The House of the Seven Gables
First edition title page.
|Publisher||Ticknor and Fields|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic novel written beginning in mid-1850 by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in April 1851 by Ticknor and Fields of Boston. The novel follows a New England family and their ancestral home. In the book, Hawthorne explores themes of guilt, retribution, and atonement and colors the tale with suggestions of the supernatural and witchcraft. The setting for the book was inspired by a gabled house in Salem belonging to Hawthorne's cousin Susanna Ingersoll and by ancestors of Hawthorne who had played a part in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The book was well received upon publication and later had a strong influence on the work of H. P. Lovecraft. The House of the Seven Gables has been adapted several times to film and television.
The novel is set in the mid-19th century, although it includes glimpses into the history of the house, which was built in the late 17th century. The house of the title is a gloomy New England mansion, haunted since its construction by fraudulent dealings, accusations of witchcraft, and sudden death. The current resident, the dignified but desperately poor Hepzibah Pyncheon, opens a shop in a side room to support her brother Clifford, who is about to leave prison after serving thirty years for murder. She refuses all assistance from her wealthy but unpleasant cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. A distant relative, the lively and pretty young Phoebe, turns up and quickly becomes invaluable, charming customers and rousing Clifford from depression. A delicate romance grows between Phoebe and the mysterious attic lodger Holgrave, who is writing a history of the Pyncheon family.
In between, certain glimpses are provided at the history of the house and the Pyncheon family. The house was built on ground wrongfully seized from its rightful owner, Matthew Maule, by Colonel Pyncheon, the founder of the Massachusetts branch of the family, when the former was accused of practicing witchcraft and executed. According to legend, upon his death hour Maule laid a curse upon the Pyncheon family; and indeed during the house warming festivities, Colonel Pyncheon was found dead in his armchair. (It is, however, left ambiguous whether he actually died from the curse or a family-inherent disease.) His portrait remains in the house as an everlasting reminder of its dark past and the presence of the curse in the spirit of the house and its inhabitants.
Phoebe returns to her country home for a brief visit, but plans to return soon. Just before she leaves, Clifford stands at the large arched window above the stairs and has a sudden urge to jump upon viewing the mass of humanity passing before him and thinking of his youth lost to prison. This incident, coupled with Phoebe's departure — she was the only happy and beautiful thing in the home for the depressed Clifford to dwell on — sends him into a bed-ridden state.
Judge Pyncheon arrives at the house one day and threatens to have Clifford committed to an insane asylum if he does not disclose information regarding mystical "eastern lands" of Maine that the family is rumored to own, the deed to which has been lost. Before Clifford can be brought before the Judge (which, it is implied, would completely destroy Clifford's sanity), the Judge mysteriously dies while sitting in the same chair that Colonel Pyncheon had died in. Hepzibah and Clifford escape on a train (then a very new form of transport) after the Judge dies, but soon return after the first excitement and thrill of new freedom is gone and they are driven back to the house.
The next day, upon Phoebe's return, the Judge's body is discovered, and the townsfolk begin to murmur about Hepzibah and Clifford's sudden disappearance. To Phoebe's relief, Hepzibah and Clifford return shortly. Events from past and present throw light on the circumstances which sent Clifford to prison, proving his innocence: He was framed for the death of his uncle by Jaffrey, who was desperately looking for the legendary deed around the house at that time. Holgrave is discovered to be a descendant of Maule but bears the Pyncheon family no ill will, mostly due to his feelings for Phoebe; and the deed is discovered hidden behind the old Colonel's portrait, although it has long since become worthless as the land is already settled. The romance ends with the characters leaving the old house to start a new life in the countryside, free of the burdens of the past.
- Hepzibah Pyncheon – Hepzibah is an unmarried older woman, a descendant of the Pyncheon who built the house of the title. Though a member of the upper class, she is destitute. At the beginning of the novel, she has opened a cent-shop in the first floor of the house because of the financial ruin of her side of the family.
- Holgrave – A daguerreotypist who boards at the house. He is, unbeknownst to any of the other characters, a descendant of the original Matthew Maule, who had been hanged as a witch at the instigation of the original Colonel Jaffrey Pyncheon in order to gain Maule's property. He falls in love with Phoebe.
