Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
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 somehow involved with Clifford’s arrest and imprisonment. For these reasons, Clifford refuses to see him when the judge offers to give Clifford and Hepzibah a home at his country seat.
Meanwhile, Phoebe has become friendly with Mr. Holgrave. In turn, he thinks that she brings light and hope into the gloomy old house, and he misses her greatly when she returns to her home in the country. Her visit is to be a brief one, however, for she went only to make some preparations before coming to live permanently with Miss Hepzibah and Clifford.
Before Phoebe returns from the country, Judge Pyncheon visits the House of the Seven Gables and, over Miss Hepzibah’s protest, insists on seeing Clifford, who, he says, knows a family secret that means great wealth for the judge. When at last she goes out of the room to summon her brother, Judge Pyncheon sits down in the old chair by the fireplace, over which hangs the portrait of the Pyncheon who built the house. As the judge sits in the old chair, his ticking watch in his hand, an unusually strong family likeness can be noted between the stern judge and his Puritan ancestor in the portrait. Unable to find Clifford to deliver the judge’s message, Miss Hepzibah returns. As she approaches the door, Clifford appears from within, laughing and pointing to the chair where the judge sits, dead of apoplexy, under the portrait of the old colonel: His shirtfront is stained with blood. The wizard’s curse is fulfilled once more; God gave him blood to drink.
The two helpless old people are so distressed by the sight of the dead man that they creep away from the house without notifying anyone and depart on the train. The dead body of the judge remains seated in the chair.
It is some time before the body is discovered by Mr. Holgrave. When Phoebe returns to the house, he admits her. He did not summon the police because he wishes to protect the old couple as long as possible. While he and Phoebe are alone in the house, Mr. Holgrave declares his love for her. They are interrupted by the return of Miss Hepzibah and the now-calm Clifford. They decided that to run away would not solve their problem.
The police attribute the judge’s death to natural causes, and Clifford, Miss Hepzibah, and Phoebe become the heirs to his great fortune. It now seems certain that Jaffrey also died of natural causes, not by Clifford’s hand, and that the judge so arranged the evidence to make Clifford appear a murderer.
In a short time, all the occupants of the House of the Seven Gables are ready to move to the judge’s country estate, which they have inherited. They gather for the last time in the old room under the dingy portrait of Colonel Pyncheon. Clifford says he has a vague memory of something mysterious connected with the picture. Holgrave offers to explain the mystery and presses a secret spring near the picture. When he does so, the portrait falls to the floor, disclosing a recess in the wall. From this niche, Mr. Holgrave draws out the ancient Indian deed to the lands that the Pyncheons claimed. Clifford then remembers he once found the secret spring. It was this secret that Judge Pyncheon had hoped to learn from Clifford.
Phoebe asks how Mr. Holgrave happens to know these facts. The young man explains his name is not Holgrave, but Maule. He is, he says, a descendant of the wizard, Matthew Maule, and of Thomas Maule, who built the House of the Seven Gables. The knowledge of the hidden Indian deed was handed down to the descendants of Thomas, who built the compartment behind the portrait and secreted the deed there after the colonel’s death. Holgrave is the last of the Maules, and Phoebe, the last of the Pyncheons, will bear his name. Matthew Maule’s curse is expiated.
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