Nathaniel Hawthorne: The house of the seven gables

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 21 Pages

American Studies - Literature



Table of contents



A. Colonel Pyncheon - Gervayse Pyncheon - Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon
B. Matthew Maule - Maule the younger - Holgrave
C. Alice Pyncheon - Hepzibah - Phoebe
A. The House
B. Maule´s Well
C. The Elm Tree







The first chapter of The House of the Seven Gables entitled “The Old Pyncheon Family” introduces the central event of the novel: The conflict between Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule, those we can recognize as “first Pyncheon” and “first Maule”. Matthew Maule originally owned the property, on which the house of the seven gables was built, a relatively obscure man who was often called a wizard. Soon after Matthew Maule refused to sell the property to Colonel Pyncheon, he was charged with witchcraft and burned. Colonel Pyncheon led the charge against him, and thus acquired the property on which he later built the house. Years later the Colonel himself died suspiciously and his nephew was convicted of this murder.

This initial tale can be set as a sample, which will be repeated during the novel: Similar events and personalities will recur throughout time and even throughout the generations. The two major continuities in the novel are continuities of character and continuities of plot. Colonel Pyncheon establishes the model for future Pyncheons, who when placed in similar circumstances will demonstrate the same qualities as their ancestor. The descendants of Matthew Maule also inherit the strange powers of their ancestor, the wizard Matthew Maule. If characteristics and traits can be passed from generation to generation, sins may also be transmitted. The novel assumes that the sins of Colonel Pyncheon are found among his descendants and that the Pyncheons shall remain guilty of their ancestor’s crime until reparations are made.

A cyclical view of history is thus suggested by the “moral” Hawthorne announces in his preface, that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones”. Under Maule´s curse history seems to bring about the endless repetition of past acts. This dissertation wants to examine, how Hawthorne resolves the question of progress in The House of the Seven Gables: Is the potentiality of sin man’s predominant future, which has as a consequence the utter loss of freedom. In other words, does Hawthorne believe in the existentialism of guilt or, does he believe in the overcoming of guilt through a new beginning in the next generations.

A biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne will precede the development of the dissertation. Indeed, it is important to know an author’s past, in order to understand the narrative. It is as Sainte Beuve once said: “Tel arbre, tel fruit”. This is true for Hawthorne, since we can find elements in the narrative, which are very similar to some facts in Hawthorne’s life. In the first chapter of this dissertation, we will discuss all the repetitions occurring in the romance: first of all the characters reoccurring in almost every generation, i.e. Colonel Pyncheon, Gervaise Pyncheon and Jaffrey Pyncheon. For the Maules, Matthew Maule, Maule the Younger and Holgrave. Between Alice Pyncheon, Hepzibah and Phoebe, we can also find similarities. The main symbols of the narrative, the house and the garden, which symbolize the characters, are an object of further investigation.

Nevertheless, there is not only repetition in the romance, through Phoebe and Holgrave change seems to be possible and the burden of the past can be escaped. This will be discussed in the second chapter. In the third and last chapter the subject will be historicism: A balance will be made between change and repetition and how Hawthorne tries to unite the two. Furthermore we will point out how the critics deal with the end of Hawthorne’s romance.


1. The Early Years

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804- 1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, into an old Puritan family. He graduated from Bowdon College in 1825. He subsequently returned to his Salem home, living in semi-seclusion and writing. His work received little public recognition, however, and Hawthorne attempted to destroy all copies of his first novel, Fanshawe (1828), which he had published at his own expense. During this period, he also contributed articles and short stories to periodicals, which established Hawthorne as a leading writer. These early works are largely historical sketches and symbolic and allegorical tales dealing with moral conflicts and the effects of Puritanism on colonial New England.

Unable to earn a living by literary work, in 1839 Hawthorne took a post in the Boston customhouse. Two years later, he returned to writing and produced a series of sketches from New England history for children, Grandfather's Chair: A History for Youth (1841). In 1842, he married Sophia Amelia Peabody of Salem and settled in Concord, Massachusetts, in a house called the Old Manse. During the four years he lived in Concord, Hawthorne wrote a number of tales that were later published as Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). They include “Roger Malvin's Burial,” ”Rappaccini's Daughter,” and “Young Goodman Brown,” tales in which Hawthorne's preoccupation with the effects of pride, guilt, sin, and secrecy are combined with a continued emphasis on symbolism and allegory.

2. Maturity

To survive, Hawthorne returned to government service in 1846 as surveyor of the Salem customhouse. In 1849, he was dismissed because of a change in political administration. By then, he had already begun writing The Scarlet Letter (1850).

