In a New England town stands a wooden house with seven peaked gables and a clustered chimney. It is the Pyncheon house, which stands on Pyncheon Street and has a massive tree, the Pyncheon Elm, before the door. The mansion is almost 200 years old, and its weather-beaten exterior bears evidence of its long life. It is known as the House of the Seven Gables.
The titular House of the Seven Gables will be almost like a character in the story itself, symbolizing the history, aspirations, and struggles of the Pyncheon family.
The story is set not long before the present day (i.e., the mid-1800s), but it will be told with reference to older events. From those events may be drawn the lesson that “the act of the passing generation […] must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time.”
Hawthorne restates the story’s moral and also justifies the novel’s recurrent use of older events. The appeal to history is not for mere antiquity’s sake, but to illustrate the outworking of good and evil over successive generations.
The House of the Seven Gables wasn’t the first dwelling to be built on this ground. Originally, a cottager named Matthew Maule lived here, on the site of a freshwater spring. After 30 or 40 years, a powerful citizen, Colonel Pyncheon, desires this tract of land, and he acquires a grant from the legislature in order to secure it. Colonel Pyncheon has an iron will—but Matthew Maule, though an obscure man, proves to be equally stubborn. He manages to hold onto his land for several years, with the dispute undecided.
The history traced in the novel will center on the House of the Seven Gables, which itself came about because of a stubborn desire to increase one’s wealth. Colonel Pyncheon’s greed will set a pattern for his posterity, as if it pervades the very ground on which the Pyncheon family lives.
Matthew Maule is executed for witchcraft—a “terrible delusion” to which the influential were just as susceptible as the mob. It is later remembered that Colonel Pyncheon had condemned Maule with a special zeal. The moment before Maule is executed, he addresses a “prophecy” to Colonel Pyncheon: “God will give him blood to drink!”
The narrator refers to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which approximately 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and about 20 were executed. Within just a few years, judges confessed to having made a tragic error. Colonel Pyncheon is an example of an eminent person who is just as susceptible to “mob” thinking as a person of low status is often be assumed to be.
After Maule’s death, Colonel Pyncheon begins to build a huge mansion on Maule’s former property. Gossips speculates that, given Maule’s reputation for being a wizard, Pyncheon and his posterity will surely be haunted. The Colonel cannot be dissuaded, however. Not long after the foundation is dug, Maule’s spring turns from freshwater to saltwater, as it remains today. The head carpenter and architect of Pyncheon’s mansion happens to be Maule’s son, Thomas. Neither Pyncheon nor Thomas have any scruple about such an arrangement.
Colonel Pyncheon wasted no time in building on the ruins of Maule’s property (or his life), suggesting a callousness about the man’s death. The impurity in the springwater suggests a judgment on Pyncheon’s actions. Meanwhile, Maule’s son’s involvement in building the house hints that the two families will remain intertwined.
After the House of the Seven Gables is built, a festival and dedication is held. The Rev. Mr. Higginson prays and preaches, and there is a plentiful feast for the community. Crowds gather to admire the imposing new house, which is three stories tall. Besides its many gables and great chimney, the house is decorated with Gothic figures, diamond-shaped windows, and a sundial. Both town leaders and common folk throng the entrance, which is as large as a church door. However, they’re met only by two servants, not by Colonel Pyncheon himself. Even the colony’s lieutenant governor receives no personal greeting.
The big housewarming celebration, complete with a feast, sermon, and prominent guests, shows Colonel Pyncheon’s importance to the town. The House itself—spacious, ornate, and expensive—displays Pyncheon’s aspirations for himself and his family. But the Colonel’s failure to greet guests in person, especially important ones, is a major social blunder.
When the county sheriff reprimands the chief servant for failing to summon Colonel Pyncheon, the servant nervously explains that the Colonel had insisted on not being disturbed. The lieutenant governor, however, takes matters into his own hands and knocks on the door of the Colonel’s private study. There’s no answer. He then tries knocking with the hilt of his sword, and still getting no response, barges inside.
