The House of Seven Gables: Symbolism
American Literature reflects life, and the struggles that we face during
our existence. The great authors of our time incorporate life’s problems into
their literature directly and indirectly. The stories themselves bluntly tell
us a story, however, an author also uses symbols to relay to us his message in a
more subtle manner. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The House of Seven Gable’s
symbolism is eloquently used to enhance the story being told, by giving us a
deeper insight into the author’s intentions in writing the story.
The book begins by describing the most obvious symbol of the house
itself. The house itself takes on human like characteristics as it is being
described by Hawthorne in the opening chapters. The house is described as
“breathing through the spiracles of one great chimney”(Hawthorne 7). Hawthorne
uses descriptive lines like this to turn the house into a symbol of the lives
that have passed through its halls. The house takes on a persona of a living
creature that exists and influences the lives of everybody who enters through
its doors. (Colacurcio 113) “So much of mankind’s varied experience had passed
there – so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed – that the very
timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart.” (Hawthorne 27). Hawthorne
turns the house into a symbol of the collection of all the hearts that were
darkened by the house. “It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of
its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences” (Hawthorne 27). Evert
Augustus Duyckinck agrees that “The chief perhaps, of the dramatis personae, is
the house itself. From its turrets to its kitchen, in every nook and recess
without and within, it is alive and vital.” (Hawthorne 352) Duyckinck feels
that the house is meant to be used as a symbol of an actual character, “Truly it
is an actor in the scene”(Hawthorne 352). This turns the house into an
interesting, but still depressing place that darkens the book in many ways.
Hawthorne means for the house’s gloomy atmosphere to symbolize many things in
The house also is used to symbolize a prison that has darkened the lives
of its inmates forever. The house is a prison because it prevents its
inhabitants form truly enjoying any freedom. The inhabitants try to escape from
their incarceration twice. Initially, as Phoebe and Clifford watch the parade
of life in the street, Clifford “realizes his state of isolation from the one
broad mass of existence-one great life, – one collected body of mankind,’ and he
cannot resist the actual physical attempt to plunge down into the surging
stream of human sympathy'” (Rountree 101). Dillingham believes that “Hawthorne
clearly describes Clifford’s great need to become reunited with the world and
hints that this reunion can be accomplished only by death” (Rountree 101).
However, Clifford inevitably fails to win his freedom, and he returns to the
solace of his prison house. Clifford and Hepzibah attempt once more to escape
their captive prison, but the house has jaded them too much already (Rountree
102). This is apparent when
Hepzibah and her brother made themselves ready- as ready as they could,
in the best of their old-fashion garments, which had hung on pegs, or been laid
away in trunks, so long that the dampness and mouldy smell of the past was on
them – made themselves ready, in their faded bettermost, to go to church. They
descended the staircase together, pulled open the front door, and stept across
the threshold, and felt, both of them, as if they were standing in the presence
of the whole world Their hearts quaked within them, at the idea of taking one
step further. (Hawthorne 169)
Hepzibah and Clifford are completely cut off from the outside world. They
are like prisoners who after being jailed for decades return to find a world
they do not know.(Rountree 101). Clifford is deeply saddened when he says, ”
We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings – no right anywhere, but in
this old house”(Hawthorne 169). The house has imprisoned their souls and
trapped their lives. Hence, the house symbolizes a prison for its inhabitants.
The house also symbolizes the history of the of Pyncheon family dating back
to the original Colonel Pyncheon who had been cursed by Matthew Maule for the
evil way in which the Colonel obtained the land for the house. The house has
collected memories upon memories of the people who have lived there, beginning
with its original owners the Colonel and Alice Pyncheon. This point of
symbolism is argued by E. P. Whipple who thinks that the house’s elaborate
interior symbolizes the history of the Pyncheon Family. It has mostly the
gloomy and grim feel, that was left by the Colonel. However, it also possesses
in some places “that delicate Alice, the fragrance of whose rich and delightful
character lingered about the place where she lived, as a dried rose-bud scents
the drawer where it has withered and perished'” (Crowley 200). The houses rich
history turns it into a very telling symbol of the Pyncheon family. The house
can also be seen as a symbol of darkness versus the light of outside. Almost
all that is linked with the history of the house by the Pyncheon family seems to
be dragged down into a gloomy existence by the house. In the beginning of the
book, one of the few item in the house that is still bright is a tea set.