In 1850 Hawthorne moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, where he enjoyed the friendship of the novelist Herman Melville, an admirer of Hawthorne's work. At Lenox, Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables (1851), A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853). During a short stay in West Newton, Massachusetts, he produced The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852) and The Blithedale Romance (1852).

In 1852, Hawthorne returned to Concord, where he wrote a campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce. After Pierce's election to the United States presidency, he rewarded Hawthorne with the consulship at Liverpool, England, a post Hawthorne held until 1857. In 1858 and 1859, Hawthorne lived in Italy, collecting material for his heavily symbolic novel The Marble Faun (1860).

In 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, Hawthorne returned to the United States. His political isolation is indicated in his dedication of Our Old Home (1863) to Pierce, who had become highly unpopular because of his support of the Southern slave owners. Hawthorne's posthumously published works include the unfinished novels Septimius Felton (1872), The Dolliver Romance (1876), Dr. Grimshawe's Secret (1883), and The Ancestral Footsteps (1883) and his American Notebooks (1868), English Notebooks (1870), and French and Italian Notebooks (1871).

Hawthorne died May 19, 1864, and was buried on a hillside in the cemetery at Concord.

3. Biographic features in the House of the seven gables

The history of the Hawthorne family suggests in some elements the imaginary history of the Pyncheon family. John Hathorne (as the name was then spelled), the great grandfather of Nathaniel, was a magistrate at Salem in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and officiated at the famous trials for witchcraft held there. The husband of a woman, accused by this John Hathorne, prophesied that God would take revenge upon his wife’s prosecutors. This malediction corresponds with Matthew Maule´s malediction, that God would give Colonel Pyncheon “blood to drink”.

Philip English, an inhabitant of Salem maintained a lasting feud with John Hathorne. At his death, his daughter married the son of John Hathorne. The union between two hereditary opponents through marriage, also occurs in the House of the Seven Gables, i.e. the marriage of Phoebe Pyncheon and a Maule (Holgrave).

The Maules would possess some traits known to have been characteristics of the Hawthornes:

“So long as any of the race were to be found, they had been marked out from other men…by an hereditary character of reserve.”1 Thus, while the general suggestion of the Hawthorne line and its fortunes was followed in the romance, the Pyncheons taking the place of the author´s family, certain distinguishing marks of the Hawthorne´s were assigned to the imaginary Maule posterity.

Hawthorne in his romance probably connects the supposed murder of one of the Pyncheons by his nephew Clifford Pyncheon, with the murder of Mr. White, a wealthy gentleman of Salem, killed by a man whom his nephew had hired.

Eventually, The House of the Seven Gables would also be a reproduction of several old dwellings formerly existent in Salem:

“Familiar as it stands in the writer’s recollection - for it has been an object of curiosity with him from boyhood, both as a specimen of the best and stateliest architecture of a long- past epoch, and as the scene of events more full of interest than those of a gray feudal castle - familiar as it stands, in its rusty old age, it is therefore only the more difficult to imagine the bright novelty which it first caught the sunshine.”2

I. Tokens of Repetition

1.1 Characters

A. Colonel Pyncheon - Gervayse Pyncheon - Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon

“ In almost every generation, nevertheless, there happened to be some one descendant of the family gifted with a portion of the hard, keen sense, and practical energy, that had so remarkably distinguished the original founder.”3This original founder is thus Colonel Pyncheon, who is a man of “iron energy of purpose” whose desires outweigh any moral considerations. He typifies an aristocratic sensibility that borders on monarchism. He builds the House of the Seven Gables as a means to ensure continued domination of his descendants, and the house becomes an enclosed kingdom for the Colonel, in which he has final and absolute authority. This aristocratic character of the Colonel continues among his descendants and can be traced at two other moments in the novel.

In Chapter thirteen, Holgrave tells Phoebe the Tale of Alice Pyncheon. This story serves as a bridge between generations and establishes continuity among the generations of the Pyncheon family. Gervayse Pyncheon, the father of Phoebe, is the young grandson of Colonel Pyncheon. Alike his grandfather, Gervayse had aristocratic manners and is concerned with his status and with his possessions.

“The Pyncheon of today”, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon makes his appearance in Chapter eight. He is ruthless and greedy, just like his predecessors the Colonel and Alice’s father, he will do anything for property. Phoebe notices the resemblance between the Judge and the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon in the parlor. “He had exchanged his velvet doublet and sable cloak…for a white collar and cravat… and the Colonel Pyncheon, of two centuries ago, steps forward as the Judge of the passing moment!”4 The Colonel and the Judge are both “greedy of wealth” and “of great animal development”. The Judge moreover is a man of “resolute purpose” and has “a heart of iron”.

The Pyncheon line may therefore be directly connected from Colonel Pyncheon to Gervyase to Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon.