- Phoebe Pyncheon – Although a Pyncheon, she is from the country and not a member of the Salem aristocracy. She moves in with her Cousin Hepzibah and takes over the shop. Her cheerfulness and beauty make the shop a success and charm the reclusive Clifford, whom she serves as a kind of caretaker. She falls in love with Holgrave.
- Alice Pyncheon – Alice is the haughty beauty whose ghost now haunts the House of The Seven Gables. Holgrave writes a story about Alice, which he reads to Phoebe. In Holgrave's story, Matthew Maule, grandson and namesake of the accused witch, is approached by Alice's greedy father, who wishes him to find some documents that he believes will make him rich. Maule demands the help of Alice and puts her into a hypnotic trance, supposedly to help locate the documents. In reality, Maule used his powers for selfish revenge against the family he saw as robbing him of his land. After awakening from her trance, Alice was subject at any time to Maule's commands. She sang, danced, and laughed like a madwoman in all manner of inappropriate situations, and was soon so humiliated that she died of shame. A mortified Maule realized too late that his petty desire for personal satisfaction had caused the needless death of a beautiful and refined young woman.
- Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon – He is a well-to-do judge and political aspirant who lives on a comfortable estate out of town. In appearance and character he so strongly resembles the "original" Colonel Pyncheon, who built the house, that some people mistake portraits of the ancestor for the descendant. In fact, he is just as vicious and unrelenting as his ancestor in his hunt for a lost land deed, the purported source of new wealth for the dissolute Pyncheon clan.
- Clifford Pyncheon – Clifford is Hepzibah's elderly, nearly bed-ridden brother who comes to live in the house after being released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for the alleged murder of his uncle; as it turns out, he was framed by his own cousin, Jaffrey.
- Uncle Venner – A jovial old man (older than Hepzibah) who is the only neighbor to the Pyncheons still in good standing with them.
- Ned Higgins – A young precocious boy who drops by Hepzibah's cent shop every now and then to deplete her supply of gingerbread cookies.
The novel begins:
Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm-tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon Elm.
The Pyncheon family actually existed and were ancestors of American novelist Thomas Pynchon. Hawthorne, however, did not base the story on a real family and was surprised that several "Pynchon jackasses" claimed a connection. He considered changing the fictional family's name or adding a disclaimer in the preface, though no such edits were made.
The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts — today a museum accompanying a settlement house — was at one time owned by Hawthorne's cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, and she entertained him there often. Its seven-gabled state was known to Hawthorne only through childhood stories from his cousin; at the time of his visits, he would have seen just three gables due to architectural renovations. Reportedly, Ingersoll inspired Hawthorne to write the novel, though Hawthorne also stated that the book was a work of complete fiction, based on no particular house.
Hawthorne, frequently haunted by the sins of his ancestors in the Salem witch trials, examines guilt, retribution, and atonement in this novel. His Pyncheon family carries a great burden — for almost 200 years — as a result of the dishonest, amoral way that the land on which the titular house sits was acquired. In the Preface to the novel, he states that its moral is that "the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones and... becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief."
However, an opposing theme also emerges. Hawthorne, though guilt-ridden with respect to his ancestors' past, actually does suggest in a number of scenes that the Maule family really are witches. Alice Pyncheon is indirectly killed by Maule's grandson, using his wizard powers (or, more likely, the powers of mesmerism) to enchant her. Meanwhile, the narrator details a phantasm of Colonel Pyncheon's descendants returning to attempt to shake the Colonel's picture off the wall, only to be prevented by the original Maule's ghost and magic. Yet Hawthorne, as ever concerned with the moral and emotional truths behind peoples' actions and appearances, refers to actual witchcraft within the Maule line only within the framing devices of works of the imagination (the incidents above take place within respectively a story written by Holgrave and a dreamlike nighttime reverie hypothesized by the narrator). Similarly, the overall imaginative framework of the novel itself provides a vehicle for Hawthorne to confront the moral and emotional experience of magic: Holgrave, Maule's descendant, gradually enchants Phoebe, throwing over her "love's web of sorcery."
