The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Chapter 1

The Old Pyncheon Family: The House of the Seven Gables is a rusty, wooden house halfway down Pyncheon Street in a New England town. The house, also known as Pyncheon House, has a long and weighty history. It was not the first house in its location; when Pyncheon Street was once Maule’s Lane, there was a small hut built in that place because of its proximity to a natural spring. Colonel Pyncheon, however, a prominent person of the town, insisted on his claim to that property when it became more desirable, and engaged in a bitter dispute with the hut’s owner, Matthew Maule, a relatively obscure man generally regarded as a wizard. Personal influence proved more important than right of ownership, and Matthew Maule was executed for the crime of witchcraft. One of the most vocal supporters of his witchcraft trial was none other than Colonel Pyncheon. Colonel Pyncheon built a family mansion there, and upon its construction the spring became polluted. The house was imposing, striking awe into anyone who saw it. Pyncheon retreated into the house, refusing visits from even the lieutenant-governor, who was forced to bang on the door with his sword to no effect. The lieutenant-governor and his entourage finally forced their way into the house, where they found Pyncheon dead. His appearance indicated violence: there were marks on his throat and the print of a bloody hand on his ruff. They concluded that a man had climbed through Pyncheon’s lattice-window. The lieutenant-governor claimed to see a skeleton hand at the Colonel’s throat that vanished away. John Swinnerton, a doctor, claimed that Pyncheon died of apoplexy. During his funeral, Reverend Higginson claimed that even without Colonel Pyncheon, his family seemed destined to a permanent high place in society. However, Pyncheon’s son lacked his father’s eminent position and force of character. The Pyncheons had an absurd delusion of family importance, but in almost every generation there happened to be one descendant that recalled Colonel Pyncheon, and this person invariably caused people to wonder whether the Pyncheon family would experience a renaissance. Most of these descendants were troubled by owning the House of the Seven Gables; they wondered whether, since they knew of the wrong by which it was obtained, they were committing the same sin anew. Since Colonel Pyncheon, the Pyncheons were notable in only one instance, when one member of the family was convicted for murdering another. This occurred thirty years before the action of the novel. The victim of the murder was an old bachelor who had concluded that Matthew Maule had been foully wronged out of his homestead and life. This bachelor wished to make restitution to Maule’s posterity, and might have even given up the House of the Seven Gables to the representative of Matthew Maule. Upon his death, the house passed to his nephew, the cousin of the man convicted of murder. The new heir showed more of the Colonel Pyncheon quality than any of his family since the time of the Puritans. He was a politician and later a judge. There were few other Pyncheons left, including a seventeen year old girl, the convicted murderer and his sister, and the judge’s son, who was traveling in Europe. Matthew Maule’s posterity seemed to be extinct. They were poverty-stricken, and likely did not know the wrong that had been done so many years before. The House of the Seven Gables itself was like a great human heart with a life of its own, full of rich remembrances. A green moss of flower shrubs called Alice’s Posies (after an Alice Pyncheon) had grown upon one of the gables. In the front gable there was a shop door that had once contained a small store.


The House of the Seven Gables is, as Hawthorne explains in his preface, a romance, which he defines as "a legend prolonging itself" and connecting a bygone time with the present. Within this romantic sensibility there is the sense that events and personalities recur throughout time and even throughout the generations; the task of the first chapter is therefore to establish the origins of this legend. The tale of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule proves the central event of the novel, although it occurs more than a century before the majority of the novel takes place. The events leading to the origin of the House of the Seven Gables include a number of patterns and character traits that future characters will exhibit in very similar ways. This romantic sensibility that Hawthorne employs is therefore very deterministic; the sins of Colonel Pyncheon will be revisited upon his descendants, while Matthew Maule’s progeny will bear similar burdens.

The two major continuities in the novel are continuities of character and continuities of plot. Colonel Pyncheon establishes the model for future Pyncheons, who when placed in similar circumstances will demonstrate the same qualities as their ancestor. Hawthorne even explicitly states that in every generation there seems to be one Pyncheon who exhibits the same characteristics as the founder of the House of the Seven Gables. The Colonel is a man of "iron energy of purpose" whose desires outweigh any moral considerations. Colonel Pyncheon typifies an aristocratic sensibility that borders on monarchism. He builds the House of the Seven Gables as a means to ensure the continued domination of his descendants, and the house even becomes an enclosed kingdom for the Colonel. The house becomes a separate country in which Colonel Pyncheon has final and absolute authority, even above the representatives of the English king. This aristocratic character of the Colonel continues among his descendants; the family sides with the royalists during the American Revolution, and retains an "absurd delusion of family importance" even after the accolades of Colonel Pyncheon have long passed. This monarchical tendency within the Pyncheon family is most apparent in the Colonel’s desire for the vast tract of Eastern lands. This land that he desired would have made him the equal of a European prince.

With few exceptions, Hawthorne allows few extraneous details in describing the history of the Pyncheon family. Many of the events that Hawthorne tells in this history recur in the event of the story, including mysterious and unexpected deaths and a preoccupation with gaining title to the eastern lands. Even characters mentioned in passing during the description return at later points in the novel; both Alice Pyncheon, the woman for whom the posies in the nook between the gables are named, and the grandchild who discovered the dead Colonel will be featured as characters at a later point. That each detail has some relation to the novel’s main story contributes to the novel’s focus on recurring events; every event that occurs happens for a reason and relates to the Pyncheon family history. Eventually every major development that occurs among the Pyncheons finally traces its ancestry to the Colonel’s avarice for both Matthew Maule’s land and for the eastern settlement. The most recent of these major events is the murder of a Pyncheon who believed that Matthew Maule had been wronged. Both the convicted murderer and the man who inherited the victim’s estate will play central roles in the story.

The murder victim’s attempts to make amends to the Maule family bring up a major theme of the novel. If characteristics and traits can be passed from generation to generation, sins may also be transmitted. The novel assumes that the sins of Colonel Pyncheon are found among his descendants and that the Pyncheons shall remain guilty of their ancestor’s crime until reparations are made.

The history of the Maule family is intimately connected to the history of the Pyncheons. The death of Matthew Maule is not an isolated event that connects the two families. The connection between the Maules and the Pyncheons will recur and become more clear as the novel progresses. The descendants of Matthew Maule also inherit the traits of their ancestor. Hawthorne indicates that the Maules possess strange powers passed down from the wizard Matthew Maule. Hawthorne leaves it unclear as to whether Matthew Maule himself possessed mystical powers, the reason for his execution, but does assume that the Maules have some strange power.

The House of the Seven Gables itself is a physical representation of the Pyncheon and the Maule family history. The House essentially contains the old Maule hut, inextricably linking the two families together. When the house was built, it spoiled Maule’s Well, a metaphor for the Pyncheon’s destruction of the Maule family legacy as well as an indication that the Pyncheons have disrupted the natural order. As the story begins, the House, much like the Pyncheons themselves, has fallen into a state of decay.

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