In the author’s preface, Hawthorne observes that he will “mingle the Marvelous” as an element of the story, allowing some of the “legendary mist” of the past to hover over the action for “picturesque effect.” The House of the Seven Gables is an example of the Gothic genre, which is characterized by sensational hints of crime or madness, the presence of picturesque, brooding architecture, and an overall lingering gloom and melancholy. Hawthorne blends such elements into his account of the Pyncheon family’s troubled history, typically leaving room for doubt as to whether the more fantastical elements have really happened or are simply figments of characters’ imaginations. He also contrasts the darkness of the House of the Seven Gables and its inhabitants with the bright innocence of Phoebe, a distant relative raised elsewhere. By blending ambiguity into supernatural occurrences and contrasting dark and light, Hawthorne suggests that horror is an aspect of real life, not simply a fantasy—and that while innocence can combat horror’s effects, its success is never guaranteed.
Hawthorne maintains an ambiguity as to whether the story’s supernatural elements are real. For example, one day Phoebe hears a mysterious voice: “[S]he seemed to hear the murmur of an unknown voice. It was strangely indistinct, however, and less like articulate words than an unshaped sound […] So vague was it, that its impression or echo in Phoebe's mind was that of unreality.” In the night, she hears the voice again, and in the morning she learns that cousin Clifford, recently released from prison, has come home. The voice’s vague “utterance of feeling” must have been his—or else, somehow, the House’s remembrance of the dark circumstances surrounding his departure. Details like this are never made clear, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion. The blurring of what’s real and what’s not is further complicated when Holgrave, a boarder at the House and an observer of its mysteries, writes a short story about Alice Pyncheon, a long-ago relative. The story creates a deliberate distance from reality. After Alice is vengefully hypnotized by a descendant of Matthew Maule, she is described as being “Maule's slave […] Maule had but to wave his hand; and, wherever the proud lady chanced to be […] her spirit passed from beneath her own control, and bowed itself to Maule,” laughing, crying, or dancing at inappropriate moments and ultimately driving Alice to her death. The story-within-a-story allows room for doubt: did Alice’s death truly come about this way, or is Holgrave taking liberty with the details? Either way, his portrayal of events casts a deeper shadow over the Pyncheon family. Further, following the abrupt and unexplained death of Judge Pyncheon, the narrator lingers over a description of various Pyncheon family ghosts surrounding the corpse at midnight. He then concludes, “The fantastic scene just hinted at must by no means be considered as forming an actual portion of our story. We were betrayed into this brief extravagance by the quiver of the moonbeams […] reflected in the looking glass, which, you are aware, is always a kind of window or doorway into the spirit world.” Hawthorne toys with the reader by claiming that the ghosts aren’t really part of the story and that they can be rationally explained away. Yet without hints about ghostly voices, hypnotism, and spectral ancestors, the moral darkness within the story would lose much of its power.
In contrast to this atmosphere of horror and the supernatural, Phoebe is portrayed as the very antithesis of horror. Phoebe is presented as solidly real, like when she helps anchor the long-imprisoned Clifford in tangible reality: “Now, Phoebe's presence made a home about her […] She was real! Holding her hand, you felt something; a tender something; a substance, and a warm one—and so long as you should feel its grasp […] you might be certain that your place was good in the whole sympathetic chain of human nature. The world was no longer a delusion.” Clifford has been disconnected from humanity for decades, and Phoebe’s substantial warmth assures him that he’s once again part of it—here, there’s none of the vagueness and mystery that’s associated with the House’s horrors. When Phoebe leaves, the House is cast into gloom both inside and out: “Phoebe was not there; nor did the sunshine fall upon the floor. The garden, with its muddy walks, and the chill, dripping foliage […] was an image to be shuddered at. Nothing flourished [.]” In fact, it’s only in Phoebe’s absence that Judge Pyncheon gains entrance, threatens Clifford, and then suffers his untimely death. It’s as if Phoebe’s warm, bright presence anchors the House of the Seven Gables in reality and keeps actual horror at bay, however briefly.
When Phoebe and Holgrave (a descendant of Matthew Maule, the one who originally cursed the House) become a couple, their union offers a kind of resolution to the horror that’s haunted the Pyncheons for so long: “The bliss which makes all things true, beautiful, and holy shone around this youth and maiden. […] They transfigured the earth, and made it Eden again, and themselves the two first dwellers in it. The dead man [Judge Pyncheon], so close beside them, was forgotten.” Phoebe and Holgrave, in other words, transform the House, implicitly reversing its curse through the innocence of their union. Yet there remains something unsettling about this proximity of horror and innocence, and Hawthorne, characteristically, leaves their future happiness ambiguous, letting the reader wonder whether the old curse has, in fact, survived in some form.
Horror and Innocence ThemeTracker
Horror and Innocence Quotes in The House of the Seven Gables
At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene—Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. "God," said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, "God will give him blood to drink!"
