Study Guide

The House of the Seven Gables Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The House of the Seven Gables

Obviously, the biggest symbol in this novel is the House of the Seven Gables itself. Hawthorne helps us out with this one by putting it right there in the title! The house represents a ton of things: first, it stands in for the Pyncheon family as a whole. The reason Colonel Pyncheon accuses Matthew Maule of witchcraft is so that he can build a large, fine house as a legacy to his family. But Colonel Pyncheon also curses both house and family by building the house on the foundations of Maule's hut. How can the Pyncheon family flourish when it's literally rooted in the legacy of a murdered man?

The house's condition also tells us something about the state of the Pyncheon family through the years. When Colonel Pyncheon builds the house, it's luxurious and constructed according to the latest fashion. Even in the time of Mr. Holgrave's tale, the house has "that pleasant aspect of life which is like the cheery expression of comfortable activity in the human countenance" (13.12). In other words, the house looks lively and is bustling with a large family. In the time of the novel's present, in the 1850s, the House of the Seven Gables has grown ancient and dark. Similarly, the family has dwindled to a few scattered, warring members – Hepzibah, Clifford, Jaffrey, and Phoebe Pyncheon. The aging of the house reflects the aging (and diminishing) of the Pyncheon family itself.

The house's weathered, gloomy appearance also marks it as a symbol of past times. The portrait of Colonel Pyncheon reminds its inhabitants every day of the origins of the Pyncheon family. The house is filled with artifacts of days gone by: Colonel Pyncheon's chair, Alice Pyncheon's harpsichord, even the old shopkeeper's locked shop door. These relics accompany the literal ghosts of Pyncheons past. The shopkeeper of a hundred years earlier is supposed to float anxiously through his abandoned shop, and Alice Pyncheon can occasionally be heard playing her harpsichord. The night of Judge Pyncheon's death brings out a full procession of deceased Pyncheons. This house is both literally and metaphorically haunted by the past. Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon both respond to the House of the Seven Gables as a physical manifestation of their family's tortured past – not a very peaceful relationship to have with the place where you live.

Last but not least, the house's grim appearance sets the gloomy tone and Gothic genre for the whole novel. Its dark passageways and dim rooms give it a sense of unease. The lack of light seems only appropriate for a house as haunted as this one.

Maule's Well

One of the reasons Colonel Pyncheon chooses this particular acre to steal from his neighbor, Matthew Maule, is that there is a spring of fresh water on the property. But as soon as Colonel Pyncheon starts to build his new house, the spring suddenly becomes polluted. This seems to be a sign that the house is cursed.

Maule's Well also symbolizes the persistence of Matthew Maule's memory in the Pyncheon family. No matter how much they try to make the House of the Seven Gables their own, Matthew Maule is always bubbling up in the garden. After Judge Pyncheon dies in the same chair that Colonel Pyncheon passed away in so many years before, Maule's Well "[overflows] its stone border, and [makes] a pool of formidable breadth in that corner of the garden" (19.58). Perhaps Maule's Well is overflowing in celebration because Judge Pyncheon, like Colonel Pyncheon before him, has been given "blood to drink" (1.4).

When Clifford sits in the garden, he often looks into Maule's Well. He claims to be able to see "shapes of loveliness" in the water, which are now and then disturbed by "a dark face" (10.14). Phoebe believes these "shapes" to be the result of Clifford's imagination, with his cruel fate symbolized by "the dark face." But who knows – the novel ends with Maule's well sending up visions of the happy future of Phoebe and the rest of the surviving Pyncheons. Perhaps it does give us a glimpse into the past and future. After all, one of the Maule family's mystical abilities is supposed to be unusual clear-sightedness about dreams, visions, and the like.

One tiny, rather romantic note: when Mr. Holgrave plucks some of Alice's Posies from the roof he tells Uncle Venner, "I have heard [...] that the water of Maule's Well suits those flowers best" (19.12). We have discussed the ways in which Alice Pyncheon is linked to Phoebe in "Characters." And Mr. Holgrave is a descendant of Matthew Maule. So maybe this is a nice bit of foreshadowing of Phoebe and Mr. Holgrave's love: Phoebe is represented by Alice's Posies, and Mr. Holgrave is the water from Maule's Well.

The Pyncheon Garden and Alice's Posies

The only healthy social space in the House of the Seven Gables seems to be outside, in the garden. That's where Clifford and Phoebe go so that Clifford can heal in the presence of fresh air and lovely flowers. And it's where Phoebe, Clifford, Hepzibah, Mr. Holgrave, and Uncle Venner get together on Sundays to enjoy one another's company. As the home of Mr. Holgrave's careful vegetable planting, the garden seems to be keeping back the "rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of society)" (6.2) that constantly threaten to return and overwhelm the Pyncheon family home.

The Pyncheon garden is a breath of fresh air in the middle of the heavy past represented by the house. It also represents the best of the Pyncheons. When Judge Pyncheon has died and all that's left are Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe, Alice Pyncheon's flowers – Alice's Posies – are "flaunting in rich beauty and full bloom to-day, and seemed, as it were, a mystic expression that something within the house was consummated" (19.4). In other words, the full bloom of Alice's Posies in Chapter 19 represent the end of a process: with Judge Pyncheon's stroke, the family curse has died. Now Phoebe Pyncheon will have space to flourish happily like the flowers she loves so much.