“Hepzibah brought out some old silver spoons, with the family crest upon them,
and a China tea-set still unfaded, although the tea-pot and small cups were as
ancient as the custom itself of tea-drinking” (Hawthorne 77). This tea set is
allowed to still shine only because it was bought into the family by a wife of
the colonel, and therefore she was not a Pyncheon. However, everything and
everyone else in the house is slowly decaying. Clifford is readily seen in this
manner by Phoebe, when his entrance into the room “made her feel as if a ghost
were coming into the room” (Hawthorne 103). Clifford’s clothes are even used as
symbols of the effects that the house has on all of its prisoners. Clifford is
seen in a “dressing-gown of faded damask”, that has been soiled over time by the
house (Hawthorne 103). Hawthorne also mentions the carpet in the Colonel’s room
that was once plush and fine, but it is now worn, ragged and old, because it
like all other things in the house has become darkened. The house embodies all
that is wicked in mankind. “The House of Seven Gables, one for each deadly sin,
may be no unmeet adumbration of the corrupted soul of man” (Crowley 192).
Ironically, this is all contrasted with the street which is constantly portrayed
as a bright, cheerful, and active place. Clifford would often look at the
window to the street, and what he would see would “give him a more vivid sense
of active, bustling, and sunshiny existence” then he could ever find in the
house (Hawthorne 162). Hawthorne portrays the street as containing light and
life, while the house contains darkness and emptiness.
Hawthorne uses many symbols in his writing, but the most obvious is the
house. It is used to symbolize and tell us many things. The house, however, is
not the only symbol Hawthorne uses in his novel. He also uses the portrait of
Colonel Pyncheon to symbolize the evil that still watches over the house. The
portrait has an unsettling effect on many of the house’s inhabitants, and it is
even compared to the likeness of Judge Pyncheon. It is possibly this likeness
and the evil feel Clifford has for the picture that leads him to command
Hepzibah to “pray cover it with a crimson curtain It must not stare me in the
face!” (Hawthorne 111). The portrait also possesses the very sought after deed,
but it keeps the family from reaching the deed because it is hidden in a recess
behind the picture. Similarly, the Pyncheon family has had several past
problems because of greed over the deed (Abel 263). The picture has always held
the deed which is a way to escape from the house, but the picture instead holds
the deed until it is useless. The picture therefore continues to punish the
family for their vicious actions against the Maules. The picture remains with
the family, just like the guilt that has been passed on generation from
generation over the Colonel’s immoral treatment of Matthew Maule (Abel 260).
Hawthorne has turned the portrait into a lasting symbol of the families torrid
past. Another symbol used by Hawthorne in the novel is the deed to the Pyncheon
family Indian ground in Maine. The deed symbolizes the freedom of the
inhabitants of the house. Like the inhabitants of the house, the deed is locked
away in secrecy because of the immoral actions of the Colonel. The Pyncheon
family was once part of the socially elite class, and considered to have much
worth. However, over years the family has slowly lost this status, and “The
decline of the Pyncheon aristocracy is indicated in terms of Hepzibah’s having
to open a cent-shop in order to earn a livelihood” (Rountree 97).The deed
was also once quite valuable and even fought over by the Pyncheon family members,
but it too now has lost its value. This seems to be the fate of almost
everything that resides in the cursed Pyncheon house.
Hawthorne also uses symbols that are not connected to the house. The elm
tree is an example of how Hawthorne symbolizes nature and life. The elm tree
begins small compared to the house, but it slowly grows. Its branches stretch
out and eventually it becomes bigger than the house. Also, “the aged tree
dangles a golden branch before the main entrance of the seven gables’ ” (Abel
156). This branch symbolizing the evil in the house, and it is compared to
“golden branch, that gained Aeneas and Sybil admittance into Hades” (Abel 156).
