In the author’s preface, Hawthorne includes “the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them” in the book’s “moral.” Throughout the novel, though, it isn’t so much the presence of riches acquired through immoral meals, but the aspiration for wealth (or the desire for more) that crushes later generations. In the Pyncheon family, early wealth engenders power through status and reputation, which in turn has deteriorating effects on their own morals, their consciences, and the wellbeing of those around them. Through Hawthorne’s portrayal of the fluctuating fortunes of the Pyncheon family, he argues that power doesn’t just corrupt those who hold it, but those who desire it, while always doing the most harm to those who don’t have it.
Those with power and influence can do great harm, and that harm tends to fall most heavily on those who lack power. Hawthorne refers to the 17th-century witchcraft hysteria as one manifestation of power used wrongly: “Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes […] are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.” Those in power, in other words, are not exempt from deadly delusions, and in fact are capable of doing more harm through such delusions than a “mob” because of the power they hold. The descendants of Matthew Maule do not seem to hold a grudge about their ancestor’s dispossession, but even if they did, they lack the power to do anything about it. There “is something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank […] that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds.” One of the corrupting effects of power, in other words, is that it prevents those who’ve been victimized by it from recognizing the wrong, much less speaking up on their own behalf.
Even in the relative absence of power, the desire for power and influence can have a stagnating effect on those who aspire to it. A useless property claim in the Maine wilderness makes generations of Pyncheons believe that they stand to inherit great wealth, “an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it.” In other words, the desire for money and property can have a stagnating effect on a person’s character, though it arguably has less of an effect than on those who already possess wealth. For some Pyncheons, the effect of this belief “was to increase the liability to sluggishness and dependence […] while awaiting the realization of [their] dreams.” The Pyncheons study the outdated map of their supposed inheritance and “[calculate] the progressively increasing value of the territory, as if there were yet a prospect of its ultimately forming a princedom for themselves.” Instead of working to provide for themselves and contribute to society now, in other words, the family puts their hopes in presumptive future wealth, making themselves useless in the present. Even Hepzibah Pyncheon, though she takes the initiative to open a cent-shop out of fear of penury, spends most of her life fixed upon “deeply cherished and ridiculous consciousness of long descent […] and, in the way of accomplishment, her recollections, […] of having formerly thrummed on a harpsichord, and walked a minuet, and worked an antique tapestry stitch on her sampler.” Her own usefulness is compromised because of an unsubstantiated and ultimately meaningless feeling of entitlement to a wealth that never materializes.
Ultimately, though, the worst effect of power is that it even corrupts those who hold it by deceiving them about their own moral state, curtailing the possibility of moral improvement. In Judge Pyncheon’s case, “The church acknowledged [his good character]; the state acknowledged it. […] In all the very extensive sphere of those who knew him, whether in his public or private capacities,” there was scarcely a person “who would have dreamed of seriously disputing his claim to a high and honorable place in the world's regard. […] [H]is conscience bore an accordant testimony with the world's laudatory voice.” The praise of church, state, and community can have a silencing effect on a powerful person’s conscience, entrenching him in corruption and perpetuating the cycle of harm. In this way, as well as in quelling individual initiative and oppressing those of lower status, power and status—even just perceived power and status—wield a complex and corrupting influence.
Wealth, Power, and Status ThemeTracker
Wealth, Power, and Status 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!"
This impalpable claim, therefore, resulted in nothing more solid than to cherish, from generation to generation, an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it. […] In the baser sort, its effect was to increase the liability to sluggishness and dependence, and induce the victim of a shadowy hope to remit all self-effort, while awaiting the realization of his dreams.
To all appearance, they were a quiet, honest, well-meaning race of people, cherishing no malice against individuals or the public for the wrong which had been done them; or if, at their own fireside, they transmitted, from father to child, any hostile recollection of the wizard’s fate and their lost patrimony, it was never acted upon, nor openly expressed. Nor would it have been singular had they ceased to remember that the House of the Seven Gables was resting its heavy framework on a foundation that was rightfully their own. There is something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist; at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right, that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds.
Here is one of the truest points of melancholy interest that occur in ordinary life. It was the final throe of what called itself old gentility. A lady—who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady's hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread—this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means, is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank. Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, had come up with her at last. She must earn her own food, or starve! And we have stolen upon Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, too irreverently, at the instant of time when the patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.
Instead of discussing her claim to rank among ladies, it would be preferable to regard Phoebe as the example of feminine grace and availability combined, in a state of society, if there were any such, where ladies did not exist. There it should be woman's office to move in the midst of practical affairs, and to gild them all, the very homeliest—were it even the scouring of pots and kettles—with an atmosphere of loveliness and joy. Such was the sphere of Phoebe.
To find the born and educated lady, on the other hand, we need look no farther than Hepzibah, our forlorn old maid, in her rustling and rusty silks, with her deeply cherished and ridiculous consciousness of long descent, her shadowy claims to princely territory, and, in the way of accomplishment, her recollections, it may be, of having formerly thrummed on a harpsichord, and walked a minuet, and worked an antique tapestry stitch on her sampler.
[B]esides these cold, formal, and empty words of the chisel that inscribes, the voice that speaks, and the pen that writes, for the public eye […] there were traditions about the ancestor, and private diurnal gossip about the Judge, remarkably accordant in their testimony. It is often instructive to take the woman's, the private and domestic, view of a public man; nor can anything be more curious than the vast discrepancy between portraits intended for engraving and the pencil sketches that pass from hand to hand behind the original's back.
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.
[U]nder those seven gables, at which we now look up—and which old Colonel Pyncheon meant to be the house of his descendants, in prosperity and happiness, down to an epoch far beyond the present—under that roof, through a portion of three centuries, there has been perpetual remorse of conscience, a constantly defeated hope, strife amongst kindred, various misery, a strange form of death, dark suspicion, unspeakable disgrace—all or most of which calamity I have the means of tracing to the old Puritan's inordinate desire to plant and endow a family. To plant a family! This idea is at the bottom of most of the wrong and mischief which men do. The truth is, that, once in every half century, at longest, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget all about its ancestors.
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.
The Judge, beyond all question, was a man of eminent respectability. The church acknowledged it; the state acknowledged it. It was denied by nobody. […] Nor […] did Judge Pyncheon himself, probably, entertain many or very frequent doubts that his enviable reputation accorded with his deserts. His conscience, therefore […] bore an accordant testimony with the world's laudatory voice.
Men of strong minds, great force of character, and a hard texture of the sensibilities are very capable of falling into mistakes of this kind. They are ordinarily men to whom forms are of paramount importance. Their field of action lies among the external phenomena of life. They possess vast ability in grasping, and arranging, and appropriating to themselves the big, heavy, solid unrealities, such as gold, landed estate, offices of trust and emolument, and public honors. With these materials, and with deeds of goodly aspect, done in the public eye, an individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man's character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!
“My dearest Phoebe,” said Holgrave, "how will it please you to assume the name of Maule? As for the secret, it is the only inheritance that has come down to me from my ancestors. You should have known sooner (only that I was afraid of frightening you away) that, in this long drama of wrong and retribution, I represent the old wizard, and am probably as much a wizard as ever he was. The son of the executed Matthew Maule, while building this house, took the opportunity to construct that recess, and hide away the Indian deed, on which depended the immense land claim of the Pyncheons. Thus they bartered their Eastern territory for Maule's garden ground.