Social Concerns / Themes

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As he does in The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne takes for the subject of The House of the Seven Gables the history of his New England forebears. Concentrating on the rigid social dicta which governed the lives — both public and private — of the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts, he presents a graphic image of the cruelties which resulted from adherence to strict codes of behavior which fail to take into account human feelings.

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One might reduce the principal theme of The House of the Seven Gables to a single quotation from the Bible: "The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon their sons." Certainly at the heart of the novel is the notion that the behavior of one's ancestors determines in a significant way the present opportunities and attitudes of succeeding generations. Through the story of the Pyncheon family, the novelist demonstrates how an ancient curse — here used metaphorically to describe the effects ensuing from the sin committed by the original Colonel Pyncheon in defrauding Matthew Maule — can only be broken when the family performs some act of redemption. The complex plot of the novel is designed to create the circumstances under which the generations of Pyncheons whose story is central to Hawthorne's story are able to rid themselves of the curse by renouncing the House — another symbol, used by the author to represent graphically the ill-gotten advantage which the Pyncheons had realized as a result of the Colonel's dealings with the first of the Maule family. Throughout the novel Hawthorne hints that their tale is a rendition of the myth of Eden, a tale of loss and redemption in which the power of love allows the hero and heroine to transcend the original sin of their ancestors.


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Subsequent Generations Inherit the Sins of Their Ancestors
As stated in the preface, one of the primary themes in The House of the Seven Gables is that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones.” In this case, Colonel Pyncheon’s support of Matthew Maule’s prosecution and ultimate execution start the chain of events that seem to carry down through the generations. Just before his death, Matthew Maule (the elder) curses Colonel Pyncheon, stating that “God will give him blood to drink.” During the Colonel’s first house warming festivities, he indeed dies with blood covering his beard and shirt. This first death is followed by the similar deaths of old Jaffrey Pyncheon and his nephew, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. Although these deaths can be attributed to a family predisposition for apoplexy, the existence of the curse and the similar nature of each death suggest something supernatural about the way in which such sinful behavior resurfaces within a family’s lineage. This supernatural element conveys the idea that individuals are somewhat unable to control their own destinies. Another way to read Hawthorne’s suggested theme, however, is that in this case, the Pyncheon family was not cursed by Matthew Maule and his supernatural powers as much as they were by their own folly. Colonel Pyncheon, old Jaffrey Pyncheon, Alice Pyncheon, and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon all die because of either their own avarice or that of one of their close family members. To this extent, then, the responsibility for evil or wrong doing lies with the individual rather than with the ancestors who may have made similarly poor decisions and had similar personality and character flaws.

Class Distinctions and the Fall of the Aristocracy
Hawthorne devotes much of his commentary in this novel to the discussion of class. This theme is first introduced by the distinctions between the Pyncheon and Maule families and their descendents. The Pyncheons were a prominent, wealthy, and successful family while the Maules were “generally poverty-stricken; always plebian and obscure;...

(The entire section contains 1053 words.)

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