers from a curse brought on by the behavior of an ancestor who seeks to gain advantage over his neighbor by immoral methods. The descendants of Governor Pyncheon, who built his house on property swindled from his nemesis Matthew Maule, are doomed to live out...
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A number of Hawthorne's works are set in Puritan New England, and readers will find similar themes treated in stories such as "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." The most striking parallels, however, can be found in the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, where men and women struggle to overcome a fate determined by the actions of ancestors. The novel can be viewed as a principal source of inspiration for one of the great twentieth-century works about family decadence: William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
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The House of the Seven Gables was brought to life on the screen in 1940. Unfortunately, producer Burt Kelly, director Joe May, and writer Lester Cole chose to adapt Hawthorne's story freely, and the result was not well received by either critics or the movie-going public. If there is a saving grace to the production, it lies in the work of the actors who were cast in leading roles. George Sanders is convincing as the evil and duplicitous Jaffrey Pyncheon, while Vincent Price — noted for his roles as a villain — is equally adept in portraying the heroic Clifford Pyncheon. Margaret Lindsay gives a creditable performance as Hepzibah.
More than a half dozen audio recordings of the novel have been produced since the 1970's, including one targeted at foreign speakers to assist them in understanding the story, and one aimed at students, providing an adaptation of the tale, study aids, and vocabulary exercises.
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An unabridged reading of The House of Seven Gables read by Roslyn Alexander is available through http://www.audible.com for purchase. Produced in 1993 by Recorded Books, Inc., this reading runs for over twelve hours.
A second reading of The House of the Seven Gables, which runs six hours and is narrated by Joan Allen, is also available. This abridged reading was produced by Dove Audio, Inc. in 1997.
Http://www.audiobooks.com also offers a recorded reading of The House of Seven Gables performed by Buck Schirner and produced by Brilliance. This 1995 version runs eleven hours.
J. Searle Dawley directed a silent film adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables in 1910. This adaptation starred Mary Fuller as Hepzibah Pyncheon and was produced by the Edison Company.
The House of the Seven Gables was adapted as a film by Joe May in 1940. The adaptation starred George Sanders, Margaret Lindsay, Vincent Price, Dick Foran, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Gilbert Emery, Miles Mander, and Charles Trowbridge. Universal Studios re-released the video in June 1998.
In 1951, Robert Montgomery and the production company Neptune produced a fifty-minute adaptation of the novel starring Gene Lockhart, June Lockhart, Leslie Nielson, and Richard Purdy.
In 1963, Admiral released a two-hour production of Hawthorne’s works starring Vincent Price. Twice Told Tales includes two of Hawthorne’s short...
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What Do I Read Next?
One of Hawthorne’s best-known and respected novels is The Scarlet Letter (1850).
Hawthorne self-published his first novel Fanshawe in 1828.
Following the publication of The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne completed two additional novels: The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860).
Herman Melville and Hawthorne shared a brief friendship from 1850 until 1856. The two reviewed each other’s work publicly and even after Hawthorne’s death, Melville continued to read and annotate Hawthorne’s work. Melville’s character Vine in his long poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (published by Northwestern University Press in 1991) is believed to be based on Hawthorne.
Another poem by Herman Melville that is believed to be about Hawthorne is “Monody,” which first appeared in Timoleon (published by Folcroft Library Editions in 1976) and can also be found in American Poetry : The Nineteenth Century: Herman Melville to Trumbull Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (published by the Library of America in 1993).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Buitenhuis, Peter, “Critical Reception,” in his “The House of the Seven Gables”: Severing Family and Colonial Ties, Twayne’s Masterwork Studies, No. 66, Twayne Publishers, 1991, p. 11.
Chorley, Henry Fothergill, “The House of Seven Gables,” in Athenaeum, Scarecrow Author Bibliographies, No. 82, Scarecrow Press, 1988, p. 88.
Crowley, J. Donald, “Introduction,” in Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage, Barnes & Noble, 1970, pp. 7, 9.
Fogle, Richard Harter, “III: The House of Seven Gables,” in Hawthorne’s Imagery: The Proper “Light and Shadow” in the Major Romances, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969, pp. 49, 50, 52.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The House of the Seven Gables, Modern Library, 2001.
Meeks, Wayne A., ed., “Deuteronomy 5:21,” in The Harper- Collins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Harper- Collins Publishers, 1989, p. 278.
Warren, Austin, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in Rage for Order: Essays in Criticism, 1948, reprint, University of Michigan Press, 1959, pp. 84–103.
Whipple, Edwin Percy, “The House of Seven Gables,” in Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 6, June 1851, pp. 467–68.
Boswell, Jeanetta, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism, 1900–1978, Rowman & Littlefield, 1982. As the...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Abel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988. Sees the novel as an allegory about love versus self-love, tradition versus ambition and pride, and imagination versus preoccupation with the present fact.
Donohue, Agnes McNeill. Hawthorne: Calvin’s Ironic Stepchild. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985. Calls the novel Hawthorne’s attempt to “gloss over” his basically tragic view that the parents’ sins are visited upon the children. Argues that its dominant symbol, after the house itself, is the garden of Eden, which in turn is connected to the idea of the Fall. Claims the book’s ending indicates that Phoebe and Holgrave will be tempted into another Fall.
Male, Roy R. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957. Argues that the book’s theme is the interpenetration of past and present. Breaks new ground in the critical understanding of Hawthorne.
Martin, Terrence. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Focuses on ways in which Hawthorne and his characters view the effects of the past on the present. Also investigates the novel’s treatment of Hawthorne’s theme of the relationship between head (Holgrave) and heart (Phoebe).
Waggoner, Hyatt H. The...
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