The resemblance of the Judge to the old Colonel is revealed fully by Holgrave´s daguerreotype. Holgrave´s daguerreotype portrait of Judge Pyncheon shows the hidden identity of the living Pyncheon with the colonial ancestor whose doom has descended to him. Just as Judge Pyncheon is a reincarnation of the first Pyncheon he shall inherit the curse of the wizard Maule. Phoebe thinks for a moment that the subject of Holgrave´s picture is the same man who posed for the painting in the parlor of the house. The daguerreotype has revealed the true malevolence and craft beneath the smiling exterior, which Judge Pyncheon presents to the world. When Phoebe is confronted by the Judge himself, she recognizes the original of the daguerreotype, and asks herself:

“Was it, therefore, no momentary mood, but…the settled temper of his life? And not merely so, but was it hereditary in him, transmitted down, as a precious heirloom, from that bearded ancestor, in whose picture both the expression, and, to a singular degree, the features of the modern Judge were shown by this kind of prophecy?”5

B. Matthew Maule - Maule the younger - Holgrave

Matthew Maule the younger seems a replica of his grandfather. Both men share heretical beliefs and the ability to possess others dreams. They seem to possess magic power. The first Maule uttered a prophecy when he was executed that “God will give him (Colonel Pyncheon) blood to drink”6and indeed, when the Colonel died, there was blood on his ruff. Maule the younger uses his magical powers to bring Alice Pyncheon under hypnosis and to control her actions. The parallels between Holgrave and both Matthew Maules become more explicit in chapter fourteen “Phoebe’s Goodbye”. When Holgrave finishes his story about Alice Pyncheon he finds Phoebe to appear as if she were in trance. He makes a gesture with his hand and Phoebe becomes alert. The wave of his hand that awakens Phoebe echoes the same action that Matthew Maule used against Alice. Holgrave, like his ancestor, possesses an acuity concerning the inner workings of the soul which seems somehow illicit and dangerous, and which is represented in his skill as a mesmerist. This ability to control the secrets of consciousness - in effect, insight into the human heart - is what enables Holgrave to explore the darkest aspects of the House and empowers him finally to transform Phoebe into a mature and aware woman.

The reintroduction of the Maule family into the Pyncheon history demonstrates how closely the two families are connected. They share the same fate even generations after the event that first brought Colonel Pyncheon in contact with Matthew Maule.

C. Alice Pyncheon - Hepzibah - Phoebe

In Holgrave´s legend about Alice Pyncheon, we are introduced to the aristocratic Alice, who “deemed herself conscious of a power - combined of beauty, high, unsullied purity, and the preservative force of womanhood - that could make her sphere impenetrable.”7and who is mesmerized by the second Matthew Maule. Alice is drawn by Maule´s mesmeric powers, who can control her actions. From this moment, Alice’s former “purity” and her classconsciousness are thus successfully flouted. She is despised and mocked by a man who supposedly had no claim on her interest and who would lead her to death.

Hepzibah Pyncheon is no longer a young, nor a beautiful woman, although Hawthorne indicates that she was once attractive. In the present time of the romance, she looks upon the world with a great scowl that mars her appearance. This scowl, the result of poor vision, marks her as a mean and bitter old maid. She is described as a pitiful and pathetic character, reduced to abject poverty despite her family legacy and possession of the house. Like Clifford, Hepzibah has lived too long in withdrawal and isolation. She also clings to the notion that she is a lady and that her rightful place is aloof from the world. She has taken some of the characteristics of the house, “until her very brain was impregnated with the dry- rot of its timbers. She needed a walk along the noonday street, to keep her sane.”8

Holgrave sees her as dead and buried, because she has lost all her intercourse with the world, he says, she is “in fact dead.”9Love first requires Hepzibah to turn her eyes towards the world when she is forced by Clifford’s return to try to leave the inner sanctum. As she welcomes others into the house, she welcomes them into her heart, and both house and heart become less horrible.

Hawthorne associates Alice Pyncheon with the elderly Hepzibah. While the young Alice does not have the disadvantage of Hepzibah in her old age, they both share a stately adherence to the codes of conduct for a lady while remaining capable of kindness and generosity. Both characters also serve as the victims among the Pyncheon family, cursed with scorn and humbled by fate. For Hepzibah the indignity comes from poverty in late in life, while Alice suffers humiliation wrought upon her by Matthew Maule.

