“The wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and . . . becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” So Nathaniel Hawthorne described the moral of his gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables.
In the late 17th century the Pyncheon progenitor did wrong, acquiring Matthew Maule’s land dishonestly and accusing Maule of witchcraft during the infamous Salem witch trials. Just before he was hung, Maule put a curse on Pyncheon that was remembered when Pyncheon died unexpectedly.
The only Pyncheons left many generations later are aging sister and brother Hepzibah and Clifford; the cousin they fear and despise, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon; and a distant young cousin, Phoebe. The reclusive Hepzibah lives in the now-decrepit mansion her forefather built for his descendants; the house has been cursed from the beginning (just like the family) and is falling apart in Hepzibah’s time, the mid-19th century. Hepzibah has spent 30 years waiting for Clifford to be released from prison, where he served time for an alleged murder. Cousin Phoebe arrives for an extended stay around when the fragile and dispirited Clifford comes home.
Phoebe’s sunny nature cheers the gloomy house’s inhabitants, who include a lodger, a dagueorrotypist named Holgrave. But they still fear Judge Pyncheon, who was responsible for Clifford’s being wrongly charged and imprisoned. The judge believes Clifford knows where a long-lost deed to a huge amount of land is hidden. After pressuring Hapzibah to let him question Clifford, the greedy judge—who embodies his ancestor’s base spirit—suffers the same kind of sudden death as Colonel Pyncheon did. With their nemesis gone, the remaining Pyncheons inherit his wealth; Phoebe marries Holgrave, who discloses he’s descended from Maule; and the curse is lifted.
Hawthorne’s characteristic symbolism pervades The House of the Seven Gables. The foremost symbol is the house itself, representing the decline of the Pyncheon family as well as the dangers of attachment to the past and attempt to ensure the future. As the modern thinker Holgrave notes, each generation must tear down the old structures and replace them with its own.
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