The House of the Seven Gables

“The House of the Seven Gables” is a Gothic novel written by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1851. The book was inspired by a gabled house in the town of Salem, Massachusetts that belonged to Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersoll and by Hawthorne’s own knowledge of the part that his ancestors played in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

The book saw quick success and sold over 6,000 copies in its first year alone, outselling Hawthorne’s previous hit, “The Scarlet Letter”. The novel has since been revered as a classic work of American literature and has been adapted into films, short stories, television shows and other novels. It inspired the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

The story revolves around the Pyncheon family and a curse that was put on them when their patriarch unjustly accused a man of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Two-hundred years later, the current Pyncheon, Hepzibah lives in the house with a lodger and runs a small shop, having run into dire financial straights. One day, a distant relative named Phoebe arrives and insists on staying. Hepzibah is reluctant at first, as her brother, Clifford is due to return soon. But Phoebe quickly brightens up the place and proves to be a good addition to the shop. Clifford returns, and it is revealed that he was in prison for many years. Phoebe begins to care for him as he is mentally unfit from his suffering. Frequently, the sibling’s vicious cousin Judge Pyncheon visits insisting on talking to Clifford.

One day, while Phoebe is away, the Judge finally manages to get into the house and as Hepzibah is looking for her brother, she discovers that the Judge has been killed. Hepzibah and Clifford flee only to return shortly later and reveal that the Judge died of a heart attack and had been the one to falsely accuse Clifford of the murder of their uncle. Clifford inherits the Judge’s assets and the family move into his house shortly after.

Book Summary

During the mid- 17th century, a farmer named Matthew Maule built a house next to a calm spring in a small Massachusetts town. After some time the town began to grow and a landowner named Colonel Pyncheon decided that he wanted Maule’s land for himself. He saw his opportunity during the period of mass hysteria that was the witch trials and accuses Maule of witchcraft.

Maule is hanged and as he dies he warns Pyncheon that God will give him blood to drink. Pyncheon ignores this curse and builds a house with seven perfectly peaked gables on the land that used to be Maule’s. Outside the house stands a large elm tree.

On the day that the house is finished and opened, a large feast is held inside. However, Pyncheon goes missing and the guests of the feast break down his bedroom door to find him sitting at his desk, dead. Rumors of foul play circulate in the town and many hold that they saw a strange figure fleeing the scene. The narrator, however, discounts these rumors.

Pyncheon’s son inherits the house and his children and his their children live in it for the next century and a half. Pyncheon’s descendants are never able to claim one of his assets, though, a large tract of land in Maine. Years later, one of the Pyncheon’s living in the house is murdered by one of his nephews who is convicted and sent to jail. The dead man’s other nephew, Judge Pyncheon builds a large house outside of town. And the sister of the jailed man continues to live alone in the house of the seven gables.

Maule’s descendants, however, have had less of a traceable line. Many of them are no longer aware that they are related to Maule or who he was. However, many of them are believed to have inherited a mysterious power from him.

Hepzibah Pyncheon, now the sole occupant of the house of the seven gables, wakes one morning and sighs as she looks in the mirror at her aging face. Hepzibah spends a lot of time on her appearance every day and sighs over a portrait of a young man that the narrator assures us is not her lover. Hepzibah has been having financial difficulties of late and has reopened a little shop inside the house that one of her relatives used to run years earlier. She sells many odds and ends in the shop, like toys and food. However, running the shop offends Hepzibah’s noble sensibilities as a formerly rich woman and opening the shop causes her to run into the other room crying.

The shop’s first visitor that morning is the house’s only lodger, a young man named Holgrave who makes daguerreotypes. Holgrave tries to encourage Hepzibah and cheers her up. Two workers come into the shop and are surprised to find that Hepzibah has a shop here. They rudely talk about how better quality shops can be found on almost every corner and one of the workers mentions how his wife lost money in a shop before they leave. Hepzibah finds herself mostly concerned with how the workmen talked about her fall from dignity and how something so devastating to her can be talked about so casually by them. The next customer is a small boy who asks for a gingerbread man. Hepzibah takes pity on the boy and considers her baking stale anyway. She gives the boy the cookie for free. Soon, however, the boy returns for another cookie and this time, Hepzibah takes his money.

