The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Symbols



The House of the Seven Gables is a physical manifestation of the Pyncheon family's past. The foundation rests on the site of Matthew Maule's former hut, a situation that curses both the family and its home: "the head carpenter of the new edifice was no other than the son of the very man from whose dead gripe the property of the soil had been wrested." The dilapidated state of the house represents the decline of the family, which has been reduced from its former glory to just a few members who continue to be affected negatively by the colonel's actions:

Never had the old house appeared so dismal to poor Hepzibah ... There was a strange aspect in it. As she trode along the foot-worn passages, and opened one crazy door after another, and ascended the creaking staircase, she gazed wistfully and fearfully around.

In addition, the house is filled with artifacts of the family's past, including Colonel Pyncheon's portrait and chair. In fact, the house is filled not only with family relics but with family ghosts as well, such as Alice Pyncheon who continues to play her harpsichord. The living and nonliving members of the family are literally caged by the Pyncheon past as long as they reside in the house.


Throughout the novel, the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon dominates the atmosphere within the House of the Seven Gables. The portrait, which with its supernatural aura was likely a borrowing from older Gothic like that of Walpole, symbolizes the lasting influence of the negative traits possessed by the patriarch of the Pyncheon family: ruthless determination, greed, and iron will. The lifelike portrait includes a stern face that seems to gaze upon anyone who dares look up, and is sometimes thought to sigh. It is implied that the colonel's traits are passed down to his ancestors. To some degree, this appears to be the case. Gervayse risks the life of his own daughter to secure the deed, which ultimately leads to her death. Judge Pyncheon looks and acts like Colonel Pyncheon, and even dies in a similar way. In this way, the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon symbolizes his greed and lust for power.

However, through the figure of Holgrave, who is a keen analyst of portraiture and happens to be a Maule heir, Nathaniel Hawthorne shows that not all sins and traits are necessarily inherited by future generations. Not only does Holgrave refuse to give in to his ancestors' lust for revenge but he also draws our attention to the ways in which faces—whether in paint or flesh—often hide the truth. The final destruction of the portrait at the end of the novel means that whatever power the colonel once had, it can no longer harm the new generations. Perhaps more than that, the portrait was just a portrait after all, more harmless than its bloody history might suggest.


Matthew Maule's well sits on his property and is part of the original attraction for Colonel Pyncheon. The spring of natural fresh water is also what initially drew Matthew Maule (the older) to the land. When Maule is forced off the land and Colonel Pyncheon builds on it, the water loses its quality and grows brackish. The townspeople see this as an ominous sign, but Colonel Pyncheon dismisses it.

Maule's well symbolizes the Maule family's claim to the land. Although they were forced off their land, they will never completely leave. Even more ominous is the curse Matthew Maule (the older) puts on Colonel Pyncheon. The latter's death apparently happens in the manner described by Maule. Maule will not be pushed off his land easily. Colonel Pyncheon and his descendants will continue to feel the presence of Matthew Maule and his curse.

Phoebe and Clifford spend time by the well where Clifford sees beautiful faces staring up at him. Periodically, however, Clifford sees a dark face staring out at him, which leaves him miserable for the entire day. While Clifford does not share the Pyncheon trait of greed, he is nonetheless a member of the family. Maule will have his revenge on all Pyncheons, and he will not be forced off the land.


Behind the House of the Seven Gables, the Pyncheon family has a few scrawny chickens. However, in their prime they were nearly as big as turkeys. The chickens come from a particular and special breed and symbolize the Pyncheon family. Just as the Pyncheon family has fallen upon hard times and seems to be on its last legs, so, too, are these once haughty chickens. Both are struggling.

The chickens are set free at Clifford's insistence. This freedom allows them to begin revival. Just as the chickens are set free, so, too, the family is set free at the end. The portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, which had loomed over them for so many years, has been removed from the wall. More significantly, the remaining relatives of Colonel Pyncheon are set free from the house and Maule's curse.

When they are set free, the chickens return to Maule's well, an act that foreshadows the ending—the pending marriage of Phoebe to Holgrave, a Pyncheon to a Maule. Circumstances change dramatically for the Pyncheons in the novel's conclusion. They seem to be on the verge of their greatest success yet. Much of this success is due to Phoebe, whose inner and outer beauty cause Holgrave to fall in love with her. As with the Pyncheons and their once sterile gardens, the chickens are also drawn to her, and they are eating more and becoming more active. They only hatch eggs after they leave the House of the Seven Gables; symbolically freed from the shadow of the past, they can create new life. The chickens and the Pyncheons have been revived.

Questions for Symbols

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