The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Context


Salem Witch Trials

In The House of the Seven Gables, Colonel Pyncheon takes advantage of the Salem Witch Trial hysteria, leading the accusation against Matthew Maule. During the historical trials many people, like Colonel Pyncheon, made accusations for personal or spiteful reasons.

The Salem Witch Trials began in February 1692 and continued through September of the same year. During those few months hundreds of men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft and 20 were hanged, while some remained jailed until May 1693. In May 1692, Massachusetts governor William Phips created a special court to hear the witchcraft cases. One of the three judges on the court included John Hathorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather.

Historians point to various reasons for the Salem Witch Trials. There was a history of witch accusation in England, the country of origin for many citizens of Salem, and the Old World inspired ideas and behaviors in the New World. The Puritans had a great fear of the devil, and any sense of his infiltration into their community aroused suspicion and paranoia. While accusations of witchcraft were not new in 1692, a group of girls in the village had shown odd behavior that seemed to support the idea of demonic possession. Several women were accused of having bewitched them; one of the accused confessed and named accomplices, leading to the hunt to uncover more witches. A number of the accused and many of those killed were social outcasts.

After the paranoia had passed, many people recognized that the trials were anything but fair and just: for example, none of the accused were allowed legal counsel; the accused were frequently asked questions that presumed guilt; and only those who confessed were saved from execution after they were convicted. The trials were finally declared unlawful, the innocence of the accused was established, and their heirs were given compensation.

Hawthorne's Gothic

Given the cultural background of Salem, readers might not be surprised to see so many Gothic elements in The House of the Seven Gables. Once strictly associated with an architectural style popular in the medieval period, Gothic was established in the 18th century as a genre of literature characterized by elements of terror, suspense, and frequently, the supernatural. The first Gothic novel is thought to be Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a tale about a corrupt Italian lord, Manfred, whose tyranny and greed are punished by a divine curse, which makes the very walls of Castle Otranto quake with rumblings and sighs. As part of the genre's fascination with intrigue and secrets, the true heir of Otranto turns out to be a peasant, named Theodore, who later discovers his noble lineage. In addition to using picturesque settings of medieval romance, such as ruined castles and abbeys, Walpole's novel established the following Gothic features: naive and delicate young female protagonists pursued by decadent aristocratic patriarchs; brave knights of low appearance but high birth who come to the rescue; and (almost always) dark family secrets, which drive the plot along and lead to often sensational conclusions.

Despite The Castle of Otranto's stilted dialogue and contrived plot, including the most infamous episode in which a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes the only heir of the false lord Manfred, contemporary scholars have argued for the book's importance as a model. Though something of a cliché, the novel's theme that "the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation" can be found in many Gothic novels produced since the 18th century.

Nevertheless, even before the end of the 18th century new writers had begun modifying the genre. For example, Ann Radcliffe, who wrote such Gothic works as The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho (both set in Italy, like Walpole's book), set her stories in ancient castles and abbeys but toned down the supernatural elements; unlike The Castle of Otranto, the mysteries in Radcliffe's novels are generally given rational explanations.

In many respects, The House of the Seven Gables follows the Gothic tradition, though mostly along the lines of Radcliffe. The opening chapters spend much time developing a heavy, brooding atmosphere of terror and suspense, beginning with the Pyncheon family curse. The "seven gables" of a spooky, crumbling mansion might be the most blatantly Gothic component in the novel; though, on the surface, the similarly crumbling aristocratic family is another Gothic motif. In two respects, Hawthorne appeared to borrow directly from the old model: family portraits in both The Castle of Otranto and The House of the Seven Gables seem to sigh during key moments in the story. Similarly, Hawthorne's plot appears to mimic the basic story line of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in which a father's usurpation of an estate leads to punishment of future generations. Like Walpole's book, the central conflict is, on the surface, a dispute between classes—a corrupt noble versus a gallant, chivalrous peasant. In the unfolding of the story, of course, the Pyncheon-Maule dispute is (like Radcliffe's Gothic) played out through scenes in which apparently supernatural events are ultimately explained away through rational means.

