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The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What purpose does Chapter 1 serve in The House of the Seven Gables?

Chapter 1, which details the incident between Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule, is crucial to the story. The flashback sets the stage for the rest of the text. The story focuses primarily on the Pyncheons. Colonel Pyncheon's behaviors and traits are periodically seen in his descendants, but they, like Colonel Pyncheon, have questionable morals and ultimately suffer. Colonel Pyncheon's actions impact all the descendants in his family, particularly those who live in the House of the Seven Gables. As for the Maules, they are pitiable. However, they are far from pathetic, as they share their ancestor's determination and refusal to go down easily.

In what ways are the narrator and Holgrave similar in The House of the Seven Gables?

When Hepzibah Pyncheon opens the shop, she is full of trepidation and shame. She feels dejected knowing she has fallen to such a level where she has to earn her own money, and believes this is not suitable for a lady. Holgrave, on the other hand, profusely praises Hepzibah's actions. He tells her, "You will ... have the sense of healthy and natural effort for a purpose." Holgrave adds that letting go of the past will be freeing, as Hepzibah will not be tied to old notions (including what it means to be a lady). The narrator similarly has no patience for labels and for the aristocracy. In Chapter 1, the narrator claims "influential classes ... are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob." Both Holgrave and the narrator look down upon the upper classes. They are not special and distinct and do not deserve to be envied.

How is Colonel Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne's background?

Colonel Pyncheon took advantage of the Salem Witch Trials. As noted in the text, members of the upper class were part of the frenzy and "applaud[ed] the work of blood." The narrator goes on to describe the era and what occurred as "the frenzy of that hideous epoch." Colonel Pyncheon had Matthew Maule killed in order to take his land. Nathaniel Hawthorne had a relative who served as a judge at the Salem Witch Trials. The author felt a sense of shame knowing his name was associated with the trials, as he felt the trials were a sham. Just as Hawthorne's ancestor participated in the Salem Witch Trials and brought shame to the Hawthorne family, so, too, does Colonel Pyncheon bring shame to the Pyncheon family.

How does Matthew Maule's well foreshadow the Pyncheon family's fate in The House of the Seven Gables?

Matthew Maule was originally drawn to and settled on the land because of its natural spring of water. The spring became known as Maule's well and retained the name after Colonel Pyncheon took the land for himself. However, when the workmen began construction on the House of the Seven Gables, "the spring of water ... lost the deliciousness of its pristine quality." Neighbors saw this as an "ominous fact," but Colonel Pyncheon ignored the sign. The ominous fate of the well is similar to the fate of the Pyncheon family once they take up residence in the House of the Seven Gables. The family suffers a series of misfortunes, and the guilt lingers even after Colonel Pyncheon is long gone. However, the family remains on the property and its members continue to think highly of themselves.

What elements of The House of the Seven Gables make it a Gothic novel as well as a romance, as it is termed in the Preface?

The House of the Seven Gables can be considered a Gothic novel as well as a romance, particularly because Gothic fiction often incorporates romantic elements such as strong emotion, individuality, and nature. In fact, the Gothic genre is also known as Gothic Romance. Gothic works also tend to be dark and gloomy, and the plots frequently feature fear, horror, the supernatural, and death. The dismal and decaying House of the Seven Gables, like a person breathing his last breath, certainly contributes the requisite elements of gloom. Matthew Maule's curse adds a supernatural element to the story. With the deaths of Colonel Pyncheon, Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon and Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, it is as if the curse has succeeded. Matthew Maule (the younger) and Holgrave have the ability to hypnotize people. When Matthew Maule (the younger) uses this skill, the drama and emotion reach new heights as Alice Pyncheon is led to her death. All of these plot points mark Nathaniel Hawthorne's work as Gothic fiction.

How does Hepzibah Pyncheon represent the decay of the Pyncheon family in The House of the Seven Gables?