Hepzibah’s cousin, the wealthy Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon stops by the shop window to nod at her before moving on. A quirky old man known in the town as Uncle Venner comes into the shop and encourages Hepzibah in her endeavor. He tells her that she will probably only have to do this temporarily and that her fortunes will pick up again soon. He makes references to an unnamed man and asks when this man will be returning. He adds that many people in the village have been talking about this man. After this conversation, Hepzibah has trouble concentrating and struggles to help her costumers.

At the end of the day, a young girl shows up on a bus and knocks on the door. Hepzibah recognizes her as Phoebe, a distant relative who has come for a visit, not realizing that the letter that she sent in advance never arrived. Hepzibah tells her she can come in, but she can only stay one night as she might disturb Clifford. However, the next morning Phoebe begins decorating her room and brightening it up. Hepzibah reminds her that she cannot stay because the master of the house will be coming home soon. Phoebe asks if she means Judge Pyncheon and Hepzibah becomes angry and tells her that the judge never crosses the threshold of the house. The master of the house is Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford. She shows Phoebe the picture of the man that she was looking at earlier that day.

Phoebe, cheerful as ever, manages to persuade Hepzibah to let her stay in the house for a few weeks as long as she helps with the chores and running the shop. She quickly shows herself to be quite adept at running the shop and by the end of the first day has sold most of the stock and is making plans to remodel the store. Hepzibah begins to like Phoebe and laments the fact that Phoebe comes from such a humble background that she will never be able to be a lady. The narrator notes that though Phoebe is from a humble side of the family, her cheerfulness and charm transcend these social distinctions.

After the day is over, Hepzibah gives Phoebe a tour of the grounds and tells her of the legend of the treasure that is buried somewhere on the grounds. She also tells her of her great-great-aunt, Alice Pyncheon who is believed to still haunt the grounds. Phoebe begins caring for the gardens and feeding the chickens outside. While doing this, she meets Holgrave who is surprised to see how well the chickens respond to her. Because Hepzibah had warned her that Holgrave was a bit of a revolutionary, Phoebe is initially cautious to speak to him but she soon begins to feel at ease as she gets to know him.

The two talk about Holgrave’s work in daguerreotypes and Phoebe says that she normally does not like the pictures as she finds that they tend to make people look stern. Holgrave tells her that his portraits reveal more than a painted picture ever could. He shows her a portrait and Phoebe thinks it is of the old Colonel Pyncheon. Holgrave asks her to tend to the chickens and the flowers since she is better at it than he is and Phoebe agrees.

When Phoebe returns to the house, she finds Hepzibah sitting alone and speaking quietly to herself. Phoebe sits down next to her and begins to feel oddly like someone else is in the room. She thinks that she hears a low murmuring in the room that sounds almost like human speech.

The next morning, Phoebe finds Hepzibah in the kitchen cooking. She is surprised to see Hepzibah is in almost manic spirits, energized and happy one minutes and sobbing and hugging Phoebe the next. Phoebe realizes that three places have been set at the table and Hepzibah tells her that Clifford is due home and that she has to be cheerful no matter what.

Clifford arrives and seems to be off somehow. He wanders the rooms in confusion and speaks about himself in the third person. Though he seems to like Phoebe he can’t place her in the family. During breakfast, Clifford cannot look his sister in the face and casts his eyes around the room frantically. After the meal is over, Clifford sees the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and becomes horrified. He orders Hepzibah to take it down but his sister refuses. She tells him that he knows that she cannot but offers to cover it with cloth instead.

Clifford discovers the shop and Hepzibah have to explain to him that she has been forced to open it out of poverty. He tells her that he does not mind as they cannot be shamed further than they already have and he begins crying. He soon falls asleep in his chair and Hepzibah looks on him and sheds her own tears.

