In a rather prophetic statement about a doomed family residing in an ancestral home, where the curse of the father becomes the curse of the children, Hawthorne writes in The House of the Seven Gables, “Ambition is a talisman more powerful than witchcraft” (209). For this second novel, Hawthorne shifts from the puritanical to the mesmeric, a deviation from the evils of religion to the effects of greed that guides the reader on a journey into the blackness of human nature. The dust collected on the puritan lifestyle is swept away for a more promising Christian ideal. In his earlier novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne contrasted puritan ideas of sin and redemption. Such a concept had bleak undertones in the puritan setting of the past. In his second novel, he chose to deal with a happier outcome on a grander scale of several generations, though through a much darker story of the Fall and salvation. The start of the curse began out of greed with the old Colonel, the progenitor of the Pyncheon family, dying from a soar curse. His descendants would depart this life too from the same doom, for the family patriarchs would betray anyone, even their own family members, to increase the riches that only damned their souls. The curse of the family is its own ambition, curable only through rectifying the past.
The Pyncheon family inherited its doom although the living family members had not been there to see the fall. So it is that all of the Old Colonel’s lineage must suffer for his madness, which was the wrenching of his new family legacy from the cold, dead hands of his enemy’s old birthright: “He was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. His home would include the home of the dead and buried wizard, and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments, and the chambers into which future bridegrooms were to lead their brides, and where children of the Pyncheon blood were to be born” (Hawthorne 4). Colonel Pyncheon did so to defy fate and any doom that would come upon him for his evil act, thinking himself above even God. However, with the last nail hammered into the “castle” of his newly established legacy, the doom of wizard Maule is evoked: “God will give him blood to drink” (3). It is suggested by Hawthorne that Maule had a foreknowledge of the Pyncheons’ disease that would bring them all low if they submitted themselves to some mental predicament, or were thrown into a fit of rage. Both of these states can be necessitated through the stress and problems brought on by the acquisition and maintenance of great wealth. From Colonel Pyncheon to Judge Pyncheon, all suffered this fate over the great tract of Indian land in the East forever denied them. It was such ambition that killed them. Maule’s curse becomes God’s curse.
Colonel Pyncheon had a reason to be cursed by God, as any man of high and proper position who corrupts the basic Christian principles for his own gain would (at least in a devout culture). Men in his position were to be the ones who corrected corruption and would, supposedly, not hide it within their own black hearts. The novel records the Colonel’s life as that of an honorable man on the outside, holding high positions and admiration in the public eye, but he had a secret that the future patriarchs would hold as well, being linked with the austere House of the Seven Gables. “And beneath the show of a marble palace, that pool of stagnate water, foul with many impurities, and, perhaps, tinged with blood—that secret abomination, above which, possibly, he may say his prayers, without remembering it—is this man’s miserable soul!” (176). This doom follows the Colonel through to his untimely death and carries on to all those of his lineage who live within the cursed house, for both the family and the house are cursed.
Those specifically doomed, whom Hawthorne writes of, are the Judge, Hepzibah, and her brother Clifford in the modern tale; Alice and her father in the daguerreotypist’s tale; and the Pyncheon head a century before, who cut a shop out of the side of his house. The Colonel, of course, brought on the original curse because he wanted to “plant a family!” (141). Who could plant a family of such high ambitions as the Colonel without planting the weeds of destitution as well? To plant one must have fertile ground, not corrupt land saturated with the blood of the dead. The seeds of doom were planted with the ambitious desire to be on par with the Old World European families through the Colonel’s new found landed aristocracy status of quick wealth. All of which wasn’t acquired through honest work, like the land for his house, the house itself, and many of his titles and positions. Infertile land choked with the weeds of doomed fate is no place to plant a family legacy. This cursed land was to be the base of his landed empire when he acquired the immense wealth promised to him through the Indian deeds to acres upon acres of rich Eastern land. This same deed and desire for easy wealth would lead other future descendants to the same doom. The deed was the very downfall of Alice because her father would sacrifice her soul for the deed, and in the century past, the Pyncheon head even inherited the doom through his pursuit of the Eastern lands as well. Because money was short, however, “it appeared to be his doom to spend eternity in a vain effort to make his accounts balance” (20), hence the shop that was opened for his own greedy desire to squeeze every penny he could into his tight pockets. The modern Pyncheons of this tale were to suffer the same fate as well if they had followed the same wayward path of ambition and greed, but through the grace of redemption, they were saved from such doom.
