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The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 1 : The Old Pyncheon Family | Summary



An unnamed narrator begins telling the backstory of the Pyncheon family and their house known as the House of the Seven Gables, situated in Essex County (Massachusetts). The land on which the house sits was originally owned by Matthew Maule, who had a "rude hovel." What drew Matthew Maule to the land was "a natural spring of soft and pleasant water—a rare treasure on the sea-girt peninsula."

As the town grew and became prosperous, Maule's land became "exceedingly desirable in the eyes of a prominent and powerful personage." The personage in question, Colonel Pyncheon, "asserted plausible claims to the proprietorship" of the hovel and the land. He was a determined man and tried to pressure Maule into selling, but Maule held out.

Matthew Maule was later executed for witchcraft, and his chief accuser was Colonel Pyncheon. As Matthew Maule was on the gallows ready to be executed, he looked out into the crowd of people watching, spotted Colonel Pyncheon, and cursed him, saying, "God will give him blood to drink!"

With Maule out of the picture, Colonel Pyncheon took control of the debated property and built the House of the Seven Gables. The chief architect of the house was Thomas Maule, Matthew's own son. He did his work well and showed no animosity toward Colonel Pyncheon. However, the narrator notes that when the workmen began building the House of the Seven Gables after Maule's death, the water "entirely lost the deliciousness of its pristine quality" and "grew hard and brackish." Furthermore, at the ceremony to mark the opening of the house, Colonel Pyncheon was found dead in his study, his "hoary beard ... saturated with" blood. People say they could hear the voice of Matthew Maule saying, "God hath given him blood to drink!" The cause of death was not known, though rumors say someone was seen fleeing the scene.

The Pyncheons lived in the house for generations. While they had a high self-regard, they generally achieved little success and seemed to incur bad luck. This began with Colonel Pyncheon's son, who was unable to find and secure the deed of a large piece of valuable land in Maine his father had purchased. Ownership of this desired land, which was "more extensive than many a dukedom, or even a reigning prince's territory," would have brought the family great wealth. For years the family tried to secure the deed but was unsuccessful.

At one point, one family member killed another family member, "an old bachelor ... possessed of great wealth" who had believed Maule to be "foully wronged out of his homestead." The "old bachelor" had plans to return the property to a living Maule ancestor. However, the other Pyncheon family members blocked this move, and after the "old bachelor" died, the property was bequeathed to Judge Pyncheon.

Descendants of the Maule family continued living in the area after the death of Matthew Maule; "they were a quiet, honest, well-meaning race of people" and are not familiar with the feud between their ancestor and Colonel Pyncheon.

At this point, the narrator notes, "We proceed to open our narrative."


As hinted at in the preface, the opening chapter introduces key components of romance and, more specifically, Gothic fiction. The once-fair water on Maule's former property is tainted now, symbolizing the distasteful conditions under which the Pyncheons took ownership of the land. The curse itself—"God will give him blood to drink!"—adheres to the general theme of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, which involves a prophecy about a corrupt patriarch's eventual downfall. The reference to blood in particular is a now recognizable detail in most horror tales, and Hawthorne does not disappoint in the gory description of the colonel's blood-soaked beard. The gossipy townspeople revel in the infamous events, noting every time a Pyncheon male heir might "gurgle in his throat," as though this were a confirmation of old Matthew Maule's prophecy. On a metaphorical level, the colonel's future "blood" will also supposedly suffer a similar fate as he did. Under Maule's curse, the House of the Seven Gables will bring bad luck to whoever inhabits the home—a variation on Walpole's plot: that the sins of fathers will be visited on their children—for how many generations, readers must wait to discover.

Another symbol of the suffering Pyncheon family is the land in Maine they are unable to claim. Instead of political influence and powerful connections, all they get from the land is an inflated sense of importance. The family will not achieve the grand desires of its patriarch. Like the ancestral home the House of the Seven Gables, the family is in a state of disrepair—another important Gothic motif. Only the elm tree overshadows and continues to thrive as the Pyncheons and their home decline, as if the tree feeds on the Pyncheons' decay.

While the descendants of the Maule family are unaware of the curse their ancestor placed on Pyncheon, it affects them as well. The little posterity they have centers on the belief that they hold strange powers.

Both families remain connected to the past. This is symbolized by Colonel Pyncheon's decision to place the House of the Seven Gables over the spot where Maule's hovel had been, inviting haunting privileges to the former owner. The families are ultimately bound together, setting the stage for Hawthorne's exploration of classism or class prejudice.

The narrator presents this entire backstory as a preface to the story. As the chapter ends, the narrator states, "We proceed to open our narrative." However, it is already apparent that the backstory impacts the past and current generations. The story is not meant merely to entertain but sets the stage for what is to come.

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