Phoebe is the heroine of the work. It is she who saves the Pyncheon house from greed and helplessness of the other members of the family. She redeems the family. From the moment of her arrival, the family fortune is on the upturn. The contrast between Phoebe and the house is repeatedly emphasized. Phoebe in her innocent freshness is outside of Time, which oppresses the house. Phoebe is associated with primordial innocence and order. She immediately attempts to set the house right. She is another version of Alice Pyncheon whose posies still grow on the roof, but she is stronger and better than the weak, proud Alice. Phoebe is above all vigorous, young shining, a working angle as uncle Venner calls her: “ I’ve seen a great deal of the world…and I’m free to say…that I never knew a human creature do her work so much like one of God’s angles, as this child Phoebe does!”10

Phoebe’s boundless optimism draws out even the meek and reserved Hepzibah. Hawthorne presents her as an ideal, the example of “feminine grace and availability” outside of class distinctions and directly contrasts her with Hepzibah. While Phoebe represents the new Plebeianism, Hepzibah is the exemplar of the old Gentility. She is thus more suited to the life of capitalist commerce that Hepzibah undertakes, and quickly becomes an adept shopkeeper. Phoebe, by her response to Holgrave´s reading, shows her kinship to Alice, whose room she occupies and whose flowers she tends. Although Hawthorne describes both Phoebe and Alice as beautiful and accomplished, Alice belongs to the aristocratic tradition that Phoebe eschews and assumes the role of a victim that does not fit the independent Phoebe.

While Hepzibah clings to societal structure, Phoebe has a great affinity with nature. Tending to the garden, she immediately brings life back to the house, and Hawthorne makes an extensive comparison between Phoebe and a songbird, which contrast with Hephzibah’s dull appearance and isolated life. Phoebe, whose name is suggesting sun, is not only able transform the old house, but also the other characters of the romance, who are not able the transform themselves.

1.2 Events

The event that recurs in every generation is an occupation with the fate of the eastern lands. The eastern province proved an obsession for Colonel Pyncheon and for his descendants Gervayse and Jaffrey.

Colonel Pyncheon managed to get the property that first belonged to Matthew Maule. He didn’t come into the possession of the eastern lands yet.

His descendant Gervayse asks Matthew Maule the younger to come to the House of the Seven Gables to bring up the claim that the Pyncheon family has on the Eastern tract of land. Mr. Pyncheon suspects that Maule´s father took the deeds when he was working for Colonel Pyncheon on the day before the Colonel died. Mr. Pyncheon offers Matthew Maule monetary compensation for information leading to the discovery of the lost deed. Maule in return asks the favor of talking with Alice Pyncheon. With a wave if his hand, by some magic Maule renders Alice incapable of movement, then awakens her. Matthew Maule claims that he now controls her spirit. She describes three visionary characters, which would possess a mutual knowledge of the missing document. From this point Maule could control Alice Pyncheon´s actions. He did not use the powers to ruin her, but to wreak a low, ungenerous scorn upon her. One night Maule summons Alice to wait upon his fiancée. She returns home that night in inclement weather; from this she falls sick and eventually dies. Maule did not mean to kill her, but to humble her.

The Maule family holds a serious grudge against the Pyncheons that has not abated. The sin has remained, as a mark among the Pyncheons also exists as a continued injustice against the Maules.

In Chapter fifteen, “The Scowl and Smile” the feverish events of the Pyncheon past enter the contemporary settings. Judge Pyncheon demands to see Clifford, who could reveal the location of the deed to the lost land. Pyncheon says that Clifford has concealed this secret because there he considers him the enemy. The Judge threatens with the possibility of having Clifford committed again. Here for the third time, a Pyncheon seeks the deed to the lost land. However, in this chapter of the Pyncheon chronology, the victim is not a Maule, but instead another Pyncheon. Jaffrey’s threatening behavior toward Hepzibah and Clifford suggests that the perpetuation of this family sin has caused the Pyncheon family to collapse on itself. The Judge’s mysterious death points to Clifford as a murderer as Hepzibah finds him in the room alone with the dead body. Judge Pyncheon´s death is a replica of the death of Colonel Pyncheon, yet another parallel between the two generations. Later on, it will become clear, that the Judge’s death was caused by an impending stroke, which was caused by the same physical affliction that caused the death of Clifford’s uncle, Colonel Pyncheon. It was for this death that Clifford was blamed and sentenced to prison. It is Holgrave who finds a recess in the wall behind the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon in which the map and deed to the eastern land has been hidden. Holgrave admits that he knew this because he is actually a Maule, the descendant of the old wizard.

In these three different generations, we can thus notice the recurrence of one motif, with each time another variation. In the first generation, Colonel Pyncheon versus Matthew Maule, there is the claim of property, the prophecy of a Maule and the mysterious death of the Colonel. In the second generation, Gervayse Pyncheon versus Maule the younger, there is once again a claim of property; in this case the claim concerns the eastern lands and the supernatural powers of Maule the younger upon Alice Pyncheon.