Clifford’s doom is brought about directly because of the Judge’s greed for more wealth than he already had. His suffering for a crime he did not commit at the hands of his ambitious brother left this artist’s life mundane and lacking any beauty. Upon his release from prison, Clifford still had to shake off the shackles of his family heritage but couldn’t do so within the confines of the cursed house, for after finding his freedom, he locked himself up again in an even darker cell. This echoes his very words upon his return to the House of the Seven Gables, “‘I want my happiness!’ at last he murmured, hoarsely and indistinctly, hardly shaping out the words. ‘Many, many years have I waited for it! It is late!’” (119). Late indeed. Happiness was not to be found in such a dark and corrupted house. Thus, it is that just living in the house dooms Hepzibah as much. The scowl imprinted on her face, probably from living in such a murky and dilapidated house void of good light, is proof enough of her lot in the curse. “‘How miserably cross I look!’ she must often have whispered to herself; and ultimately have fancied herself so, by a sense of inevitable doom” (24). The ultimate conclusion, which will be proved later, is that the only way to be happy is to leave the house and the blight behind. The house is the family’s modern day curse and doom (120).
The past is linked to the present. What occurred in the past would occur in the present due to the original curse. This is brought together through the old portrait of the austere Colonel hanging over the lives of the present Pyncheon family, a constant reminder to the source of their doom. And with the Judge reaching an age similar to that of the old Colonel, many could see the likeness between the two. There is a sense that the two ends of the circle of destiny were converging upon the house at this time. Perhaps the Judge would draw down a new curse upon the unfortunate family or put an end to the old one. The old portrait constantly watched over all the affairs of the family and was sure to control the events and doom within. Thus, both he and the house become entwined in the curse, for the old Colonel is the house, his spirit having inhabited it. “The picture of the puritan Colonel shivered on the wall. The house itself shivered, from every attic of its seven gables down to the great kitchen fireplace, which served all the better as an emblem of the mansion’s heart, because, though built for warmth, it was so comfortless and empty”(171-72). Events come full circle when Judge Jaffrey attempts to blackmail his cousin Clifford as the Colonel blackmailed Maule out of his small acreage of land to found his damned legacy upon. “Alas, Cousin Jaffrey, this hard and grasping spirit has run in our blood these two hundred years. You are but doing over again, in another shape, what your ancestor before you did, and sending down to your posterity the curse inherited from him” (182). If the Judge had listened to his cousin at this time and mended his ways, perhaps he could have avoided the fate singled out for him by God to die a horrible death in the dark confines of his coffin house. Salvation comes to those who seek it first, and none needed it more than Phoebe and Clifford.
How is it that a fallen family can free itself from such a deeply embedded doom when there is no possibly way of separating an aristocratic lady from the comforts of her family home? By chances of the ever-elusive eastern land, the modern Pyncheon family had been plunged into deep poverty, though the Judge had come upon immense wealth through his own corruptness as a public official. Having to deal with this new twist of fate, Hepzibah opened up the penny shop already built by her ancestor a century before. Swallowing her pride, the old maid destroys her last vestiges of aristocracy by laboring with her own hands and serving those of a lower station than she. What separates her from her penny thrift ancestor was her own charitable nature toward her customers by giving several of them free goods. Not only this but also through her growing humbleness, she too recognized the idle nature of aristocracy and its evils by saying of a certain prosperous maiden, “Must the whole world toil, that the palms of her hands may be kept white and delicate?” (40). Nothing better could have happened to the old spinster, for she is eventually able to overcome the doom by helping herself without the aid of greed or ambition. She must toil for the common need of survival. Though she saw this debasement of her status level as the fulfillment of Maule’s curse upon her family, it was, in fact, the implementation of the end of the curse.
It is further illustrated that the house is the curse when Clifford and Hepzibah flee from the corpse of the Judge, and Clifford feels the weight of the family doom lifted off of him with such a death of a family member. In talking with a skeptical old man upon the train, Clifford explains the very fate that has kept him and his family trapped:
“The greatest possible stumbling blocks in the path of human happiness and improvements are these heaps of bricks and stones [. . .] which men painfully contrive for their own torment, and call them house and home! The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousandfold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives” (200).
He even further asserts several pages later that one builds a house to die in and to curse his posterity with. An understandable statement considering the lengths through which he and Hepzibah ran to escape such a fate, even without money or a plan where to go once the modern patriarch of the curse had died.
Holgrave adds to this point with his speech to Phoebe about the need for temporariness. He concludes in the midst of the novel that the solid past is pushed onto the descendants, as in the case of the House of the Seven Gables, and if houses and society were built upon a less permanent foundation, none would leech off the toil of others but reform their own futures out of the mistakes of the past. He knows what must be done for the Pyncheons to bury the curse, being a descendant of the wizard Maule. They must abandon the very house, where the stem of the curse came from–the greed and ambition of its founder.