However, the rest of the tree remains bustling with life. The tree eventually
conquers the house symbolizing that life has finally beaten death. The tree
also has continued to go on during the generations of Pyncheons that have passed
through the house. This showing that despite bad circumstances life will
continue (Abel 258). The tree is one of the ways that Hawthorne symbolized the
vivid life that was going on outside the house. The well outside of the house
symbolizes the past and even tells of the future of the Pyncheon family. The
well originally owned by the Maule family was a prized possession in the salt
water area because the spring contained in it fresh water. The well was “a
desired asset in real estate” so the Colonel wanted it (Kaul 144). However, the
well became soiled once the Colonel took over the land. The well can also act
as the “soul of the house” which is now polluted (Abel 259). The well stays
true to all of Hawthorne’s symbols of house, because it too becomes tainted and
useless after the Pyncheon family takes it. The well also shows the future as
some gifted eyes can see images in it. Hawthorne ends his novel with the well
“throwing up a succession of kaleidoscopic pictures” about the lives of Hepzibah,
Clifford, and others (Hawthorne 319). The well is used in both these ways to
add a metaphysical element to the story and another level.
Hawthorne uses the railroad to symbolize a “microcosm of society” (Arac 15).
It is through the railroad that Clifford and Hepzibah try to escape into
society. Clifford yearns to become part of life, and his transfusion into the
life of the train seems to renew him (Arac 15). Upon entering the train Clifford
tells Hepzibah, “Let you and I be happy! As happy as that youth, and those
pretty girls, at their game of ball!” (Hawthorne 258). For a short time,
Clifford tries to be like the others on the train. However, his attempts are in
vain, because Clifford cannot join the train while he is still tied to the house.
Instead, he holds conversations that continue to return to the topic of the
house. Clifford’s mind is fixated on the house which arouses suspicion from his
train companions. Eventually after prattling on, Clifford realizes that he can
never really leave the house and join society. Thus, he gets Hepzibah, and they
separate from the bustling life of the train at a station only to return to the
dismal confines of solitude (Arac 16). Clifford once disassociated from life,
the train, loses his vivacity and energy, and he no longer leads Hepzibah.
Instead, he slumps down and needs help to find his way (Erlich 142). Hawthorne
uses the entire railroad excursion to symbolize another attempt and failure by
Hepzibah and Clifford to escape into life, but they end up only lonely with no
where to turn but back to the dreaded house (Arac 16).
Nathaniel Hawthorne believed that many things in life had meaning. This
carries over into his writing and help account for his frequent use of symbolism.
Hawthorne is trying to write a good story, and to do this he incorporates many
symbols that add depth to his writing. One of the themes that is seen most
often by his symbols is that retribution eventually comes for everybody. The
house continues to torment all the descendants of Colonel Pyncheon because of
his immoral act. The picture punishes generations of Pyncheons too by hiding
the deed. The deed like the family eventually decays, and the family is never
allowed to use it. All these symbols show us how Hawthorne is trying to teach
us that bad actions will be punished. Hawthorne also tries to show us that
descendants carry with them the burdens of their ancestors. Like Adam and Eve
passed down original sin, Colonel Pyncheon passed down a cursed life to all his
offspring. The house, well, and portrait. The portrait cannot be moved because
of a special clause, and it haunts generation after generation. The well has
also been affected by the past, and future generations have to deal with the
result of past generations’ actions. The house continually hurts people until
eventually the families make up and flee the cursed house. Hawthorne also uses
symbols such as the train and tree to show us life outside of the house is good.
Hawthorne is trying to show that there is good and evil in the world competing
with each other. All these symbols that Hawthorne uses enhances his writing so
that we may look at it on a more thoughtful level. Through these symbols, he
also expresses to us his basic beliefs in life. Hawthorne meant to not only
entertain with his writings, but also to inform if possible. This explains the
extensive use of symbolism in his work. Overall, Hawthorne did not just write a
story, he wrote a classic that has stood the test of time.
Works Cited Abel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction.
Indiana: Purdue UP, 1988.
Arac, Jonathan. “The House and the Railroad: Dombey and Son and The House of the
Seven Gables.” The New England Quarterly volume LI (1978) : 3 – 22.
Colacurcio, Michael. “The Sense of an Author: The Familiar Life and Strange
Imaginings of Nathaniel Hawthorne.” ESQ 103 (1981) : 113.
Crowley, Donald. Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage. London: W ; J Mackay Co.
Erlich, Gloria. Family Themes and Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Tenacious Web. New
Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1984.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables: An Authoritative Text
Backgrounds and Sources Essays in Criticism. Ed. Seymour Gross. New York: W W
Norton & Co.,1967.
Kaul, A., ed. Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey :
Prentice – Hall Inc., 1966.
Rountree, Thomas, ed. Critics on Hawthorne. Florida: U of Miami P, 1972.