The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Symbols
Symbols are objects or figures that artists use to represent an idea.
The House

The first symbol that Hawthorne uses is the house itself. The old mansion was built in the wake of a curse. Hawthorne, in the first chapter itself, seems to make the house a character in the novel, that is, in a sense tries to personify it. He says that the "venerable mansion" affected him like a "human countenance" which not only showed the effect of "storm and sunshine" but also "of the long lapse of mortal eye, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within." The house seems dark and somber, and it is built on the plot of land unfairly taken from Matthew Maule; as a result, it is built on a grave and haunted by Maule’s curse. Hawthorne states that not only would Matthew Maule’s ghost haunt the house but the terror and the ugliness of the creature "and the wretchedness of his punishment would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house." With this description, it is not surprising that Hawthorne further develops the theme to show how the house has dark shadows enveloping it and all the inhabitants who are inside its isolated confines, like Hepzibah and Clifford, are affected by its gloominess and grow depressed. The fortune of the Pyncheons decline. It is only when they step outside the house that the Pyncheons find complete happiness.

Colonel Pyncheon’s Picture

Colonel Pyncheon’s picture, which is hung on the wall and which, as per his last will and testament, continues to hang there, is another symbol. It represents the dark, sinister secrets that seem to have doomed the Pyncheon family. It was in front of this picture that the Colonel was sitting when the Lieutenant Governor entered the room and discovered him dead. His descendent, the Judge, also dies in the same position facing the picture of the Colonel. Hawthorne has in the first chapter described the Colonel’s picture thus: "Those stern, immitigable features seemed to symbolize an evil influence, and so darkly to mingle the shadow of their presence with the sunshine of the passing hour."

The Daguerreotype

The daguerreotype was an early method of photography taken on a copper plate. Hawthorne uses the daguerreotype as a symbol that shows what the naked eye cannot see. The process of making a daguerreotype was not as tedious as that of making a portrait but it demanded that, in the short space in which it was made, the subject should have great control over facial muscles. Holgrave’s daguerreotype of the Judge becomes an important symbol, because till the end of the novel, the reader is not aware of the duplicity of the Judge. In chapter 4, a daguerreotype of the Judge is described; in spite of the repeated efforts of the daguerreotypist to make a softer likeness of the Judge, what emerges is a hard, stern and cruel face. Hawthorne has thus, used the daguerreotype to show the reader the difference between appearance and reality. The Judge appears kind and genial, but is in reality stern and hard.

Vegetation

Throughout the novel, vegetation becomes symbolic of regeneration; the elm tree and the flowers in the garden are symbolic of life. The elm tree overshadows the house as if to say life grows outside its walls, and Alice’s posies continue to flower because "the ever-returning summer did her best to gladden it with tender beauty." After the death of the Judge, the elm tree seems to have suddenly come alive and "full of the morning sun" and despite the gale it "kept its boughs unshattered and its full complement of leaves, and the whole in perfect verdure." A single branch (which Hawthorne calls "mystic") which hangs down before the main entrance has "been transmuted into bright gold." This branch foreshadows the future brightness of the union between Phoebe and Holgrave. In the end, therefore, the elm tree becomes symbolic of evolution and regeneration.

The Sun

Another important symbol used by Hawthorne throughout the novel is the sun. The sun becomes symbolic of goodness, light, and happiness. It is also a symbol of growth and regeneration. When Phoebe is introduced in the novel, she is described in terms of sunlight and dawn. She becomes a fresh and pure ray of light illuminating the gloominess of the house. Her embodiment of light, life, and innocence drives away the darkness and evil of the house.

The Pyncheon Chickens

In his desire to give thematic relevance to the belief that bad tendencies are handed down from one generation to another, Hawthorne creates the Pyncheon chickens. Like the Pyncheon family itself, these chickens seem to be proud of their aristocracy and are strict about it! In fact, Chanticleer is even explicitly compared to Hepzibah, both in her walk and her scowl. Like Hepzibah, the chickens have degenerated because they have been kept too pure a species. They are now thin and lifeless specimens.

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