A sudden gust of wind blows the door open. Everyone crowds into the darkened study, where Colonel Pyncheon sits in an oak chair beneath his own likeness in a portrait. He seems to be frowning. Suddenly, the Colonel’s grandson darts forward and begins shrieking in terror. The crowd realizes that Colonel Pyncheon’s face is distorted, and there is blood on his ruff; his beard, too, is saturated with blood. He is dead! Someone among the group is said to have repeated Matthew Maule’s prophecy, “God hath given him blood to drink!”
Elements of Gothic horror—the mysteriously blown door, the horrifying corpse, the muttered curse—appear in the story for the first time. The Colonel’s portrait remains a significant element in the story—it captures the Colonel’s personality, allowing him to brood over the House and family even after his death. The Colonel’s death is the founding event for the family story, even more than the construction of the House itself.
There are many rumors surrounding Colonel Pyncheon’s death: some think there were indications of violence, and that perhaps someone had climbed in the open window behind him. One person claims to have briefly seen a skeleton hand at the Colonel’s throat. Doctors argue, one claiming a case of apoplexy. Ultimately, however, the coroner’s jury can only decide “Sudden Death.”
The ambiguity surrounding the Colonel’s death accords with Hawthorne’s and the narrator’s intentional ambiguity surrounding all supernatural elements in the novel—the reader is left to interpret them as they see fit. Regardless, there is something ominous and rather suspicious about the Colonel’s sudden demise.
It is hard to imagine that Colonel Pyncheon could have been murdered. He was such an eminent figure, after all, that his case was exhaustively investigated. Only tradition claims that anything unseemly occurred in connection with his death. The Rev. Mr. Higginson’s funeral sermon described the Colonel’s death as a seasonable one—he had completed all his earthly duties and provided for future generations.
The powerful often enjoy a cleaner reputation than the insignificant, as the contrast between the Colonel’s and Matthew Maule’s deaths suggests. However, the narrator later points out that, sometimes, privately-circulated tradition proves to be more trustworthy than publicly-attested claims.
At the time of the Colonel’s death, it does appear that the Pyncheon family is destined for prosperity. In addition to the House of the Seven Gables, the Pyncheons possess a grant for a large tract in the unsettled wilderness of Maine—larger than the territory of some European princes. This tract is expected to greatly enrich the Pyncheons. However, the Colonel dies before he can put affairs in order regarding this property claim, and his son, who is neither as eminent nor as forceful, is unable to do so because a vital piece of documentation has gone missing.
By all appearances, the Pyncheons could look forward to a prosperous future despite the Colonel’s unseasonable death. But the matter of the Maine territory will continue to haunt future generations as an example of the way that aspirations of increased wealth can bedevil people’s fortunes, whether or not the wealth is ever attained.
For the next hundred years, Pyncheons try to legally obtain the territory, but it’s eventually regranted and settled. Nevertheless, the Pyncheon family continues to act as if this land claim grants them—even the poorest among them—potential nobility. Among the weaker Pyncheons, this encourages a kind of “sluggishness and dependence.”
The Pyncheons become obsessed with obtaining the elusive wilderness territory in order to further enrich themselves. Even when they fail to do so, they act as if they possess the status that such wealth affords them. Such entitlement stops many Pyncheons from trying to make something of their lives here and now.
Subsequent generations of Pyncheons continue to cling to the House of the Seven Gables, but some seem doubtful about their rights to the property. Legally, their right is certain, but Matthew Maule “[plants] a heavy footstep […] on the conscience” of many Pyncheons—to the point that it seems truer to say that the Pyncheons inherited a misfortune rather than a fortune.
Even the Pyncheons’ ownership of the House of the Seven Gables is haunted by doubts, suggesting that one generation’s actions weigh heavily on the consciences of those not directly responsible.
Popular rumors continue to circulate regarding the Pyncheons and Maule’s curse, especially since, about 100 years ago, another Pyncheon died under circumstances similar to the Colonel’s. The Colonel’s portrait continues to brood darkly over the study in which he’d died. It seems as if his ghost is “doomed to become the Evil Genius” of the Pyncheon family.
