The weather-beaten House of the Seven Gables, the 200-year-old mansion belonging to the Pyncheon family, stands in a New England town. Two centuries ago, the land on which the House stands belonged to an obscure cottager named Matthew Maule. Colonel Pyncheon, a powerful citizen, wanted that land. Following a drawn-out dispute over the property, Maule is executed for alleged witchcraft. Colonel Pyncheon seems to be especially zealous in pursuit of this sentence. Just before Maule is hanged, however, he utters a curse against Pyncheon: “God will give him blood to drink!”
Soon after Maule’s death, Colonel Pyncheon begins building an elaborate mansion on Maule’s old property; Maule’s son, Thomas, is the architect and head carpenter. After the house is finished, Colonel Pyncheon holds a feast for the whole town. However, he fails to greet his guests personally. When the lieutenant governor, followed by the rest of the guests, barges into the Colonel’s study, he finds the Colonel dead, with blood on his collar and beard. Though rumors abound, proof of foul play is never established.
After the Colonel’s death, it appears that the Pyncheons are destined to become very rich on the basis of a land grant in the Maine wilderness. However, the vital deed cannot be found. Despite this, subsequent generations carry themselves like potential nobility and tend to become sluggish, expecting to be enriched at any time. Some occasionally doubt the Pyncheons’ right to the land on which the House is built. After Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon researches the history of the property and concludes that it rightly belonged to the Maules, he is soon found dead. After that, the property passes into the hands of the respectable Judge Pyncheon, who lives on a country estate a few miles outside of town. That brings the story to the present generation of Pyncheons, of whom there are only a few left—besides the Judge and his son, there is Clifford (who was imprisoned for Uncle Jaffrey’s murder), Clifford’s impoverished sister, Hepzibah, and a 17-year-old country cousin, Phoebe. Hepzibah is the current occupant of the House of the Seven Gables. The Maule family has not been heard from for 30 years.
One day, Hepzibah Pyncheon wakes before sunrise. Having lived as a recluse for the past quarter-century, she dreads the coming day’s events. In one of the House’s front gables, she is opening a cent shop filled with goods like flour, candles, beans, and even gingerbread and toys. She looks both ludicrous and genteel as she puts the finishing touches on her inventory, and she can’t help weeping as she unbars the door for the first time. Her first customers include Holgrave, the young daguerreotypist who boards in one of the other gables, and schoolboy Ned Higgins, who develops a love for Hepzibah’s gingerbread cookies. However, the day is exhausting and humiliating for the formerly aristocratic woman. As she’s closing down the shop that evening, her young cousin Phoebe arrives for an unannounced visit.
The next day, though Hepzibah tries to persuade Phoebe that the House is unsuitable for a young girl, Phoebe insists that she can make herself useful, so Hepzibah agrees to let her stay for a while. Phoebe quickly proves herself to be a skilled housekeeper with a knack for business. After a successful day in the shop, Phoebe meets Holgrave in the garden and is puzzled by his forthright manner. That night, she thinks she hears an odd voice and halting footsteps on the stairs.
The next morning, a man named Clifford with long, graying hair appears at the breakfast table—it was his voice and step Phoebe heard the night before. Clifford appears disoriented and bewildered by his surroundings, but there’s also a graceful air about him, suggesting that he must have been handsome once. Clifford finds Phoebe delightful, though he is startled by Hepzibah’s aged appearance. Eventually, he weeps and falls asleep at the table. Phoebe soon learns that Clifford is Hepzibah’s brother. Phoebe also meets Judge Pyncheon in the shop and is alarmed by his rapid transition between harsh and sunny moods; he reminds her uncomfortably of Colonel Pyncheon’s portrait. When the Judge pushes past her into the house, Hepzibah bars him from seeing Clifford, who fears him.
