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The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Summary and Analysis Chapter 21


Before Holgrave can throw open the doors of the house and admit the warm sunlight, Hepzibah and Clifford enter and embrace Phoebe, now happily returned to them. After what is soon termed a "natural death," Judge Pyncheon is quickly forgotten. A theory is advanced that as a youth he was surprised by his uncle while ransacking his uncle's desk. The old man had a seizure and died, and his would-be robber found two wills, one favoring the Judge and another will of a later date favoring Clifford. Destroying the latter, the Judge planted evidence pointing the finger of suspicion at Clifford, who was, accordingly, imprisoned for murder. The son of the Judge has now predeceased him; so Clifford and Hepzibah inherit his wealth and country estate, to which they decide to move. Clifford is easier in his mind and happier now, but he is still not well. No great mistake can ever be really set right, Hawthorne seems to say.

Holgrave finally tells Phoebe that he is a Maule, and laughingly he expresses the non-reformer's sorrow that their country estate is made of wood rather than of permanent stone. He finds a spring — which Clifford now vaguely remembers — in the ancestral portrait and reveals that behind it lies the now useless deed to the Indian lands. When they all decide in September to move into the country, they take Uncle Venner with them. The old man fancies that he hears the shade of Alice Pyncheon playing sweet music.


The day after the storm, when Phoebe returns from her visit to the country, she walks around to the back of the house, tries to get in, and finally decides to enter the garden. Here, both explicitly and implicitly, Hawthorne is drawing a parallel between his story and the biblical story of the fall in Genesis — but this is not the "fortunate fall" of some of Hawthorne's other works. Phoebe finds the Pyncheon garden in complete disarray from the effects of the storm. Weeds have taken over where there once were flowers and vegetables; in fact, the whole place looks deserted, littered, and dismal. Sin and death seem to have taken root. Some literary circles have maintained that Hawthorne is developing "the story of the fall of man" in this story of the house of Pyncheons.

Hawthorne draws not only upon the Bible in this novel, but also upon classical myth in order to develop his theme. For example, Phoebe's name means "shining" in Greek; it refers to emanating light, the sun in particular. Phoebus Apollo was the god of the sun, and Phoebe is one of the names of Apollo's twin sister, his feminine counterpart. But before we assign only positive connotations to the name, we should also remember that Phoebe was one of the names of Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and protectress of the young; she was also goddess of childbirth and women. Hawthorne's irony is at work again here. One of the reasons, as we stated above, for the decline of the family has been its lack of childbirths, of progeny; and, as has been pointed out, Phoebe, like her namesake, is a virgin. Although she is soon to marry and become part of "a new Eden," the mother of the new Eden might also be the mother of a new "fall," for when they all leave the old "garden," it is in September — not in spring, when we generally think of regeneration's taking place; furthermore, there has been nothing in Phoebe's character to suggest that she is stronger than the original Eve; in fact, she almost "falls" (succumbs) to Holgrave's mesmerism early in the story.

Even more suggestive of Hawthorne's combining classical myth and biblical allusion is his reference to a "golden bough." When Uncle Venner, the morning after the storm, approaches the Pyncheon house where the dead Judge sits as yet undiscovered in the ancestral armchair, old Uncle Venner notes that although the elm seems not to have been damaged by the storm, "a single branch . . . had been transmuted to bright gold." Then, making his classical allusion explicit, Hawthorne writes: "It was like the golden branch that gained Aeneas and the Sybil admittance into Hades." This one magestic branch hangs down before the main entrance of the seven gables so that any passerby might have stood on tiptoe, plucked it off, presented it at the door, and be admitted and, as a result, be aware of all the dark secrets of the house.

When both Aeneas and the Sybil gained admittance to the underworld by the power of the golden talismanic branch, Aeneas learned both the secrets of the dead and the prophecies concerning the living. Reference to the myth functions, therefore, on several levels. First, it is still a general secret that the Judge is dead inside the house; anyone entering would learn that secret. But the branch is not just a sort of "key" to the house; it is a "mystic" branch, capable of unlocking secrets more mysterious than merely the Judge's physical presence within. Reference to it transforms the house into an underworld, a realm where death is all-powerful and sits on the throne.