That day, Judge Pyncheon walks into the shop and meets Phoebe. Initially, she finds him charming but as he goes to kiss her in greeting, Phoebe pulls back instinctively. This erases the smile on the Judge’s face, briefly and Phoebe thinks that she sees his true nature in that moment. Phoebe realizes that this man is the man she saw in the daguerreotype that Holgrave showed her. Phoebe is amazed at how similar the Judge looks to the old Colonel Pyncheon. The narrator interjects to say that not only do these two men look alike, but they share the same greed and the same ability to hide their ruthless natures behind a friendly exterior. Phoebe also notices that the Judge has a tendency to make a small gurgling noise in his throat and chillingly remembers Matthew Maule’s curse on the Colonel, that God would give him blood to drink.

When the Judge finds out that Clifford is home, he suggests that Phoebe may be scared of the man, to which Phoebe protests. He insinuates that Clifford has done something terrible in his past but that it is best that she not know what. The Judge tries to go into the house but Hepzibah shows up and blocks his way. To get her to move, the Judge offers to support her household but Hepzibah refuses, staring at him with hatred. From the kitchen, Clifford begs Hepzibah to make the Judge go away but when the Judge hears Clifford’s voice he redoubles his efforts to get to him. Hepzibah manages to fend him off and the Judge calms himself and returns to his friendly facade. He tells her that he hopes to visit again later when the siblings are in a better mood. After he is gone, Hepzibah appears to be exhausted and asks Phoebe to entertain Clifford. Phoebe assumes that the siblings must have some old feud with the Judge.

Over the next few weeks, Hepzibah realizes that Phoebe’s youthful presence is more comforting to Clifford than her own and she asks the young woman to tend to her brother. Phoebe begins to brighten up the house with her presence and is not fascinated by the mystery of what happened to him. In fact, she pities him and does not wonder about his past.

Clifford begins spending more time in the garden and enjoys tending to a patch of beans that Holgrave planted after finding the seeds in a box stored away by some long dead Pyncheon ancestor. Hepzibah begins arranging Sunday luncheons for herself, Clifford, Phoebe, Holgrave and Uncle Vedder. She finds that Clifford becomes surprisingly animated during these luncheons and enjoys them. On one such occasion, Vedder notes that he wishes to retire and Clifford says that he has bigger plans for him. Vedder politely tells him that he wants no party in any schemes and that he does not want any property. Clifford then begins to remark that he wants happiness and that he has waited many years for it. The narrator tells us that fate holds not happiness for the poor man unless he can find it now.

One Sunday, as the town prepares for the church, Clifford asks Hepzibah if they may go as well. They dress but once they are about to depart, find that they cannot step outside the door. Clifford, upset, tells Hepzibah that they have become ghosts, tied to the house.

Phoebe, enjoying the house but desperate for the company her own age, begins making friends with Holgrave. Holgrave begins telling Phoebe about his revolutionary ideas. He thinks that each generation should disregard the ideas of the previous generation and start making up their own. This idea makes Phoebe uncomfortable but she listens anyway. Holgrave begins asking questions about Clifford’s past and his mental state and Phoebe tells him that she can’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Holgrave then tells Phoebe that he believes that the ‘Pyncheon curse’ may actually be more the ‘Pyncheon lunacy’. He tells her that he has written a story about it for a magazine and asks her if she would like to hear it. She agrees and he reads it to her. The text of the story is presented in the book in full.

Years earlier, the grandson of Colonel Pyncheon found the grandson of Matthew Maule and summoned him to the house of the seven gables for a meeting. Maule’s grandson, a humble carpenter, stormed into the house demanding to speak to Pyncheon. Maule’s grandson believed that the house was rightfully his and that the curse will only be ended when the house is returned to his family. However, Gervayse Pyncheon, the Colonel’s grandson, is not interested in talking about the curse. He is only interested in the large tract of land in Maine that belonged to his grandfather and he believed that the Maule family may have known where the deed to the land was located. Matthew Maule’s son was working on the house when the deed mysteriously disappeared.