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their exclusive patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home.
Then, all at once, it struck Phoebe that this very Judge Pyncheon was the original of the miniature which the daguerreotypist had shown her in the garden, and that the hard, stern, relentless look now on his face was the same that the sun had so inflexibly persisted in bringing out. Was it, therefore, no momentary mood, but, however skillfully concealed, the settled temper of his life? And not merely so, but was it hereditary in him, and transmitted down, as a precious heirloom, from that bearded ancestor […] as by a kind of prophecy? […] It implied that the weaknesses and defects […] and the moral diseases which lead to crime are handed down from one generation to another, by a far surer process of transmission than human law has been able to establish[.]
Phoebe […] perplexed herself, meanwhile, with queries as to […] whether judges, clergymen, and other characters of that eminent stamp and respectability could really, in any single instance, be otherwise than just and upright men. A doubt of this nature has a most disturbing influence, and, if shown to be a fact, comes with fearful and startling effect on minds of the trim, orderly, and limit-loving class, in which we find our little country girl. […] A wider scope of view, and a deeper insight, may see rank, dignity, and station all proved illusory so far as regards their claim to human reverence, and yet not feel as if the universe were thereby tumbled headlong into chaos. But Phoebe, in order to keep the universe in its old place, was fain to smother, in some degree, her own intuitions as to Judge Pyncheon's character.
By the involuntarily effect of a genial temperament, Phoebe soon grew to be absolutely essential to the daily comfort, if not the daily life, of her two forlorn companions. The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry rot was stayed among the old timbers of its skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below—or, at any rate, there was a little housewife, as light-footed as the breeze that sweeps a garden walk, gliding hither and thither to brush it all away.
Now, Phoebe's presence made a home about her—that very sphere which the outcast, the prisoner […] instinctively pines after—a home! She was real! Holding her hand, you felt something; a tender something; a substance, and a warm one—and so long as you should feel its grasp, soft as it was, you might be certain that your place was good in the whole sympathetic chain of human nature. The world was no longer a delusion.
Clifford would, doubtless, have been glad to share their sports. One afternoon, he was seized with an irresistible desire to blow soap bubbles; an amusement, as Hepzibah told Phoebe apart, that had been a favorite one with her brother when they were both children. Behold him, therefore, at the arched window, with an earthen pipe in his mouth! Behold him, with his gray hair, and a wan, unreal smile over his countenance, […] Behold him, scattering airy spheres abroad, from the window into the street! Little impalpable worlds were those soap bubbles, with the big world depicted, in hues bright as imagination, on the nothing of their surface.
[The legend] here gives an account of some very strange behavior on the part of Colonel Pyncheon's portrait. This picture, it must be understood, was supposed to be so intimately connected with the fate of the house, and so magically built into its walls, that, if once it should be removed, that very instant the whole edifice would come thundering down in a heap of dusty ruin. All through the foregoing conversation between Mr. Pyncheon and the carpenter, the portrait had been frowning, clenching its fist, and giving many such proofs of excessive discomposure, but without attracting the notice of either of the two colloquists. And finally, at Matthew Maule's audacious suggestion of a transfer of the seven-gabled structure, the ghostly portrait is averred to have lost all patience, and to have shown itself on the point of descending bodily from its frame. But such incredible incidents are merely to be mentioned aside.
But, alas for the beautiful, the gentle, yet too haughty Alice! A power that she little dreamed of had laid its grasp upon her maiden soul. A will, most unlike her own, constrained her do its grotesque and fantastic bidding. Her father, as it proved, had martyred his poor child to an inordinate desire for measuring his land by miles instead of acres. And, therefore, while Alice Pyncheon lived, she was Maule's slave, in a bondage more humiliating, a thousandfold, than that which binds its chain around the body. Seated by his humble fireside, Maule had but to wave his hand; and, wherever the proud lady chanced to be—whether in her chamber, or entertaining her father’s stately guests, or worshipping at church—whatever her place of occupation, her spirit passed from beneath her own control, and bowed itself to Maule.
"I shall never be so merry as before I knew Cousin Hepzibah and poor Cousin Clifford. I have grown a great deal older, in this little time. Older, and, I hope, wiser, and—not exactly sadder, but, certainly, with not half so much lightness in my spirits! I have given them my sunshine, and have been glad to give it; but, of course, I cannot both give and keep it. They are welcome, notwithstanding!"
And it was in this hour, so full of doubt and awe, that the one miracle was wrought without which every human existence is a blank. The bliss which makes all things true, beautiful, and holy shone around this youth and maiden. They were conscious of nothing sad nor old. They transfigured the earth, and made it Eden again, and themselves the two first dwellers in it. The dead man, so close beside them, was forgotten. At such a crisis, there is no death; for immortality is revealed anew, and embraces everything in its hallowed atmosphere.