Hepzibah Pyncheon is trapped by the house and is described as "the Old Maid [who] was alone in the old house." Her audible sighs and creaky joints—similar to the creaky, rusty joints of the house—paint her as an aged, broken, and unhappy person. Each of her days seemed the same as the one before. There is neither joy nor excitement in her life. She wanders around the old house before retrieving the old miniature figurine. The portrait also represents time gone by. Hepzibah longs for the past when she led a more fulfilling life. Like the Pyncheon family, Hepzibah is down on her luck and clings to the past. Her physical decay, just like the decay of the house, is symbolic of the family's decay. However, there is a hint of something more. Her scowl is not by choice, and she possessed a heart that "never frowned." There is a goodness inside Hepzibah that wants to express itself.

How is Hepzibah Pyncheon characterized based on her conversation with Holgrave and her reaction to the workmen in Chapter 3 of The House of the Seven Gables?

Hepzibah Pyncheon has retained the pride the Pyncheons have felt since the days of their ancestor, Colonel Pyncheon. Hepzibah takes an aristocratic view of the world and considers herself a lady; as such, she considers many tasks—and people—beneath her. Her classism makes her ashamed to open up the store, and tells Holgrave if Matthew Maule could see her in the shop, "he would call it the fulfillment of his worst wishes." Her shame is heightened when the two workmen begin talking about her. Hepzibah feels "overwhelming shame that strange and unloving eyes should have the privilege of gazing" on her shop window. Hepzibah is a proud woman. She does not want pity nor does she want people to see her at what she considers a low point. She retains the pride of the family, though she believes she is suffering due to its history. Holgrave urges her to set aside her classism, to step out of her "circle of gentility," and join "the united struggle of mankind."

How is Uncle Venner's first appearance in the novel, in Chapter 4, similar to his other appearances in The House of the Seven Gables?

Uncle Venner is a positive, cheerful, and pleasant individual in every scene in which he appears; he is unfailingly generous and unselfish. In his initial appearance, he tries to cheer up Hepzibah Pyncheon over her new venture. He repeatedly compliments Phoebe Pyncheon and calls her angelic. Hepzibah leans on him and asks his opinion, and Clifford Pyncheon enjoys speaking with him so much so, he wishes Uncle Venner will join them when they leave the House of the Seven Gables. When the Pyncheon cousins and Holgrave gather in the back of the house on Sundays, Uncle Venner is a welcome addition. This is undoubtedly due to his positive aura. Venner is described as "the vagrant artist [...] the wood-sawyer, the messenger of everybody's petty errands, the patched philosopher." In sharp contrast to Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, he never seeks to profit from or take advantage of others, and his character conveys Nathaniel Hawthorne's belief that status and material things do not bring happiness.

How do the various descriptions of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon in Chapters 1, 4, and 5 add mystery to The House of the Seven Gables?

In Chapter 1, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is greatly praised. He is referred to as an "honor to his race," a gentleman, a Christian, and a good citizen. His many personal qualities are in addition to his professional qualities. In Chapter 4, Hepzibah Pyncheon refuses to accept Judge Pyncheon's help and does not want to speak to him. In Chapter 5, Hepzibah tells Phoebe Pyncheon, "He will hardly cross the threshold while I live! No, no!" The reader is left with questions. Who is the real Judge Pyncheon? How can he be praised so highly yet draw such ire from Hepzibah? Why is Judge Pyncheon not around to help her if he is such a gentleman? As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that while Pyncheon may seem an "honor to his race" to those who know him little, his good deeds are all for show; he is motivated only by his desire for status, praise, and material comforts. Despite his wealth, he is insatiably greedy for more; as Hepzibah knows all too well, he cares nothing for the damage he will do Clifford Pyncheon by hounding him for part of the inheritance from Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon.

How does Phoebe Pyncheon's first appearance foreshadow her time in Chapter 5 of The House of the Seven Gables?

Phoebe—whose name is from the Greek phoibos, meaning "bright, pure"— is a breath of fresh air and a ray of light in the old house. Upon awakening in the house for the first time, she is compared to the morning's light, "the new guest there,—with a bloom on her cheeks like the morning's own." Phoebe awakens to a place that is unfamiliar. What is unfamiliar to Phoebe is not so much the physical location but the figurative darkness hovering over the house. Phoebe does a number of minor things to the room to brighten it up. Her presence and her actions—while not dramatic—have the same impact on everyone she meets and on the house itself. Phoebe Pyncheon makes everything better.

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