The current Matthew Maule, the original’s grandson, refuses Gervayse’s offer of money for the deed but agrees to help the man find it in exchange for the house of the seven gables. Maule then tells him that he will need to use Gervayse’s young daughter, Alice Pyncheon, as a medium to summon the spirit of his father to ask him for the deed. He hypnotizes the girl and puts her into a trance. Alice sees a vision of the older Maule’s and Colonel Pyncheon together. In her vision, the two Maule’s restrained the Colonel from telling her the deeds location and he begins to cough up blood. The current Maule tells Gervayse that the deed will not be revealed until it any longer has value and tells him to keep the house because he now has control over Alice.

Over the course of the next few years, Maule uses his power over the girl to toy with her. He controls her to the point that he may call for her where ever she is and she will hear him. He can make her feel any emotion he wishes or even make her dance a jig. One night, Maule marries and summons Alice to wait on his wife’s hand and foot. However, Alice is not dressed for the cold night and catches pneumonia from the weather, dying shortly afterward. Matthew Maule becomes distressed by the fact that he cost the girl her life as he only meant to upset her father.

When Holgrave finishes reading the story to Phoebe he realizes that his in-depth description of Alice’s hypnosis has put Phoebe into a trance as well. He briefly considers how he might benefit from the situation but then dispels that thought and wakes her. Phoebe tells Holgrave that she has to return to her own home for a while but that, although she feels wiser than she did when she arrived at the house, she also feels sadder. Holgrave tells her that she is entering the second phase of her youth and that she will appreciate life more now. He also mentions that he believes that Hepzibah and Clifford are already dead and cannot be brought back. Phoebe is surprised and little offended by this opinion. Holgrave asks for her forgiveness and tells her that he feels that Judge Pyncheon needs to be watched out for and that he is a cruel man who’s secrets even Holgrave has not uncovered.

Phoebe soon leaves the house for her trip. Hepzibah sadly notes that Phoebe looks sadder than when she arrived as the house has weighed on her spirits. After Phoebe leaves, the house becomes a dreary place once again. The Judge soon comes over to see Clifford again and Hepzibah responds to him as she did the last time, by barring him from the house. The Judge becomes angry and the narrator suggests that it is because the Judge is holding a secret too terrible that it has rotted him from the inside like a corpse hidden away in the nook of a grand house.

The Judge tells Hepzibah that before Clifford was taken away and incarcerated, he told the Judge that he knew the location of documentation that revealed the location of a good portion of their uncle Jaffery’s legacy. Hepzibah denies that her brother would have such knowledge but the Judge continues to demand that she fetch him so that he can speak with the man. At his wits end, the Judge finally promises to have Clifford locked up in an asylum if he does not tell him where the documentation is. Hepzibah relents in fear and goes upstairs to retrieve Clifford.

Hepzibah slows mounts the stairs to Clifford’s room, stopping to stare out a window as she does and thinking to stall for time to try and come up with a solution to keep him away from the Judge. When she finally arrives at Clifford’s room, she finds it empty and panics as she runs back downstairs. She finds the Judge sitting in a chair in the parlor and tries to ask for his help. The Judge strangely does not move. At that moment, Clifford barges into the room and gleefully tells her that they are free. Hepzibah rushes into the room to see what he is pointing at and recoils in horror. The Judge’s body is not sitting in the chair as she suspected, but is slumped over dead.

Clifford tells his sister that they have to flee and Hepzibah grabs her cloak and purse before fleeing into the night. Hepzibah is beside herself with fear that they will be caught, but Clifford seems more energized than ever and feels liberated and elated. The two board a train and Clifford chats with a man on board about the “admirable invention of the railroad”. He ends up outlining a plan for a nomadic future to the man and telling him that he would be fine if the house of the seven gables was torn down. The old man that he is speaking to begins to seem uncomfortable with the conversation and Hepzibah and Clifford get off at the next station.

