Critical Essays Symbols in The House of the Seven Gables


The House

From the start, Hawthorne describes the House of the Seven Gables as if it were human; he says, "The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance . . . expressive of the long lapse of mortal life." Personification continues in later descriptions of the house as "a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences," its "meditative look" suggesting "that it had secrets to keep, and an eventful history to moralize upon." The old Pyncheon mansion contains the collective consciousness of a single family; it is a sort of domesticated American version of a European gothic castle. The old and haunted house will, as we will see, permeate the minds of its aging inhabitants.

Clifford thinks of himself and Hepzibah as ghosts, doomed to haunt their accursed house. Hawthorne, however, says that they have protracted their own anguish: Their hearts have been dungeons, and each person has become his own jailer; the house is a larger equivalent of that dungeon. Both Clifford and Hepzibah, like Roderick and Madeline Usher in Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" face a future that is also, strangely enough, the past, for they can only become, in a manner of speaking, what they already are. Prisoners of time, they are equally prisoners of space; that space is expanded into an entire house and its environs.

The orientation of the house signifies its place midway between two civilizations. It faces the commerce of the street on the west, while to the rear is an old garden. Its exterior is darkened by the "prevalent east wind," and the house contains within its gloomy halls a map of what is consistently referred to as the "Eastern claim." The land itself extends only as far east as Waldo County, Maine, but it is associated with the "princely territory" of Europe, and it symbolizes the aristocratic tradition of the Pyncheon clan, with its "antique portraits, pedigrees, and coats of arms." This trait is best personified in "foreign-bred" Gervayse Pyncheon, grandson of the old Colonel, whose efforts to obtain the "eastern claim" were motivated by his desire to return to England, "that more congenial home." His daughter Alice was also inordinately proud, and her beauty, her flowers, and her music all reflected this trait.

The darkness of the old Pyncheon house is impressive and significant. Within its depths are shadowy emblems of the past, each representing evil geniuses of the Pyncheon family. The ancestral chair is a reminder not only of the old Colonel but also the susceptibility to Maule's curse what appears to be apoplexy); the portrait and the map are dimly visible tokens of the Colonel's inflexible sternness and greed. The harpsichord is likened to a coffin (recalling Alice's fatal pride). None of the objects can be distinguished very clearly in the darkness, but the novel shows that they have an inescapable reality. Certainly their burden weighs heavily upon the present inhabitants of the house. Hepzibah's unbending and decadent gentility is matched by the stiff chairs, and her beetle-browed frown echoes the dark front of the house as it faces the sunny street. Any warmth that might be within her is masked by her gruff exterior. Clifford's undisciplined sensibility and faded beauty remind us of Gervayse and his daughter. The long intervening years and Clifford's unjust punishment have weakened and coarsened any of the positive traits of his ancestors. Whereas Gervayse savored fine imported wines in the past, Clifford voraciously gulps coffee and breakfast cakes; whereas Alice played hauntingly beautiful melodies on the harpsichord, Clifford must be content with a modern counterpart, listening to the creaky music of the Italian hurdy-gurdy.

To move from the sepulchral darkness of the old Pyncheon house to the dusky sunlight of the street is to discover the hubbub of the contemporary environment. Although Hawthorne occasionally describes the street as a quiet by-way, he obviously intended to capture within it the whole throbbing turmoil of nineteenth-century life in this country. The street becomes "a mighty river of life, massive in its tide," brimming with chattering housewives and raucous peddlers and venders; the world is like a train or a bus dropping, here and there, a passenger, and picking up another. The current of life on the literal train that carries Clifford and Hepzibah away from the old house is typical — but the inhabitants of the House of the Seven Gables cannot be part of this modern society, and, more important, they cannot escape from the house.

The Portrait

The evil spirit that haunts the house is fixed in the portrait of its founder, Colonel Pyncheon, the man who denounced Matthew Maule to seize his property. The old portrait is the demon of guilt that haunts the Pyncheon house. Its resemblance to Judge Pyncheon, the "villain" of this novel, continues the weight of guilt in the past into the present, as the Judge recapitulates the criminal greed of his ancestry.

Although Hepzibah feels reverence for the portrait, she senses its spiritual evil and ugliness; she also identifies Judge Pyncheon as "the very man." Phoebe sees the portrait and learns of its legend; then as she looks at the Judge, she recalls Maule's curse that Colonel Pyncheon "could drink blood." The gurgling in the Judge's throat "chimed in so oddly with her previous fancies about the Colonel and the Judge, that for the moment, it seemed quite to mingle their identity." Clifford is so disturbed by the portrait that he asks Hepzibah to hang a curtain over it.

The demonic portrait, however, literally covers a hidden "recess" behind it — a hiding place for the "lost dead." Clifford responds to the portrait as to a dream that conceals a secret: "Whenever I look at it, there is an old, dreaming recollection haunting me, but keeping just beyond the grasp of my mind. Wealth, it seems to say! . . . What could this dream have been!" Then, finally, Holgrave presses a hidden spring, and the portrait tumbles down to reveal the hiding place of the worthless Indian deed which "the Pyncheons sought in vain, while it was valuable."

The Deed

Like other hidden objects in Hawthorne's fiction, the deed is, itself, evidence of past evil persisting into the present. Holgrave, who finds the deed, is a descendant of the executed Maule, whose son built the house and who took his own revenge on the Pyncheons by building the recess to conceal the valued document. The document itself, however, is now worthless.

Maule's Well

Although Maule's Well is separated from the house, it is symbolically the soul of the house, and it also serves incidentally to define Clifford's imagination. Like the fountain in Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" and like the ancient spring in his novel The Marble Faun, the well exists outside the story's temporal limits. Hawthorne stresses that its waters might be contaminated; the first Maule built his cottage beside its sweet spring, but Colonel Pyncheon's house seemingly befouled it. Yet the last paragraph of the novel identifies the well as being once more a reservoir of knowledge, "throwing up a succession of kaleidoscopic pictures" which only the "gifted eye" can see. These are prophetic pictures, foreshadowing the future lives of Hepzibah, Clifford, Phoebe, and Holgrave.

The Mirror

The mirror in the Pyncheon parlor is another object which figures as a part of the past, although not literally. In fact, no one in the story even looks into it. Near the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne describes the "large, dim looking-glass . . . fabled to contain within its depths all the shapes that had ever been reflected there." And he reports a legend that the Maules retain a mysterious power to summon back the dead, and "make its inner region all alive with the departed Pyncheons," who are "doing over again some deed of sin, or in the crisis of life's bitterest sorrow."

Another mirror passage near the end of the novel, inserted after Judge Pyncheon's death, contains a strange dream pageant. After reporting a "ridiculous legend" that the dead Pyncheons assemble in the parlor at midnight, Hawthorne imagines them becoming part of a jostling parade, marching past the Colonel's portrait to confirm that it is still hanging, and looking for the secret behind it. Hawthorne mocks his own conceit as a freak of fancy, but nonetheless he suggests that it has a life and truth of its own. He had begun by indulging his fancy as "a little sport," but soon found he had "partly lost the power of restraint and guidance." The "visionary scene" also draws on literary conventions by conveying information otherwise unknown: The Judge's sole surviving son has died; therefore, all the Pyncheon property will be inherited by Clifford, Hepzibah, and Phoebe.

Hawthorne cautions his reader not to think of the episode as "an actual portion of our story" but merely as an extravagance initiated by moonbeams and shadows which are "reflected in the looking-glass"; however, he then restores the mirror's special credibility by saying that such a reflection, "you are aware, is always a kind of window or door-way into the spiritual world."

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