In the third generation, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon versus Clifford Pyncheon the motif is modified once again: the claim of the eastern land by a Pyncheon is repeated, this time the one who possesses the key towards possession is not a Maule but a Pyncheon, Clifford. A Maule with mystical powers in this constellation is Holgrave, who has power over Phoebe. The mysterious death of a Pyncheon is another repeated element; therefore this time the mystery (and also the mysterious death of the first Pyncheon) is solved, as it is due to a physical predisposition among the Pyncheons to die from a stroke.

But in this generation the motif is interrupted by the intended marriage between Holgrave and Phoebe, between a Pyncheon and a Maule. Since Holgrave is actually a descendant of the Maule, his union with Phoebe brings the two families together harmoniously. As the new heir to the Pyncheon fortune with Phoebe, Holgrave will thus receive the land that his ancestors rightly deserved.

It seems that the Pyncheons are redeemed and that the curse is broken. In this case we have to discuss, whether this plot is contradictory with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s initial belief that the wrong-doing of one generation lives on the successive ones.

In chapter two we will go further into this question of guilt and history.

1.3 Symbols

Objects like the house, Maule´s well, the elm tree and the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon have important functions during the romance. This is stressed through regular references to them in the narrative and particularly through their appearance at both the beginning as the end of the romance. These symbols are not merely ornaments to increase the “unity of effect”, but they show that nature mirrors spiritual and moral phenomena, that the exterior reflects the interior, as though the human and non-human sphere stood in direct contact.

A. The House

The House of the Seven Gables itself is a physical representation of the Pyncheons` and the Maules` family histories. This House is explicitly personalized: “It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of his own, and full of rich somber reminiscences.”11The House embodies a sense of the passing time and shows the power of inherited guilt. The irony resides partly in the ambition of the man who built that house, and in the continued lust for the power of those who come after him; the house militates against the growth of the family for whose aggrandizement it was built. We see the Pyncheon House throughout the novel from various points of view. As the story begins, the house, much like the Pyncheons themselves, has fallen into a state of decay. When Phoebe arrives, she immediately brightens the dreary and decrepit house: “the battered visage of the House of The Seven Gables, black and heavy browed…must have shown a kind of cheerfulness glimmering through its dusky windows, as Phoebe passed to - and -fro in the interior”12The contrast between Phoebe and the House is repeatedly emphasized. Phoebe in her innocent freshness is outside time, which oppresses the house. By her care, the flowers grow again and the chickens breed again.

In Chapter Eleven, “The Arched Window”, Clifford has a view from the window of the outside world, but cannot actually take part in it. The window stands for openness to the world. Though isolated in the house, Clifford can witness some street scenes. He takes “childish delight” in listening to the music coming from a barrel organ. Hawthorne uses the organ grinder and its dancing figures as a metaphor of the existence that Clifford experiences. Like Clifford, the figures are subjected to periodic interruptions. Just as Clifford experienced cruel stasis while in prison, the figures stop at the whim of the organ grinder. The interruptions in the figures movement exposes the absurdity of the individual act when examined in a static action. The figures are defined by their actions, thus they stop to have meaning when they stop performing that action. This refers back to Clifford, who exists as on of the figures of stasis. He lacks the humanizing quality of action.

At Phoebe’s departure in Chapter fourteen, the house has been miserable and vulnerable. It has reverted to its pre-Phoebe wasted state, comfortless and forlorn. Every object in the “The heavy hearted old mansion… responded to her consciousness, as if a moist heart were in it”13The house comes to stand for that “dungeon” - the individual heart - wherein the emotions of each of it inhabitants are imprisoned.

In chapter sixteen, “Clifford’s Chamber” with Jaffrey Pyncheon lying dead in the chair, the house is serenaded by the Italian organ-grinder, who already appeared in a previous chapter of the novel. “The gloomy and desolated house, deserted of life, and with awful Death sitting sternly in its solitude, was the emblem of many a human heart, which, nevertheless, is compelled to hear the trill and echo of the world’s gaiety around it.”14The Italian musician, who knows the “hearth’s language” is trying to get the house to respond, to open up. At the end of the novel, we will find out that it is Holgrave, who will be able to “open up” the house. Once the secret is revealed and the curse seems to be broken, the house becomes inviting:

“Integrity, who, dying in some forgotten generation, had left a blessing in all its rooms and chambers the efficacy of which was to be seen in the religion, honesty, moderate competence, or upright poverty, and solid happiness, of his descendants, to this day.”15The idyllic stage of the romance is now in the foreground. We have a pleasing and picturesque view of the natural order reasserting itself after the crisis of human history has passed. The confirmation of the beneficent view of the house is the blooming of Alice’s posies and the crimson flowers found in the front gables.