Back in the house of the seven gables, the Judge’s body still sits dead in the chair. The narrator addresses him and urges him to wake up as if he were merely sleeping. The narrator reminds the Judge of all the important dinners and meetings that he is missing. A march of the ghosts of other dead Pyncheon’s begins in the room and each of them steps up to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and looks around it as if they are looking for something. The next morning, when the Judge is still dead in the chair, a normal day on the street in front of the house begins.

Uncle Venner knocks on the door of the shop but Holgrave, from his window, tells him that no one is in. A customer tries to get into the shop but a neighbor tells them that Hepzibah and Clifford have left. The little boy who bought a gingerbread man in the first chapter returns but finds that the store is closed and the workmen from earlier laugh over their correct assumptions about the viability of the business.

Phoebe returns to the house as happy and cheerful as she once was but the little boy warns her that something evil lurks inside. Phoebe assumes that Hepzibah has scared him off and goes into the house. Holgrave pulls Phoebe into the house and although he refuses to let her look into the parlor, he seems very happy as if something wonderful has happened. He shows Phoebe a new daguerreotype of the Judge lying dead. He tells her that he has not called the police because he knows that it would implicate Clifford and Hepzibah and hopes that they will come back soon.

Phoebe is shocked by this and wants to call the police immediately but Holgrave, having seemingly gone insane, is ebullient and tells Phoebe that he loves her. Phoebe initially protests but caves in and tells Holgrave that she loves him, too. Just then Clifford and Hepzibah do return to the house. Hepzibah takes one look at Holgrave and Phoebe and begins crying.

The death of the Judge is made public but the news creates only a mild sensation in the town. His death being so similar to the death of his uncle, Jaffrey Pyncheon makes people begin to question things. It is discovered that Clifford did not kill Jaffrey Pyncheon but that the Judge accidentally killed him from shock when his uncle found him rummaging through his papers one day. Rather than call for help, the young Judge continued going through the papers and destroyed the will that left all of Jaffrey Pyncheon’s property to Clifford. He then arranged all of the evidence to lead to Clifford.

After the Judge’s death, his son died unexpectedly and all of his assets go to Clifford. Clifford moves, with Hepzibah, Phoebe and Holgrave into the Judge’s lavish mansion in town. Holgrave especially feels uncomfortable in the new house at first, being against wealth and a revolutionary but eventually begins to see his views changing for which Phoebe teases him.

One day, Holgrave accidentally knocks the portrait of the old Colonel to the floor and reveals a hidden parchment that turns out to be the deed for the large tract of land in Maine. Hepzibah assumes that Clifford must have found the parchment, gotten confused and told the Judge who thought that he meant that he found the records of their uncle. Holgrave reveals that he knew about the hidden compartment on the portrait because he is a Maule and the parchment was hidden by Matthew Maule’s son when he built the house.

Phoebe tells Uncle Venner that he may stay in an empty cottage on their property for free. This delights him and he marvels that they would want him to live with them. Hepzibah gives some money to the little boy who bought the gingerbread, as he was her most loyal customer. Uncle Venner thinks that he hears the strains of Alice Pyncheon’s harpsichord as he walks by the house of the seven gables that night.

Characters Analysis 

Hepzibah Pyncheon – an older woman who is the current Pyncheon living in the house of the seven gables when the story begins. Hepzibah is a kind, timid woman whose face is frozen in a permanent scowl from nearsightedness. Hepzibah is down on her luck, financially, having previously been a wealthy lady of the town. She is embarrassed and ashamed for others to see how far she and her family have fallen but opens the shop in the house because she must do so to survive.

Although some of her neighbors encourage her many of them also seem desperate to see her fail and mock her shop as being a poor decision. Hepzibah is kind to the people that enter her shop although she often frightens them away because of her appearance.
She is strongly devoted to the care and well-being of her brother, Clifford although he is imprisoned for many years and initially refuses to even look at her when he returns.

By the end of the novel, Clifford and Hepzibah have regained some of the sibling connection that they once had and their upturn in fortunes serves as a well-deserved redemption for Hepzibah.

