On one of the side streets of a New England town stands a seven-gabled house with an enormous elm tree before its door. It is the ancestral Pyncheon house, owned by a family with a long tradition. It was built on the site of the house of Matthew Maule. Envious of the fine location, Colonel Pyncheon had helped convict the house's owner of witchcraft and was instrumental in having him hanged. From the gallows, however, Matthew Maule cursed Colonel Pyncheon: "God will give him blood to drink!" Later, on the day that the Colonel opened his new seven-gabled mansion, a hundred sixty years ago, his guests found him dead in his study, his ruff and beard smeared red with blood. Generations of Pyncheons have come and gone, and the family has suffered many sorrows; a claim to an extensive tract of land in Maine remains unsubstantiated; a Pyncheon turned Tory during the Revolution, but he repented in time to save the house from confiscation; and a cousin of the present leading Pyncheon, Judge Jaffrey, has been convicted of murdering his uncle and has been sent to prison. The present inhabitant of the house, Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, has reopened its dusty little cent-shop. The descendants of Maule seem to have disappeared, although one, Matthew's son Thomas, superintended the building of the Pyncheon house, which has a brow-like second story, a murky, sour well, a weedy garden, mossy windows, and flowers in a high nook near the chimney.
The opening sentences of this novel are worth noting for their many details. In view of Hawthorne's habit of using only details that are most significant, certain images should be noted here. The novel involves the story of a house that was built by pride and possessed by death on the very day of the housewarming. Thus, the opening description stresses the darkness and angularity of the house and the "wide circumference" of the giant tree that is later said to "overshadow" it.
As the house and its inhabitants have decayed, the elm tree has grown almost as though it were nourished by the decay of the Pyncheon family. The once proud prosperity of the Pyncheons has given way to poverty for most of the family and the original injustice of old Colonel Pyncheon has descended as retribution upon the present inhabitants.
The elm has grown with each season, but the inhabitants of the house have become stunted. The same things have happened over and over again, but the Pyncheons do not see that retribution has been a continuing curse upon them because their vision is taken up with the more obvious reality of their great house and the social position of which it is a symbol. Consequently, this blindness to reality is presented in Hepzibah's near-sightedness.
The house is a setting for the novel, it is a symbol, and it is also a character in the novel; in fact; it is the protagonist in a drama of good and evil. The street is its antagonist. The realization that the house is a "character" is found in a set of images which personify the House of the Seven Gables. The outward appearance of the house, we are told, reminds one of a human face. The interior, especially the great chimney in the center, is repeatedly presented in the novel in terms of heart imagery.
There is a certain suggestion in the novel, though, that the humanity and dignity of the house are inseparable from its troubles; this suggestion is found in the contrasting images of light and dark. Although storm and sunshine have constituted the history of the house, the darkness of the ominous storm is prevalent, as "the venerable mansion . . . grew black in the east-wind." This darkness is early foreshadowed. Hawthorne describes how the terror and ugliness of Maule's crime "darkened" the freshly painted walls of the house until it became a gray, feudal castle.
The projecting upper stories cast "shadowed frowns"; darkness, in fact, penetrates the house very soon indeed, especially in the character of Colonel Pyncheon, wearing in death "a frown on his dark and massive countenance." Here, from the very beginning of the novel, the dark frown of the house is compared to the dark frown of its many occupants.
The Colonel's death is coupled with the mysterious disappearance of the Pyncheon deed and the vast eastern tract of lands and the subsequent obsession of his descendants with their claim to this vast territory in Maine. This becomes an absurd delusion of family importance, an obsession which sets the house and its inhabitants apart from "the street" — that is, from the society outside the house.
Through all the generations, the portrait of the Colonel has brooded over the house, its features seeming to mingle with the sunshine of the passing hour. From the beginning of the novel, we are told that nothing beautiful and "good" will ever grow around the House of the Seven Gables, even though many critics have seen "Alice's posies" (which we will discuss later) as a symbol of renewal.
The combination of the light-dark imagery and the growth / non-growth imagery is still seen long after the Colonel's death, when his successor tries to rehabilitate the family. The irony continues as the unlucky descendants of Matthew Maule, long immersed in obscurity and darkness, seem to have disappeared forever. But there is a tradition that "these plebian Maules" have exercised a strange ascendancy over their Pyncheon oppressors in the world of dreams.