The House of the Seven Gables is a novel written in 1851 by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is a recognized classic of American literature.
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.
The actual House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts was at one time owned by Hawthorne's cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, and she entertained him there often. Ingersoll inspired him to write the fictional novel. Its seven-gabled state was known only to Hawthorne through childhood stories from his cousin and, at the time of his visits, he would have only seen three gables due to federal period architectural renovations. This seven-gabled house which has been suggested to be Hawthorne's inspiration is a museum that in modern day was founded to fund an accompanying settlement house. Hawthorne, however, often stated that the book was a work of complete fiction, based on no particular house.
The House of the Seven Gables
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, lively relative, the 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 lodger Holgrave, who is writing a history of the Pyncheon family.
An organ grinder's visit disturbs the ex-convict's fragile grasp on reality. Judge Pyncheon threatens to have Clifford committed, but his true purpose is to gain access to the house to search for a lost land deed. Hepzibah and Clifford escape on a train (then a very modern form of transport) after the judge dies unexpectedly in the house. However, they soon return, to Phoebe's relief. Events from past and present throw light on the circumstances which sent Clifford to prison, proving his innocence. The novel ends with the characters leaving the old house to start a new life, free of the burdens of the past.
The House of the Seven Gables is set mainly 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.
- Hepzibah Pyncheon - Hepzibah is an unmarried older woman, a descendant of the Pyncheon who built the house of the title. She is from a high-society class but 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.
- Phoebe Pyncheon - a young cousin of Hepzibah's, Phoebe has grown up in the country without airs. She shows up, intending to stay a couple of weeks. Although Hepzibah thinks she is showing up unannounced, a letter was sent and not yet delivered by a mail carrier.
- Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon - He is a well-to-do judge and political aspirant who lives on a comfortable estate out of town. He has designs on the house where Hepzibah lives. He so strongly resembles the "original" Colonel Pyncheon, who built the house, that some people mistake portraits of the ancestor for the descendant.
- 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 a crime unspecified until the end of the novel, though it remains constantly a question of whether or not he is really capable of such a crime.
- The Baker - The baker's cart was decorated with bells and he sells baked goods.
- The Minstrel's Monkey - This little fellow is described as mischievous. He looks up into the peoples faces pleading for a penny for his master. Phoebe throws a handful of pennies down on the ground from the arched window for the monkey to collect and give to the minstrel.
- Alice Pyncheon - This proud woman was a horrible example of Maule witchcraft.
Hawthorne, always 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."
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 five months to write it, completing it in early 1851. After its publication, Hawthorne said, "It sold finely and seems to have pleased a good many people".
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.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The novel was notably adapted for the screen in 1940 with Margaret Lindsay
as Hepzibah, George Sanders
as Jaffrey and Vincent Price
as Clifford. It was directed by Joe May
with a screenplay
by Lester Cole
. There was also a silent short
in 1910 and a remake