B. Maule´s Well

The narration tells us at that Matthew Maule built his hut by “a natural spring of soft and pleasant water “ and when the Pycheons stole his land as a site for their great house, “the spring above mentioned, entirely lost the deliciousness of its pristine quality.”16Consequently, Maule´s Well is like the image of the Dead See, which is a demonic element, for the Sea is “so full of salt that nothing can live around it.”17 In The House of the Seven Gables, the well is alleged to be “productive of intestinal mischief to those who quench their thirst there”18and Holgrave warns Phoebe not to drink from its “bewitched” water. Maule´s Well seems to possess a metaphysical dimension, being able to foreshadow the coming fortunes. Just as the Dead Sea is restored to its pristine condition in the biblical narrative, so, will be Maule´s Well. Towards the end of the narrative, following the storm and the corresponding crisis in the house, the water of Maule´s Well would suits the flowers of the garden the best.

C. The Elm Tree

A giant elm outside the house signifies the threshold of a dead inner territory. After the storm, the tree, like the house and Maule´s well, gets a positive connotation. The tree is mysteriously whole after the storm, “except a single branch, that by the earlier change with which the elmtree sometimes prophesies the autumn, had been transmuted to bright gold. It was like “the golden branch that gained Aeneas and the Sibyl admittance into the Hades”19The garden and the house serves as an extended metaphor for the Pyncheon family. At the beginning of the narrative the rich soil of the garden has fallen into decay: its flowers are blighted, its water is undrinkable, its animals unproductive.

After Jaffrey’s death and after the storm, the idyllic stage of the romance is in the foreground. We have a pleasing and picturesque view of the natural order reasserting itself after the crisis of human history has passed. Without the darkness and mystery of the early garden chapters, the bitter history of the house is supplanted by the present view of it. The confirmation of this utterly beneficent view of the house is the blooming of “Alice’s posies - palpable emblems of romance with their “crimson- spotted flowers” Italian origin, and affinity for the water from Maule´s well - “were flaunting in rich beauty and full bloom, today, and seemed, as it were, a mystic expression that something within the house was consummated.”20

II. Tokens of Change

The youngest characters, Phoebe and Holgrave, stand in contrast with the vertiginous death- in-life condition of Clifford and Hepzibah. Phoebe will change the dark appearance - both the interior and exterior of the house. Holgrave, he will prove that he is able to change his attitude from the ones of his ancestors. Youth and imagination triumph easily over seemingly insurmountable odds.

2.1 Phoebe

Phoebe is the daughter of an intolerant Pyncheon, but she represents a new force that will overcome her forefathers` forces of tyranny. Despite her family legacy, she demonstrates none of the aristocratic traits of the Pyncheon clan. Brightness only enters in the house when Phoebe arrives. During her absence, the House of the Seven Gables is marked by days of storm and darkness and by her return the old house is marked by a return of sunlight. Phoebe is a novelty among the Pyncheon family. Unlike the numerous Pyncheon descendants who follow established patterns set by their progenitors, Phoebe is a Pyncheon original. Uncle Venner can think of no family member whom she resembles. Even Alice Pyncheon is an inadequate comparison.

2.2 Holgrave

When Holgrave one day tells Phoebe Pyncheon the story of the carpenter, Matthew Maule, grandson of the original “wizard”, who hypnotized and eventually destroyed the beautiful Alice Pyncheon, he notices, when he concludes his narrative, that Phoebe is hypnotized too. Holgrave´s power over Phoebe, Hawthorne tells us, underlining the obvious correspondence between past and present, was as dangerous “as that which the carpenter of his legend had acquired and exercised over the ill- fated Alice” In the case of historical correspondence the emphasis is on change rather than repetition. Unlike his ancestor, Holgrave does not take full advantage of a young female Pyncheon. Hawthorne illustrates Holgrave´s superiority to previous Maule and his freedom from their corruptions. Holgrave is also quite clearly the “best” Maule, in whom the fountain seems to flow again with something of its original purity. Instead of destroying Phoebe, Holgrave finally marries her. This marriage clearly contrasts with the abortive relationship of Alice Pyncheon and Matthew Maule.

Holgrave also undergoes a change of character at the end of the narrative, when he is to marry Phoebe. His social radicalism has gone; he is prepared to abandon his art and take over the routines of a country squire. He even seems relieved to be able to renounce to his witchcraft:

“I have a presentiment, that, hereafter, it will be my lot to set out trees, to make fences…in a word, to conform myself to laws, and the peaceful practice of society.”