Clifford Pyncheon – the true owner of the house of the seven gables. Clifford has been in prison for many years after being falsely accused by his cousin, Judge Pyncheon of killing their uncle. Clifford clearly suffered much while in prison and has since been driven mentally unwell. He frequently has bouts of crying and incompetence. Although he is unable to vocalize why, he clearly feels that the Judge is out to get him and refuses to see the man, often becoming upset and fearful when the Judge is asking for him.

Clifford is revealed by the portrait that Hepzibah shows to Phoebe, to be a formerly beautiful, upright young man who has been destroyed mentally and emotionally by a long prison sentence for a crime that he did not commit. Eventually, Clifford recovers enough to find his bond with Hepzibah and move the family into the Judge’s estate after his cousin’s death.

Phoebe Pyncheon – a relative who comes to stay with the Pyncheon’s. Phoebe is a bright, cheerful young woman who brings a breath of fresh air into the house. She brightens everything, first redecorating her room and then revitalizing the garden and the shop. Phoebe’s bright attitude is backed up by a strong sense of morals and a deep wisdom. She is often the voice of reason in the house, showing great strength and hidden depths. Holgrave initially thinks that he can read her like a book but is later forced to take back this assumption.

Phoebe is a responsible person who does not become mired in curiosity as to the houses secrets and Clifford’s odd mental state. Though she is fun, she is not frivolous. In the end, she is the first person to insist that the police are called for the Judge’s body and she refuses Holgrave’s first request to marry her. She forces him to change for her rather than the other way around.

Judge Pyncheon – the antagonist of the novel. The Judge is a living example of his ancestor the Colonel’s cruelty and ruthlessness. He is the true heir to the Pyncheon mean streak. The Judge hides an evil core under a friendly exterior, constantly smiling an insincere grin in order to convince people that he is kindly. The Judge framed Clifford for the murder many years before and seems to have deluded himself to the point that he truly believes that his cousin did kill their uncle. In the end, the Judge is killed in the same way he accidentally killed his uncle and his ties to the evil man’s legacy are completed.

Holgrave – the house of the seven gables only lodger. A young daguerreotypist who considers himself a revolutionary and a hater of money and power. Hepzibah views Holgrave’s ideas and friends as disreputable but does not disparage the man himself. Throughout the novel, Holgrave’s ideas come across as young, vital and full of life in a way, that the house as it’s occupants are not. In this way he is almost a foil for the house of seven gables itself.

In the end, Holgrave is revealed to be a descendant of Matthew Maule. This explains the passage where Holgrave accidentally hypnotizes Phoebe and must talk himself out of using his control of her for his own ends. Thus, he dispels some of the stigmas that his family bears from the death of Alice Pyncheon. He goes back on many of his revolutionary ideas once he becomes engaged to Phoebe

Nathaniel Hawthorne Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a great American novelist. He wrote short stories and novels including “The Scarlet Letter”, “The House of Seven Gables” and the “Twice Told Tales”. His works are seen as a some of the most important works of early American history.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, he changed the spelling of his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne in order to distance himself from his grandfather who involved in the Salem Witch Trials. Then he spent some time working in a customhouse in Salem, Massachusetts. He met Sophia Peabody in 1838 and fell in love. He moved into a Transcendentalist Utopian community, not because he actually agreed with their teachings, but to save money to marry Sophia.

He later used material from his life there for his book, “The Blithedale Romance”. He and Sophia were married in 1842. They enjoyed a long and happy life together. During his life, he was friends with a lot of notable literary figures of his time including, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet Ellery Channing, Herman Melville (who dedicated “Moby Dick” to him), and Henry David Thoreau. He was also a staunch supporter of President Franklin Pierce, from their early years together. Hawthorne wrote a sterling biography of his friend, Pierce, leaving out anything unsavory. He also met Abraham Lincoln.

At his death in 1864, he left behind his loving wife, Sophia, and their three children. His pallbearers were noted men of the age including Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts on what is known as “Author’s Ridge”.