In the coming days, it’s evident that Phoebe is Clifford’s preferred companion. In fact, her cheerful, wholesome presence rejuvenates life in the dusty, mournful House of the Seven Gables. Phoebe and Clifford especially enjoy sitting together in the garden or overlooking the street from a second-floor window. Clifford grows childlike when he watches hummingbirds or blows soap-bubbles, but he cowers whenever he sees Judge Pyncheon at a distance.
In her spare time, Phoebe befriends Holgrave. She likes his self-confidence, yet she’s unsettled by his detachment, his lack of regard for tradition, and his resistance to settling down. Progress is the only thing Holgrave seems to believe in. He believes that the House of the Seven Gables symbolizes all that’s antithetical to progress—such as the desire to establish a family, which he believes is the root of every human wrong.
Holgrave reads Phoebe a short story he has written about Alice Pyncheon, a descendant of the Colonel, who lived in the House 37 years after the Colonel’s death. In the story, the then-head of the Pyncheons, Gervayse, summons a carpenter named Matthew Maule. This Matthew Maule is the grandson of the Maule who was executed. Rumors swirl around him, and he’s said to possess mysterious powers. Gervayse wants to know the whereabouts of the deed to the Pyncheon land in Maine; its disappearance has an alleged connection with the Maules. Maule persuades Gervayse to let him hypnotize Alice; using her as a spiritual medium, he can then contact their respective ancestors in order to learn the deed’s location. The ghostly ancestors, however, do not comply. In addition, Alice remains under Maule’s hypnotic spell for the rest of her life, forced to obey Maule’s wishes from afar. While reading this story, Holgrave inadvertently casts Phoebe into a slightly hypnotic state.
After this, Phoebe takes a trip home to her village, and morale in the House of the Seven Gables declines sharply. One day, Judge Pyncheon appears at the House and insists on seeing Clifford. He suspects that Clifford knows the whereabouts of Uncle Jaffrey’s remaining fortune. He warns Hepzibah that if Clifford denies knowledge of this, the Judge will take it as evidence that Clifford should be committed to an asylum. When Hepzibah reluctantly goes in search of Clifford, he is not in his chamber. She soon discovers him in the parlor, laughing wildly at the dead form of the Judge. In terror, she follows a newly lucid, purposeful Clifford out of the House and through the town, where they catch a train to the countryside.
On the train, Clifford feels transformed. He chats with a wary fellow passenger about the transforming effects of train travel on society—it represents a future in which human beings no longer need to confine themselves to sedentary homes. After the other passenger begins to grow suspicious of Clifford’s ramblings, Clifford and Hepzibah disembark. Clifford’s mood sinks, and Hepzibah regains control of the situation, praying for God’s help.
Meanwhile, the morning after the Judge’s death, Phoebe returns to a strangely abandoned House of the Seven Gables and is warmly welcomed by Holgrave. Holgrave explains that Hepzibah and Clifford are missing and tells her that he has discovered Judge Pyncheon’s body. Though horrified by this discovery and how bad it looks for Clifford, he felt joy when Phoebe appeared. They declare their love for each other. Soon, Hepzibah and Clifford arrive home, to everyone’s relief.
In the aftermath of Judge Pyncheon’s death, Clifford is vindicated by information gathered by one of Holgrave’s hypnotist friends—that Judge Pyncheon was, in fact, indirectly responsible for Uncle Jaffrey’s death, but he allowed Clifford to take the fall for murder. Judge Pyncheon’s property passes to Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe (and to Holgrave through Phoebe). They decide to leave the House of the Seven Gables and live on Judge Pyncheon’s country estate. In a secret recess behind Colonel Pyncheon’s portrait, Clifford and Holgrave discover the worthless deed to the old territory in Maine. Holgrave reveals that he is a descendant of the Maule family and that the location of the deed had been passed down to him through his ancestor Thomas, the carpenter, who built the recess and hid the deed there. As the Pyncheons and Holgrave depart for their new home, the ghost of Alice Pyncheon can be heard playing the harpsichord one last time before leaving the House of the Seven Gables for heaven.