Multiple Pyncheons die in a way that suggests that, per Maule’s curse, God has “given them blood to drink.” The phrase “Evil Genius” (derived from the word “genie”) simply refers to the spirit that attends a person or place—or as in this case, one that attends a whole family.
More recently, the most notable event in the Pyncheon family was a murder, which took place about 30 years ago: a nephew was convicted of the murder of his uncle, but because of his family connections, he was spared the death penalty and imprisoned for life instead. The wealthy bachelor uncle who’d been killed was “eccentric and melancholy,” with an interest in family history. This research led him to believe that Matthew Maule had been cheated out of his property and probably his life. His conscience urged him to give up the property or at least to provide for the same in his will, but loyalty to family apparently outweighed his scruples.
The most recent death in the Pyncheon family has repercussions for living descendants. An eccentric uncle (of whom more will be said later in the story) felt burdened by the guilt associated with his inheritance, and this led to his own untimely death, showing how the Maule curse seems to be working itself out in various ways over subsequent generations.
After his death, the uncle’s property, including the House of the Seven Gables, passes into the hands of his nephew, Judge Pyncheon, a cousin of the alleged murderer. This nephew led a dissipated youth and then reformed to become a respectable member of society. After studying the law and becoming a judge, he entered politics and served in Congress and the state legislature. He now lives on a country estate a few miles outside of town.
Judge Pyncheon seems like the ideal Pyncheon. Despite a questionable past, he has become a respectable civil servant—ostensibly someone with the potential to overcome the family’s haunted history. But Judge Pyncheon will become the novel’s most prominent example of someone whose appearances are deceiving.
There are very few Pyncheons left. The Judge is known to have one son, who is currently traveling in Europe. Besides the imprisoned cousin, there is also the cousin’s sister who lives in seclusion in the House of the Seven Gables, Uncle Jaffrey having granted her a life estate. She is very poor but refuses the Judge’s monetary support. The only other remaining Pyncheon is Phoebe, a country girl of 17 who is the daughter of a deceased cousin of the Judge’s.
After the survey of the Pyncheons’ history, the story is brought up to the present day—to a rather unpromising, declining family line. A “life estate” means that the House of the Seven Gables belonged to the cousin for the duration of her life. It would revert to the Judge upon her death.
It is supposed that Matthew Maule’s descendants have died out, but they continued living quietly in town for a long time, seeming to harbor no ill will against the Pyncheons. Perhaps they have even forgotten about their connection to the Pyncheons. Established rank and wealth have a way of seeming right and proper, stifling questions in humbler minds. The Maules continued living in poverty and obscurity, generally working as tradesmen. They have an “indefinable peculiarity” with keeps others at arm’s length, and superstitious rumors circulate. In any case, nobody has heard of a Maule for the past 30 years.
The Maules live on, too—but, as often happens in the story, those of lower rank remain in relative obscurity. In fact, the Pyncheons’ prominence dominates the town to such an extent that it is taken for granted as natural, even by those who’ve suffered because of the Pyncheons’ greed. The narrator suggests that this often occurs in situations of social inequality.
Surrounding the House of the Seven Gables, a modest neighborhood has grown up. The house itself continues to loom there “like a great human heart […] full of rich and somber reminiscences.” The roof is covered with green moss, and in a nook between two of the gables, flower shrubs are growing. These are called Alice’s Posies because Alice Pyncheon, long dead, is said to have tossed seeds onto the roof, where they eventually grew, taking on a melancholy beauty.
The House continues to be portrayed like a character—a kind of repository of human experience. By now, the House is showing its age. However, it is not without beauty and the possibility of renewed life, as the flowers symbolically suggest.
In the front gable, there is a shop door—a source of mortification to the current resident. About a century ago, the head of the Pyncheon family fell into financial difficulties and decided to run a shop out of his home. But as soon as the man died, the shop door was locked and barred, the shop left just as it had been.
For a family that has prided itself on its wealth (even after that wealth became largely illusory), being in a lower-class trade, like shopkeeping, would be seen as a source of great embarrassment, worthy of being forgotten.