Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804. This birthdate and place tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Hawthorne: he's an American (born on the fourth of July!) and he's got roots in Salem (of witchcraft fame). Hawthorne became one of the first major writers in the United States, and he made his name at least in part by writing about the early colonial period in Massachusetts. This particular novel, The House of the Seven Gables, mixes a lot of fact and fiction from Hawthorne's own life as a descendant of the original Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Hawthorne's Puritan ancestor William Hathorne (note the lack of a "w") arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 to become a local justice of the peace. Even though the English Puritans were themselves religious separatists who were looking for a place to practice their strict Protestantism freely, they were totally OK with persecuting people of other religious faiths. One group that suffered from their religious extremism was the Quakers. And one man who liked to beat up on Quakers was William Hathorne. He ordered several Quakers whipped, including a woman named Anne Coleman (source).
This nasty family legacy doesn't stop with William Hathorne. Hathorne's son, Colonel John Hathorne, had a real thing for persecuting "witches." In fact, John Hathorne became one of the judges to preside over the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. He even shows up as a character in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible.
This repetition of violence and intolerance across two generations of Hathornes obviously affected Nathaniel Hawthorne pretty deeply. As the story goes, Hawthorne added the "w" in his name to break his connection with the earlier, horrible Hathornes (though we don't know this for certain).
Hawthorne's Puritan heritage provided material for not just one but two of his most famous novels: The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Both books deal with hypocrisy and self-righteousness of America's early colonial period.
So, let's draw all these threads together: Hawthorne's own family story provides him with themes of (a) the inheritance of bad character, (b) self-righteousness, and (c) the influence of a family's past on the present. Looking at these themes, we can see the seeds for the plot of The House of the Seven Gables. In it, Hawthorne explores the troubles of the Pyncheon family, which has been suffering for 150 years under the curse of a man whom their ancestor unjustly accused of witchcraft.
Hawthorne also borrows other real-life elements for use in The House of the Seven Gables: Matthew Maule's curse on Colonel Pyncheon seems to be based on accused witch Sarah Good's threat to Salem judge Reverend Nicholas Noyes: "You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink" (source). And lots of people have identified the House of the Seven Gables with a real-life Salem house still standing at 54 Turner Street. In Hawthorne's day, the house belonged to a cousin of his, Susanna Ingersoll.
As Hawthorne bends fact to build fiction, his writing takes on this strange, unearthly quality. It seems almost realistic, but there is always something that is not quite right. Even though The House of the Seven Gables provides a lot of in-depth psychological analysis of its characters (still unusual for American writers of Hawthorne's time), there are also plenty of weird symbols and mysterious bumps in the night. In fact, in a preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne famously wrote that he was producing "a Romance" rather than a novel (source). In Hawthorne's terms, a romance is a fantasy story – it's not necessarily realistic, and it doesn't follow the rules of cause and effect. Thus we are never sure quite what to expect from this book.
Right this minute, there are lots of scientists out there trying to figure out a scientific basis for what makes us who we are. They're pinpointing all kinds of stuff – not just the genes that lead to Parkinson's disease or cancer, but also the weird interactions that contribute to depression or anxiety. We have always been proud of the fact that it's our choices that make us who we are. So it would be kind of a kick in the pants if we suddenly discovered that our personalities are built into the very structure of our cells.
If Nathaniel Hawthorne were alive today, we think he'd be looking at these genetic researchers and saying, "See, I told you so!" A hundred years before scientists even started to ask how our genetic history might be contributing to who we are as people, Hawthorne got in there with The House of the Seven Gables. This book is all about the ways in which our ancestors – long dead and gone though they may be – reach down through history to affect our daily lives. And because Hawthorne is gloomy as all get-out, he asks specifically whether evil itself can be handed down through a family line.
We start to get a little dizzy as we think about the consequences of what Hawthorne is suggesting. It's a twist on the classic free will versus fate idea, only in this case, "fate" is family history. In other words, even as we are developing the traits and manners we think of as uniquely ours, maybe we are just playing out the choices that our family genes have already made for us. Maybe each of us is an exact replica of our great-great grandparents or uncles or mothers or fathers and we don't even know it. Whether you agree that we are basically clones of our distant family members or not, it's definitely an idea worth turning over at 2 in the morning when you're having Deep Philosophical Conversations in your dorm room.