In his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, author Nathaniel Hawthorne states his book’s primary “moral”: “the truth, namely, that the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones […] [becoming] uncontrollable mischief.” In other words, one generation’s misdeed affects subsequent generations in ways that the original perpetrator can neither predict nor control once events are set in motion. The guilt of the perpetrator’s act, then, lands on subsequent generations in ways that they can’t escape, whether they clearly deserve it or not. This idea plays out in the novel’s portrayal of the Pyncheon family’s intergenerational troubles, which begin when their Puritan ancestor Colonel Pyncheon covets land belonging to Matthew Maule, a poor but stubborn man who’s built a humble dwelling on the lot. This issue drags on for years, until Maule’s death, when he is executed for witchcraft—a sentence which Pyncheon is said to have zealously supported—and later generations of the Pyncheon family suffer for the Colonel’s greed and alleged bloodlust. By tracing the misfortunes of both guilty and innocent members of the Pyncheons over several generations, Hawthorne argues that wrongdoing has an unpredictable ripple effect which lands indiscriminately on both the guilty and the innocent.
At first, Colonel Pyncheon’s greed seems primarily to cause his own downfall. Even before describing the events that befall the first generation of Massachusetts Pyncheons, the narrator summarizes their fate: “the act of the passing generation is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time; […] [it] inevitably [sows] the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow […] posterity.” In other words, one generation’s actions have further-reaching effects than it might seem at the time, inescapably shaping future generations’ lives. Colonel Pyncheon’s wrongdoing meets with relatively straightforward retribution: “At the moment of execution,” the narrator explains, “Maule had addressed [Pyncheon] from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy […] ‘God will give him blood to drink!’” Later, during Pyncheon’s housewarming party, he is discovered dead in his chair. “[T]here was blood on his ruff […] his hoary beard was saturated with it. […] Dead, in his new house!” Maule’s prophesy, then, is already coming true: the perpetrator dies in the house he built on Maule’s land. The effects of the misdeed and curse are contained within a relatively predictable pattern, as it’s typically assumed that a person who commits a malevolent act will be the one directly punished for it.
However, as the Pyncheon line begins to die out and various deaths occur (like that of Uncle Jaffrey, who dies mysteriously), the effects become less neatly predictable. Even those who are not clearly guilty suffer, suggesting that the original wrongdoing is continually renewed in each generation, as surely as the House of the Seven Gables is inherited. For example, centuries later, Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon researches the history of the House of the Seven Gables and develops pangs of guilt: “Being of an eccentric and melancholy turn of mind, and greatly given to rummaging old records and hearkening to old traditions,” he concludes that Maule had indeed been defrauded, and that the Pyncheons are in the wrong. But before Uncle Jaffrey can act on this conclusion, he mysteriously dies. Some 30 years later, young Phoebe Pyncheon sees her distant cousin Judge Pyncheon in person. She observes his similarity to the portrait of old Colonel Pynchon, almost like “a kind of prophecy,” and she wonders if “the weaknesses and defects, […] 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[.]” In some mysterious way, it seems that character defects may be inherited, rather like property or even curses. In fact, Phoebe’s interpretation of the Pyncheons’ plight seems sounder than the explanation of the rumored curse alone—jealousy and greed account for more than a supernatural curse can. This turns out to be true, as Judge Pyncheon, enraged by Jaffrey’s search for the truth and the threat this poses to his wealth, turns out to have been responsible for Jaffrey’s death.
Not only did Jaffrey Pyncheon die, but his nephew Clifford was jailed in the Judge’s stead for decades after Jaffrey’s death, showing how their ancestor the Colonel’s wrongdoing wreaks havoc even upon the innocent. Clifford is never formally vindicated regarding the murder he didn’t commit. “It is a truth,” the narrator concludes, “that no great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our mortal sphere, is ever really set right. […] If, after long lapse of years, the right seems to be in our power, we find no niche to set it in. The better remedy is for the sufferer to pass on, and leave what he once thought his irreparable ruin far behind him.” This implies that the wrongs set in motion by Colonel Pyncheon will continue to affect his posterity—even those like Clifford who are truly innocent—and that there may be no way to set things completely right until the family is no more. This ominous “truth” accords with Hawthorne’s argument that ancestral wrongdoing can have unpredictable, indiscriminate effects on the guilty and innocent alike.
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Wrongdoing, Guilt, and Retribution 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!"
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.
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[.]
Coming so late as it did, it was a kind of Indian summer, with a mist in its balmiest sunshine, and decay and death in its gaudiest delight. The more Clifford seemed to taste the happiness of a child, the sadder was the difference to be recognized. With a mysterious and terrible Past, which had annihilated his memory, and a blank Future before him, he had only this visionary and impalpable Now, which, if you once look closely at it, is nothing.
[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.
[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.
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!
At last, therefore, and after so long estrangement from everything that the world acted or enjoyed, they had been drawn into the great current of human life, and were swept away with it, as by the suction of fate itself.
Still haunted with the idea that not one of the past incidents, inclusive of Judge Pyncheon’s visit, could be real, the recluse of the Seven Gables murmured in her brother's ear: "Clifford! Clifford! Is not this a dream?"
"A dream, Hepzibah!" repeated he, almost laughing in her face. "On the contrary, I have never been awake before!"
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.
“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.