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 scrawny chickens that peck in the Pyncheon garden, they are an unattractive, ineffectual lot. Judge Pyncheon is a monster who hides his avarice and callousness behind a facade of philanthropy and civic service. Clifford, like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, is a sensitive soul who is unmanned by his confrontation with evil; after years of imprisonment, he is poised on the brink of madness. Hepzibah, a spinster who has spent most of her life waiting for her brother’s release, is virtually helpless either to resolve her precarious financial situation or to deal with her malevolent cousin.
Only young Phoebe possesses both goodness and energy. It is significant that she is the “country cousin” whose father marries beneath his rank and that Hepzibah observes that the girl’s self-reliance must have come from her mother’s blood. Thus Hawthorne casts his vote for the energizing effects of a democratic, as opposed to an aristocratic, social system; he has Mr. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist, support this view with the comment that families should continually merge into the great mass of humanity, without regard to ancestry.
The other fully vital character in the novel is Mr. Holgrave, the young daguerreotypist. He is one of Hawthorne’s most charming creations: a perceptive, adventurous man who has been, it seems, almost everywhere and done almost everything. His conversations with Phoebe reveal him as a radical who believes that the past “lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body,” preventing any generation’s true fulfillment—a thesis frequently expressed by Hawthorne’s contemporary,...
(The entire section is 966 words.)