Publication history and response
The House of the Seven Gables was Hawthorne's follow-up to his highly successful novel The Scarlet Letter. He began writing it while living in Lenox, Massachusetts in August 1850. By October, he had chosen the title and it was advertised as forthcoming, though the author complained of his slow progress a month later: "I write diligently, but not so rapidly as I hoped... I find the book requires more care and thought than the 'Scarlet Letter'". He hoped the book would be complete by November but would not push himself to commit to a deadline. As he forewarned, "I must not pull up my cabbage by the roots, by way of hastening its growth." By mid-January 1851, he wrote to his publisher James Thomas Fields that the book was nearly finished, "only I am hammering away a little on the roof, and doing a few odd jobs that were left incomplete." He sent the finished manuscript to Fields by the end of the month. His wife Sophia Hawthorne reported to her mother on January 27 that he had read her the ending the night before: "There is unspeakable grace and beauty in the conclusion, throwing back upon the sterner tragedy of the commencement an ethereal light, and a dear home-loveliness and satisfaction."
The House of the Seven Gables was released in the second week of April 1851. Two printings were issued in the first month, a third in May, and a fourth in September 1851, totaling 6,710 copies in its first year (slightly more than The Scarlet Letter in its first year). Hawthorne earned 15% in royalties from the $1.00 cover price. After its publication, Hawthorne said, "It sold finely and seems to have pleased a good many people".
Hawthorne's friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called it "a weird, wild book, like all he writes." Fanny Kemble reported that the book caused a sensation in England equal to Jane Eyre. English critic Henry Chorley also noted that, with The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, "few will dispute [Hawthorne's] claim to rank amongst the most original and complete novelists that have appeared in modern times." Some did not agree. "The book is an affliction", claimed fellow author Catharine Maria Sedgwick. "It affects one like a passage through the wards of an insane asylum." A review in the Christian Examiner complained the book was "more complex, the characterization more exaggerated, and the artistic execution less perfect" than the author's previous novel. Even so, Boston critic Edwin Percy Whipple simply called it his "greatest work". Hawthorne's friend Herman Melville, however, praised the book for its dark themes in a letter to the author:
There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion, was never ore powerfuly emboied than by Hawthorne. We mean the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiased, native, and profounder workings. We think that into no recorded mind has the intense feeling of the visible truth ever entemored more deeply than into this man's.
The novel was an inspiration for horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft, who called it "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature". Seven Gables likely influenced Lovecraft's short stories "The Picture in the House", "The Shunned House" and novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The novel was adapted for the screen in 1940 with Margaret Lindsay as Hepzibah, George Sanders as Jaffrey, Vincent Price as Clifford, Dick Foran as Holgrave, and Nan Grey as Phoebe. In this adaptation, Hepzibah and Clifford were made lovers rather than brother and sister, and the film ends with a double wedding. Also, Clifford was well aware of Holgrave's true identity, and the two are working together to settle a score with Jaffrey. It was directed by Joe May with a screenplay by Lester Cole. There was also a silent short in 1910 and a remake in 1967. It was also loosely adapted as one of the three stories in the 1963 film Twice-Told Tales, along with "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment". All three sections featured Vincent Price. The novel was adapted to a 60-minute television production in 1960 for The Shirley Temple Show with Shirley Temple as Phoebe, Robert Culp as Holgrave, Agnes Moorehead as Hepzibah, and Martin Landau as Clifford.
- Joseph A. Conforti, Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 248–62.
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 368. ISBN 0-395-27602-0
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 351. ISBN 0-395-27602-0
- Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 320. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 353. ISBN 0-395-27602-0
- Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2004: 257. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 355. ISBN 0-395-27602-0
- Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2004: 238. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0
- Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980: 367. ISBN 0-395-27602-0
- McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004: 137. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
- Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2004: 239. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0
- Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991: 337. ISBN 0-87745-332-2
- Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Random House, 2004: 232. ISBN 0-8129-7291-0
- S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 107.
- The House of the Seven Gables at IMDB
- The House of the Seven Gables, available at Internet Archive (scanned color illustrated books, multiple editions and formats)
- The House of the Seven Gables at Project Gutenberg (plain text)
- The House of the Seven Gables, available at Ria Press (PDF optimized for printing)
- Cairns, William B. (1920). "House of the Seven Gables". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Idol, John L., Jr., Illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables: A Help or a Hindrance?.