III Historicism

History was a perpetually fascinating, though complicated, sometimes, even oppressive topic for Hawthorne. His preoccupation with it goes back to his early studies and musing about the colonial past, then widens to include more general interests and culminates in his own personal theory of history. Like all his contemporaries, Hawthorne struggles with the question of progress, the dominant question after the revolution, which he could only see in the light of his obsession with guilt. In the House of the Seven Gables, the dilemma is acted out between two poles: on the one hand existentialism of guilt which prevents any fresh start for the next generation, and on the other hand, the overcoming of guilt through the next generations.

3.1 Cyclical view of History through the existentialism of Guilt

A cyclical view of history is suggested by the “moral” Hawthorne announces in his preface, that the “wrong-doing” of one generation is transmitted to the successive ones. Guilt appears in the romance as the repetition of initial sin. “We are left to dispose of the awful query,” Hawthorne writes of the successive Pyncheons, “whether each inheritor of the property - conscious of wrong, and failing to rectify it - did not commit anew a great guilt of his ancestor, and incur all its original responsibilities.” Under Maule’s curse, history would seem to entail the endless repetition of past acts. The idea of history as cycle is embodied in Clifford’s speech about history. During his escape in the train with Hephzibah, Clifford says to a fellow-passenger:

“You are aware, my dear Sir…that all human progress is in a circle; or to use a more accurate figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and future. Progress and repetition, straight line and circle, are reconciled in the figure of the “ascending spiral curve” Clifford’s speech indicates that Hawthorne did not simply dismiss speculation about the nature of history. Clifford’s speech demonstrates that Hawthorne was thinking about the problem of his two views, the figure of the “ascending spiral curve.”

3.2 Progress

The idea of progress in the romance is related to Holgrave´s democratic views: “It seemed to Holgrave…that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.” Holgrave, who sees the past as nothing but a burden, fights tradition and conservatism and demands complete and immediate renewal of everything. Hawthorne criticizes Holgrave, not for his belief in progress, but for his belief in immediate progress. “As to the main point…as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right.” Change should be gradual for Hawthorne. It should aim for evolution, rather than revolution so that one individual’s lifespan is not enough to see change accomplished.

3.3 Dualism of the Historical View

Most critics, who can be named the traditional critics, estimate that Hawthorne does not solve the dualism of the historical view. The novel would be two novels; one of guilt, and one of history, and Hawthorne did not succeed in uniting the two. At the climax of the plot, the marriage between Phoebe and Holgrave puts an end to the doom of sin and asserts that the future can be free of the past. Especially in the ending, when the main characters simply walk out of the old house, Hawthorne seems to be saying that progress is possible - that the influence of the past can be left behind. For these critics, this sudden end of a curse, which had been powerful for generations, does not appear credible. The explanation offered by Holgrave´s renunciation of the hypnotizing of Phoebe is not enough. Neither an intellectual like Holgrave nor an innocent like Phoebe would be convincing enough as the sort of heroes sufficiently strong to slay sin. Thus for the traditional critics, the conflict remains unresolved; Judge Pyncheon and Holgrave are their ancestors, ceaselessly cycling through history with exactly the same progress as the barrel-organ: “Possibly, some cynic…had desired to signify, in this pantomimic scene, that we mortal…all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass.”21 Such a circulation would obliterate history.

Hawthorne clearly intends some sort of synthesis of repetition and change, doom and progress. But he is unable to achieve such a synthesis, so that what comes across throughout the romance, and particularly at the close, is not any synthesis of contradictory forces, but only the contradiction between them. We would thus be left behind two different points of view of progress, a contradiction between line and circle.

Furthermore, the emphasis on progress at the close of the romance actually stands in opposition to Hawthorne’s initial belief in historical repetition.

Bruce Michelson22on the other hand, tries to resolve this major question at the end of the romance: Why Hawthorne ultimately allows Holgrave to escape from the Maule past; from the Pyncheon past and from his own fiercely adopted ideologies.

The first thing, which has to be noticed to resolve this question, is that Holgrave is only one tenant of the House. All the characters are each a part of a whole and they must be looked at together if the book is to make much sense. When Holgrave stops being the ghost of the old Maules, when he proposes to marriage to Phoebe, he himself with the other characters moves out of the House, and thus compromises his professed faith in novelty and impermanence, he thus precipitates the long running dispute about the ending of the book.