The Looking-Glass

This is a passing detail in the first chapter, but we find it interesting nonetheless. The story goes that there used to be a mirror in the House of the Seven Gables that showed all the shapes of the Pyncheon family. But this mirror didn't just show the Pyncheons as they appeared in real life; it also showed "the departed Pyncheons [...] doing over again some deed of sin, or in the crisis of life's bitterest sorrow" (1.27). This device of the magic mirror that shows the truth is one Hawthorne uses in his short story "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." As this mirror, Maule's Well, and the daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon all show, Hawthorne loves supernatural ways of piercing through appearances to the hidden heart of a person. It's his favorite symbolic device. Maybe because this is what he thinks his fiction is doing?

The Portrait of Colonel Pyncheon

Colonel Pyncheon makes it a condition in his will that his portrait cannot be removed from the parlor wall of the House of the Seven Gables. This portrait makes it impossible for any of his descendants to forget either (a) the Matthew Maule story, since that story is connected to Colonel Pyncheon, or (b) the "evil influence" or "Evil Genius" (1.27) that continues to cast its power over the Pyncheon family line. Colonel Pyncheon's stern, cruel face makes it totally clear for all onlookers exactly what lurks in the hearts of the Pyncheon family. The portrait becomes a touchstone for everything bad in the Pyncheons. (It also apparently shakes its head or frowns when something it doesn't approve of happens to the Pyncheons, which is not a pleasant trait for a painting outside of Hogwarts, we think.)

By the end of the novel, we discover that the long-lost secret to the Pyncheon family fortune has been lying in the wall behind Colonel Pyncheon's portrait all along. It was left there in revenge by Thomas Maule, Matthew Maule's son. If Colonel Pyncheon hadn't insisted that no one could ever move his portrait, maybe the deed would have been found in time to be worth something. But his pride has shot him in the foot.

The Daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon

Like the looking-glass symbol in Chapter 1, Hawthorne uses the daguerreotype (an old kind of photograph) to pierce through outward appearances to the inner soul of his characters. Mr. Holgrave claims that the daguerreotype uses sunlight, "[to bring] out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon" (6.16). The daguerreotype can show us truth behind a mask, claims Mr. Holgrave. And the truth lying behind Judge Pyncheon's kindly smile is that, at heart, he is just like cold, cruel Colonel Pyncheon. In fact, Phoebe at first mistakes the man in Mr. Holgrave's daguerreotype for Colonel Pyncheon.

Like Mr. Holgrave's hypnotism, the daguerreotype is another kind of new technology (at the time) that Hawthorne felt would increase our understanding of the mystical and spiritual worlds. Hawthorne's blend of historical fact and fiction at the level of the novel as a whole appears totally consistent with this particular instance of combining technology (the daguerreotype) with fantasy (it can see into your soul!). He just loves mixing metaphors, this guy.

The Ghosts in the House of the Seven Gables

We discuss this symbol a bit under "The House of the Seven Gables," so we won't repeat ourselves too much here. We just want to point out that the House is not only haunted by Pyncheon specters of the past. It is also haunted by the laughing figures of the Maule family. When Alice Pyncheon is hypnotized, she sees three ghostly figures. One is Colonel Pyncheon, clearly trying to tell her something about the Maine deed. But two other figures physically stop him: Thomas and Matthew Maule. And when the deceased Pyncheons all float into the parlor in Chapter 18, there is a an elderly man "nodding, jeering, mocking" (18.21) and laughing at them as they each frown at the portrait (with its hidden deed behind it). In a sense, this is rather tragic: even if Matthew Maule enjoys spending his eternity laughing at the helpless Pyncheons, he is still trapped in the House of the Seven Gables along with the rest of them. The past keeps the Maules prisoner just as much as it does the Pyncheons.

The Barrel-Organ Monkey

There is a man who carries a hand-held organ to Pyncheon Street to play for pennies. He is accompanied by a small monkey who goes out into the crowd dancing and begging for coins. Hawthorne seizes this opportunity to remind us that he is "symbolizing the grossest form of the love of money" (11.6). This cunning little monkey cares about nothing except for cash. In that respect, is he any different from respectable people like Judge Pyncheon?

The Train

If the House of the Seven Gables represents the past, stagnation, gloom, and rot, what is its opposite? Why, modern technology in the form of the train, of course! The train is gleaming, new, and filled with people constantly exiting and entering. While you can only glimpse people through the arched window at the head of the stairs in the House of the Seven Gables, you can't avoid others on the train: "It was life itself!" (17.11). The train becomes a symbol of Clifford's freedom from Judge Pyncheon's oppression. Instead of being stuck in one place, like the house, it's constantly moving. But even though Clifford enjoys his brief travels on the train with Hepzibah, he admits that he can't keep up this progress forever. Even if homes do come with burdens attached to them, we are not made to never stop. Clifford and Hepzibah go back to the House of the Seven Gables – but they find their lives permanently changed for the better once they get there.

Character Doubles

The double (or doppelganger) motif is a big thing in Gothic novels like The House of the Seven Gables. It makes things creepier to have two characters who look just like each other wandering through the pages of the same novel. Because the use of doubles is so central to Hawthorne's characterization in The House of the Seven Gables, we discuss these in "Characters." In particular, see our discussions of Phoebe Pyncheon, Alice Pyncheon, Judge Pyncheon, and Mr. Holgrave.