It is, in fact, this offspring of the wizard Maul that holds the key to his own family’s retribution and the freeing of his ancestor’s enemies from the awful grasp of doom. There is a link between the modern Holgrave and Phoebe and previous Alice and Mathew that should be noted. There has been dissatisfaction amongst the critics over the love between Holgrave and Phoebe, “that the love between Phoebe and Holgrave comes too soon and is, therefore, underdeveloped and not worth to be trusted” (Corrente 102-3). This marriage can be seen under a different light when compared to the earlier “courting” of Alice Pyncheon and Mathew Maule. Mathew being of a lower class can only win Alice through the whiles of mesmerism. This fashionable eighteenth-century practice comes from Franz Anton Mesmer who, as the American Heritage Dictionary states, “during highly fashionable curative sessions in Paris caused his patients to have reactions ranging from sleeping or dancing to convulsions. These reactions were actually brought about by hypnotic powers that Mesmer was unaware he possessed” (“Mesmerism”). Through a hypnotic ritual, common with mesmerism, Mathew is able to gain control over the will of Alice and further extract his revenge over the rapists of his patrimony. Holgrave, too, does the same because the Maules “were believed to inherit mysterious attributes; the family eye was said to possess strange power” (Hawthorne 17). Through the use of mesmerism, Holgrave is able to blind Phoebe to his true intentions of watching his ancestors’ enemies struggle through the doom placed upon them. At first, he may not have been entirely true in his motives to her, but in the end, his genuine feelings appear when Phoebe likewise mesmerizes him with her purity and beauty.
Morbid? Yes! Even Holgrave admits as much (167). Perhaps because of his ancestry locked deep into “witchcraft” and mesmerism, he cannot help it. But his sudden love for Phoebe shatters the ties that bind him to his past and allows freedom for a better future. Such a need exists to link the two spiritual feuding families of the past with the spiritually bonded family of the present that fate takes control. Through their newly developed love, the curse can be broken and peace can be brought to their prosperity once and for all. For all can see that Phoebe is not anything like her ancestors, and indeed something special resides within her. As Eve tempted Adam to Fall, inversely did Phoebe tempt Holgrave to redemption. She also resurrected Hepzibah and Clifford, who are the living dead existing in a fallen house of bad blood, and brought them forth from their living tomb into a brighter world of redemption (165-66). It is so obvious that while she stays at the house, not a bit of misfortune touches the house or the inhabitants, all are given a blessed second chance. It is when she leaves that the doom settles its wings around the house to choke the joy out of it again.
The final blow to the destruction of the old doom is through overcoming of total ambition, even in the face of restored wealth and station. Upon the Judge’s untimely death due to the strain, his greedy heart placed upon his health, Clifford comes into the family fortune accumulated by the late Judge. Though the amount is not as big as what the Judge hopes to squeeze from the torment of Clifford for the ancestor’s hidden, though now useless, inheritance, it is large enough to reestablish the family into the heights of the aristocracy. Instead of lavishing it upon the house of their family’s heritage and doom, they choose to escape its black walls for the sunny countryside upon a substantial piece of land. Here they would live in the lap of luxury, but in no way that the Pyncheons lived in the past. The doom dies with their sloughing off the robes of idle aristocracy with the abandonment of their “castle,” and inviting the vagabond of the lower class, Uncle Veneer, who lives in rags and collects discarded refuse to fatten his own pig, to live with them. He is to be an equal with them, sharing his common stories for entertainment. True, the elderly brother and sister are still a bit solitary, but it is their first step to emerge back into the folds of society again.
Some critics point out that the inheritance of ill-gotten money would only continue the curse (Dillingham 449-59). But the fact is originally the Maules kept the Indian grant to the land in the east from the Pyncheon offspring as the payment for the doom of murdering Maule for the speck of land. Holgrave finalizes the merger of parental wrong through marrying Phoebe. Thus, the Maules get their inheritance back, breaking the curse, and the Pyncheons regain their sanity and shuffle out of the curse’s way by leaving the very source of the curse behind–the House of the Seven Gables.
“In Adam’s Fall / We sinned all” a New England Primer rhymes the truth of Puritan thought, but as suggested by Hawthorne, salvation from the Fall is through the pure heart and practice of an honest soul. Phoebe, of course being the purity, as Alice was in an earlier epoch. For only in the foul water in Maule’s well could such beauty as Alice’s posies grow best, a subtle metaphor of salvation from the fall. Only from a curse could such sweetness bloom.
Corrente, Linda. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. Woodbury NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1985.
Dillingham, William B. “Structure and Theme in The House of the Seven Gables.” Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The House of the Seven Gables, Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Seymour L. Gross. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1967. 449-459.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Bantam Classic, 1981.
“Mesmerism.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd ed. 1992.