However, it is Hawthorne's manner of resolving the central conflicts that marks a key departure from the British Gothic writers of the previous century. As literary scholar Ronald Curran notes, far from reasserting aristocratic and feudal values, as Walpole's work demonstrates (for example, when the peasant Theodore turns out to be of noble blood), Hawthorne espouses a "belief in a more egalitarian social structure." This democratic or "Yankee" (American) form of the Gothic, as Curran calls it, is best demonstrated when the hero, Holgrave, turns out to be a Maule and, therefore, not of noble birth. In the end, the aristocratic ghosts are laid to rest by real, flesh-and-blood, middle-class-minded people, including Phoebe Pyncheon, whose courage and practicality make her a more dynamic Gothic heroine than the swooning maidens of Walpole's work.

Rise of the Middle Class and the "Cult of Domesticity"

A dominant focus of The House of the Seven Gables is the need to replace aristocratic lifestyles with middle-class values—part of Hawthorne's critical examination of classism, or one class's prejudice against another. Hawthorne supported trade and earned income in contrast to the reverence for ancestral homes and artifacts and inherited wealth. He also believed in the value of craft goods and services. This exchange of values is vividly presented when the ailing aristocratic Hepzibah is forced to leave the haunted, but comfortably secluded, interior of the mansion for the newly renovated shop. The shop will naturally attract nonaristocratic consumers, who will use currency to purchase products. Scholars have, however, suggested that while Hawthorne expressed sympathy for the middle class, he was much more reluctant to champion the cause of the lower classes, represented in the novel by the older generation of Maules.

The blossoming courtship between Holgrave and Phoebe Pyncheon highlights two middle-class characters who favor gradual over radical change. Though linked by blood to the Maules and initially full of radical ideas, Holgrave is tempered by Phoebe's gentle domesticity. Scholar Susan Gallagher argues that this developing "cult of domesticity" was positioned as an alternative to the often cold and inhumane capitalist system. In contrast to capitalism, Gallagher notes, "the structures of human relationships, particularly as found in the home, gave both men and women the greatest happiness and fulfillment."

Though The House of the Seven Gables chronologically precedes Coventry Patmore's famous poem "Angel in the House" (c. 1854), Hawthorne's novel shares with the poem key thematic concerns, including the sweet and tempering effect of conventionally female domesticity on a household. (As most critics note, "angels of the house" were dominant in fiction and poetry long before Patmore's concept was coined.) Phoebe's angelic presence is referenced from the outset of her appearance on the Pyncheon threshold, and functions as the source of good battling the Gothic evil plaguing the House of the Seven Gables for generations.


The American transcendentalist movement—made up primarily of residents from New England in the 1830s—had literary, philosophical, and political elements, but all included a belief in the unity of creation, the inherent goodness of nature and man, and the belief that insight surpassed logic and experience in the revelation of truth. In application, such ideals led to the development of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective and a transcendental commune. Brook Farm was organized on a strong belief in the collective power of hard work and self-reliance—a key concept of transcendentalism and the title of an essay by the movement's key figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hawthorne and his wife lived in a home called the Old Manse, which was previously occupied by Emerson. When they moved into the house, another key intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, planted a vegetable garden for them—an appropriate transcendentalist gesture.

Some components of the concept had radical potential: because of their belief in the potential and ability of every person, many of the transcendentalists were engaged in social reform movements such as abolition and women's rights. Transcendentalists saw their goal as moving beyond or against society's norms, emphasizing the break with the past and its traditions. On the other hand, as scholar R. A. Yoder observes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most important transcendentalist intellectuals, viewed the state as a "necessary evolution" and "progression" of ideas; Emerson's writings on societal change use metaphors of both planting and maturing rather than violent uprooting. This fits well with The House of the Seven Gables in which the transformation of the aristocratic system, represented by the decrepit Pyncheon mansion, happens gradually and as a result of the nurturing power of (especially Phoebe's) hard work and domesticity. Though Holgrave's ancestors, the Maules, had the temperament of violent radicals, the current Maule heir embraces the transcendentalist concept of unity and the inherent goodness of nature and man. As Yoder puts it, the "union [of] society [through the Pyncheon and Maule familes] achieves its proper balance of permanence and progression."

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