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The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Themes



The Pyncheons have a high opinion of themselves. They are a proud family who believe they are above others—a prejudice that began with the patriarch, Colonel Pyncheon. The classism theme is first evident when the colonel sets his eye on the older Matthew Maule's land, not stopping until he has acquired it. The combined repugnance toward the lower classes and arrogant belief in ancestral rights poison other Pyncheon men, such as Gervayse and Judge Pyncheon.

Even Hepzibah Pyncheon, who is forced to reopen a shop in the House of the Seven Gables, is deeply affected by classism. After all, she is a member of the Pyncheon family and, as such, she feels she is above crass middle-class commerce. Yet Hepzibah has fallen into dire financial straits and her family name is not accompanied by wealth. Hepzibah recognizes the gravity of the situation but feels ashamed at what she must do.

While the Pyncheons view themselves as above the average person, other characters in the story do not. The first customer in Hepzibah's store is Holgrave. He praises Hepzibah for what she is doing and encourages her to let go of past notions. Uncle Venner has a similar reaction. In general, Hepzibah's customers hardly seem to care about her "true station" in life. They simply want to purchase items from her store. Herein lies Nathaniel Hawthorne's critique: class matters less than honesty, hard work, and ultimately, love. The Pyncheons are controlled by their high opinion of self and status. Phoebe, who is more influenced by her mother's side, does not have this trait. She values a middle-class ethic of hard work and commerce. But her acceptance of the aristocratic Pyncheons influences Hepzibah, who comes to question her former beliefs.


Matthew Maule's final words before he is hanged are meant to place a curse on Colonel Pyncheon—thereby instigating Hawthorne's Gothic plot and introducing the related theme of guilt and the ancestral curse. Hawthorne took his cue from Walpole, whose famous novel The Castle of Otranto dramatizes how "the sins of ... fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation." Future generations of Pyncheons recognize that their patriarch took the land from the Maules and harbor a sense of guilt because of it; Walpole's aristocratic patriarch, Manfred, is also reminded of his guilt by a variety of supernatural signs.

A few of the colonel's descendants—particularly Gervayse Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon—are indifferent to the ancestral guilt, and for these, Hawthorne reserves some of his most disdainful and mocking commentary. Like their patriarch, they are men who do what they have to do to get what they want, and do not suffer guilt should something get in their way. Walpole's Manfred is similarly ruthless in his pursuit of power.

At the same time, other Pyncheons (including Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe) are troubled by their family's past. They are affected by guilt, implying their capacity to change; not surprisingly, these characters are more sympathetic. Both Hepzibah and Clifford are disturbed by the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon hanging in the house. The portrait looms over the house and is a reminder that the land was secured unfairly. Blood is on Colonel Pyncheon's hands as he condemns Matthew Maule to die.

Clifford is anxious to leave the house and all it represents. Hepzibah, however, feels chained to the house and cannot escape its burdens without the help of others. Phoebe is less burdened by the past and has little in common with past Pyncheons. Yet even she feels the weight of guilt, and leaves the house on a daily basis to breathe fresh air and escape its burdens. When the family leaves the house at the end of the book, they leave behind the inherited guilt stemming from the actions of Colonel Pyncheon.


The actions and behavior of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule carry repercussions that trickle down through the generations. Linked to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Gothic themes, the retribution or sins of the fathers is visited upon their descendants. However, as an indication of his departure from 18th-century Gothic, retribution is not embraced by all characters affected by the Pyncheon sins.

Matthew Maule (the younger) seethes with anger over how his grandfather was treated and the loss the family suffered. When an opportunity presents itself, he takes revenge on the Pyncheon family. He hypnotizes Alice Pyncheon when he suspects she is excessively haughty. While his intention is to teach her a lesson, Matthew Maule (the younger) ultimately kills her. Hawthorne clearly shows less sympathy for this character, implying that his obsession with retribution is powerful enough to poison the Pyncheon environment as much as the colonel himself has achieved this through inherited guilt, which seems to live within the very walls of the House of the Seven Gables.

Holgrave, one of Matthew Maule's descendants, is different from his ancestors. When he has an opportunity to hypnotize Phoebe, he holds himself back. He will not act in the manner his ancestors did. Similarly, when Holgrave reveals he is a Maule and secures the deed the Pyncheons have sought for generations, he effectively lifts the curse, as if to say that the Maules accept the Pyncheons. Here, Hawthorne again departs from the older Gothic mold, including that genre's traditional faith in aristocratic restoration and the insistence on a revenge plot. Phoebe's reciprocal love and acceptance of Holgrave symbolizes the end of the Pyncheon's gross and excessive desire for achievement. Similarly, Hepzibah and Clifford leave the house and accept the bond between Maule and Pyncheon.

Questions for Themes

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