The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables
The House of the Seven Gables  
7 Gables.jpg

First edition title page.
Author(s) Nathaniel Hawthorne
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Gothic fiction
Publisher Ticknor and Fields
Publication date 1851
Media type Print (Hardback)
ISBN NA

The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic novel written in 1851 by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and published the same year by Ticknor and Fields of Boston. Hawthorne explores themes of guilt, retribution, and atonement in a New England family and colors the tale with suggestions of the supernatural and witchcraft. The story was inspired by a gabled house in Salem belonging to Hawthorne's cousin Susanna Ingersoll and by those of Hawthorne's ancestors who 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.

Contents

Plot

The novel is set in the mid-19th century, with glimpses into the history of the house, which was built in the late 17th century. The primary interest of this book is in the subtle and involved descriptions of character and motive.

The house of the title is a gloomy New England mansion, haunted from its foundation 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 unpleasant wealthy 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.

Hawthorne, c1848

Phoebe takes leave of the family to return to her country home for a brief visit, but will return soon. Unfortunately, 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 his recollection of his youth lost to prison. That instance, coupled with Phoebe's departure — she was the only happy and beautiful thing in the home for the depressed Clifford to dwell on — sends Clifford 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 however has been lost. Before Clifford can be brought before the Judge (which, it is implied, will completely destroy Clifford's sanity), the Judge mysteriously dies in the same chair as the historical Pyncheon who stole the land on which the house was later built from a settler named Maule. Hepzibah and Clifford escape on a train (then a very new form of transport) after the Judge dies. The townsfolk murmur about their sudden disappearance, and, upon Phoebe's return, the Judge's body is discovered. Hepzibah and Clifford return shortly, to Phoebe's relief. Events from past and present throw light on the circumstances which sent Clifford to prison, proving his innocence. Holgrave is discovered to be a descendant of Maule but bears the Pyncheon family no ill will, mostly due to his feelings for Phoebe. The romance ends with the characters leaving the old house to start a new life, free of the burdens of the past.

Characters

  • 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 the family.
  • Holgrave – a daguerreotypist who boards at the house who, unbeknownst to any of the other characters, is 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. In life she was loved by young Matthew Maule, grandson of the original Maule hung for witchcraft. When proud Alice spurned the love of the hard-working carpenter, young Maule devised a fiendish trick to enslave her. At the behest of her greedy father, he put her into a deep, hypnotic trance, supposedly to help locate some missing land deeds. In reality, Maule used his powers for selfish revenge. After awakening from her trance, Alice is subjtect at any time to Maule's commands. She sings, dances, and laughs like a madwoman in all manner of inappropriate situations, and is soon so humiliated that she dies of shame. A mortified Maule realizes too late that his petty desire for personal satisfaction as caused the needless death of a beautiful, 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; but 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.

Background

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.[1]

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.[2]

Major themes

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. It took him ten months to write it, completing it in early 1851.[3] After its publication, Hawthorne said, "It sold finely and seems to have pleased a good many people".[4]

Influence

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.[5]

Adaptations

The novel was adapted for the screen in 1940 with Margaret Lindsay as Hepzibah, George Sanders as Jaffrey and Vincent Price as Clifford. In this adaptation, Hepzibah and Clifford were made lovers rather than brother and sister, and the film ends with a double wedding. It was directed by Joe May with a screenplay by Lester Cole.[6] 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 Temple as Phoebe, Robert Culp as Holgrave, Agnes Moorehead as Hepzibah, and Martin Landau as Clifford.[7]

References

  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Stern, Milton R., Introduction to "The House of the Seven Gables", Viking Penguin Inc, 1981. p. vii.
  4. ^ McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 137. ISBN 0-8021-1776-7
  5. ^ S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, p. 107.
  6. ^ The House of the Seven Gables at IMDB
  7. ^ IMDb

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