For Michelson, Holgrave´s decision to start a change and a revision in his ideas, not only makes common sense, but also recalls many attempts by Hawthorne to suggest the only chance he sees for mankind in a world of entrapments and inherited misfortunes. Hawthorne’s best wish for this world, is only for a modest chance to start over - not to escape evil or burn it away, but simply to live one’s own life and make one’s own blunders. His benedictions upon the young commonly have this idea at heart. They inveigh against moral fixity of any sort. Young Holgrave´s gospel of novelty, if congealed into an ideology and sustained against common sense and compromise, can prove no more than another repeated echo, that lessons too much taken to heart are dangerous lessons. In the context of the novel, and in the light of the fate that Hawthorne designs for this young hero, it should be clear that where Holgrave lives now is of no consequence, whether or not he contradicts himself is of no consequence. If the problem of escaping from a haunted condition and from the loss of the self serves both as an essential organizing principle and key moral issue in The House of The Seven Gables, the ending, in which Holgrave decides no more than to marry Phoebe, to quit the house with the others, and to forget ideologies for a while fits the novel handsomely on its most important thematic level and restates that cautious, plausible human hope that turns so often in Hawthorne’s other work. At twenty- two, the last of the Maules weds, rather than bewitches, the last of the Pyncheons. In the process, he becomes a human being rather than an instrument of malice or a mouthpiece for transcendental ideas. He has cleansed the ancient house, and if at the end he is setting out on the road towards error, in doing so he affirms the essential human right in Hawthorne’s universe - the right of every human being, and every artist, to make his or her own blunders rather than inherit them from someone else.


As exposed in chapter one and two, there are tokens of change in the romance as well as tokens of repetition. Although the development of the romance lies in its repetition of evil, the romance has a hopeful ending. The reunification of a Pyncheon with a Maule in marriage represents a change from Matthew Maule´s treatment of Alice Pyncheon, and resolves the quarrel between these two families. This ending has been very controversial among critics: Some feel that the ending is very negative and everything but happy because they believe that the past will keep on working on the living generations and the ones to come. The conflict between aristocracy and the democratic Americans cannot become settled. Although the Judge is dead, the money that Clifford inherits is still ill-gotten. They find that justice cannot be restored after a long period. They believe that Hawthorne forced the love of Holgrave for Phoebe because he had to meet the tastes and demands for a happy ending of his audience. Other critics, like Bruce Michelson believe that this love follows the logic of the theme and therefore closes the novel satisfactorily. Hawthorne’s usage of irony however, leaves room for speculations and interpretations in any direction. Whether the ending leaves no hope since the burden of the past is threatening or whether the hope is symbolized in the love between Holgrave and Phoebe is up to the reader…


Bell, Michael Davitt, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1971

Bell, Millicent, Hawthorne’s View of the Artist, State University of New York, 1962 Conway, Moncure, Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walter Scott, London, ?

Crews, Frederick C., The Sins of the Fathers. Hawthorne´s Pychological Themes, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966

Crowley, J. Donald (editor), Nathaniel Hawthorne. A Collection of Criticism, McGraw- Hill Book Company, USA, 1975

Dunne, Michael, Hawthorne’s Narrative Strategies, University Press of Mississippi, 1995 G.K: Hall and Co, New York, 1995

Hansen, Klaus P., Sin and Sympathy. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Sentimental Religion. Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt M., 1991

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The House of The Seven Gables, The Riverside Press Cambridge, Boston - New York - Chicago, 1904

Johnson, Claudia D., The Productive Tension of Hawthorne’s Art, The University of Alabama Press, 1981

Oleksy, Elzbieta H., Plight in Common. Hawthorne and Percy. Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1993

Rosenthal, Bernard (editor), Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables,

Rozencwajg-Stockbridge, Iris Selma, Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Romances. City University New York, 1978


1 The House of the Seven Gables, p 40

2 The House of the Seven Gables, p 18

3Hawthorne Nathaniel, The House of the Seven Gables, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston - New York - Chicago, 1904. P 33.

4 The House of the Seven Gables, p 148.

5The House of the Seven Gables, p. 146-47

6 The House of the Seven Gables, p. 21

7The House of the Seven Gables, p. 242

8The House of the Seven Gables, p. 59

9 The House of the Seven Gables, p. 216

10 The House of the Seven Gables, p. 126

11The House of the Seven Gables 267

12 The House of the Seven Gables 189

13The House of the Seven Gables, p 261

14The House of the Seven Gables, p 297

15 The House of the Seven Gables, p 274

16The House of the Seven Gables, p 139

17Frye Northrop. The Great Code. The Bible and Literature. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich, Publishers, 1982, p 146.

18The House of the Seven Gables, p 343

19The House of the Seven Gables, p. 285

20 The House of the Seven Gables, p 337

21The House of the Seven Gables, p. 203

22 Michelson, Bruce, Hawthorne’s House of Three Stories, In: Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, p 76 - 90


File size
380 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Free University of Berlin
2 (B)
Nathaniel Hawthorne




Title: Nathaniel Hawthorne: The house of the seven gables