Also, this single branch is only a small part of the tree. The rest of the tree is "in perfect verdure," a symbol of life, not of death. Because of its great circumference, the tree has come to symbolize nature and nature's resurrection; now, it overshadows the house, where there has been, since the beginning, only death, not resurrection. Now, "all was alive and full of the morning sun and a sweetly tempered little breeze." The "leafy tongues" of the tree's leaves are whispering the secrets of the living, just as the single, symbolic branch gives the secrets of the dead. The tree is full of life and light because it has finally succeeded in completely overshadowing the house and its occupants, both past and present. At the end of the novel, in the concluding sentences, Hawthorne makes this aspect of his allusion more explicit by telling us that the elm "whispered unintelligible prophecies." These "unintelligible prophecies" are like the secrets held by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis, and here we are once more reminded that Phoebe and Holgrave, Clifford and Hepzibah are moving out of the House of the Seven Gables — out of Eden after the Fall, and into the new Eden, into a house built and established by the wealth of the Judge. Thus, it seems more than a little likely that the new Pyncheon Eden will fare much better than the old one.

In a cryptic way, The House of the Seven Gables has dealt extensively with both moral and psychological affairs. Its "necromancies" allow us to see the entire historical, social, and symbolic framework of the romance in relationship to guilt. From the opening pages of the novel, the focal symbol of the house is symbolized by "a human countenance," and the resulting struggle for possession follows familiar Hawthornian lines. The falsely accused "wizard" Matthew Maule has not been simply executed by his enemy, Colonel Pyncheon; he has been incorporated into the subsequent life of the house, like an ever-present conscience. The new structure will not insure happiness. It will, Hawthorne tells us, "include the home of the dead and buried wizard, and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments." The Pyncheon estate, therefore, embodies a striving by almost all of its inhabitants to avoid responsibility for guilt.

Such attempted avoidance of guilt is the genesis of all the ironic justice in The House of the Seven Gables. Every tyrant is at the mercy of his victim; or, as Hawthorne puts it in his American Notebooks, "All slavery is reciprocal." This maxim is first applied to the original Colonel Pyncheon, who dies while inaugurating the house he built on the executed Matthew Maule's property. It is clear that the Colonel's strange and unexplained sudden death is due to nothing other than his festering guilt toward Maule. The pattern is repeated for Gervayse Pyncheon in the story told by Holgrave; thus, Pyncheon's greed makes him tacitly cooperate when the second Matthew Maule, supposedly in exchange for a valuable document, takes mesmeric control over Pyncheon's daughter and subsequently causes her death. Jaffrey Pyncheon is similarly enslaved by the oppressed Clifford, who, some claim, "causes" the Judge's death simply by freeing himself from Jaffrey's corrupt authoritarianism.

Perfect justice is, of course, not accomplished. If the authoritarian Pyncheon characters suffer from a secret, sick malaise and eventually come to grief, they all, nevertheless, have a certain public dignity for compensation; revenge, then, is incomplete. The meek victims, by contrast, are in continual misery (when they survive at all) until Holgrave arrives, but even he retains his internalized sense of persecution.

Hepzibah and Clifford, who are presented as figures of infantile innocence, escape Jaffrey's dictatorial presence, but even they are pathetic in trying to enjoy their freedom after Jaffrey's death. "For," Hawthorne says, "what other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!" These sentences indicate Hawthorne's emphasis on the wasting away of the Pyncheon energies from generation to generation.

Many critics have said that the conclusion to The House of the Seven Gables is a reconciliation of the past and the present into a "sunny" ending. But if that were positively and unquestionably so, we would have to admit that the story would end as no more than flimsy farce. It is more likely, given Hawthorne's dispensations, that the book ends with the heavy irony which has imbued it throughout. Good old Uncle Venner, it turns out, is not going to the poorhouse; instead, he will end his days in a little gingerbread cottage at the country estate. Chanticleer and his hens have already moved there and have already begun an indefatigable orgy of crowing and egg-laying. Holgrave, having completely surrendered to Phoebe, is contemplating a variety of do-it-yourself projects, including the construction of a cut-stone house in suburbia. Hepzibah, now worth approximately a couple hundred thousand dollars, is prodigal in her gifts. Maule's well, formerly noted for its profound depths, is now "vomiting up" a volume of kaleidoscopic pictures. The conclusion is perhaps best summed up in a vision of Alice Pyncheon floating to heaven as she plays sweetly on her harpsichord. In concentrating our attention upon this ironic correlation of events following a final stormy afternoon, Hawthorne has emphasized the book's theme — that is, the interpretation of the past and present, the Pyncheon family still cut off from the street and still living on "tainted" money — thus perpetuating the eternal fall of the inhabitants of the House of the Seven Gables.