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The House of the Seven Gables: Summary & Explanation

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The House of the Seven Gables is a classic novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. For decades, this story of intrigue and murder, love and obsession, curses and greed, has captivated readers. This lesson will cover the summary and themes of The House of the Seven Gables.

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables is a classic of American literature published in 1851 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and is a relative of the founders of Puritan Salem, including John Hathorne, who was a judge in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne's legacy is clear in this novel of greed, curses, love, obsession, and murder...all set in one big creepy house.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Summary

The Curse

Colonel Pyncheon is a very rich, powerful man living in Puritan Salem, Massachusetts. He has but one ambition: to build a wonderful house to leave his descendants. After quite a bit of searching, he finds the perfect location for his house, next to a fresh water spring.

But there's a problem. A rather big one. The land is owned by a poor man named Matthew Maule. Maule refuses to sell his land to Colonel Pyncheon, because he has already cleared and tilled the land. But Colonel Pyncheon is patient. When witchcraft hysteria sweeps Salem in 1692, Pyncheon sees his chance. He accuses Maule of witchcraft, which leads to Maule's hanging. Before dying, Maule curses Pyncheon, telling him 'God will give him blood to drink.'

Once Pyncheon gets his hands on Maule's land, he begins building a grand home, which he names the House of the Seven Gables. The construction is overseen by Maule's son, Thomas Maule. But the very day of Colonel Pyncheon's housewarming party, Matthew Maule's curse rears its head. Pyncheon is found dead, with blood on his neck. His guests whisper about the curse.

The Descendants

Time passes. One hundred and twenty years after the building of the house, the Pyncheon family is in decline. The deed to vast estates in Maine has been missing since the Colonel died. The house is run-down, and the family's wealth has dwindled. Everyone believes the family is cursed, even the Pyncheons.

So the head of the Pyncheon family decides to give the house to the Maule family. But before the transfer can be completed, he is found dead. His nephew, Clifford Pyncheon, goes to jail for the crime. The remaining wealth of the Pyncheon family passes to Clifford's cousin, Jaffrey Pyncheon, who gets everything except the House of the Seven Gables. That goes to Hepzibah Pyncheon, Clifford's sister.

Hepzibah lives in the crumbling house for thirty years, all alone. She is very shy and possibly crazy. However, she runs out of money and must open a store and take in a boarder to make ends meet. Jaffrey, on the other hand, has thrived. He has been named Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon and is very wealthy. He offers to help his cousin out, but she refuses. She believes that he framed her brother Clifford for murder. Hepzibah believes Jaffrey is just like Colonel Pyncheon: greedy and grasping and willing to hurt innocents to get what he wants.

Clifford, meanwhile, is about to be released from prison, and Hepzibah is waiting for him to come home. Just before Clifford returns, his niece Phoebe Pyncheon arrives at the House of the Seven Gables. She needs a place to stay, and Hepzibah agrees to allow her to stay in exchange for taking care of the shop and house. Phoebe quickly becomes an integral part of the household, and even charms their boarder, Mr. Holgrave.

Holgrave is only twenty-two years old, and a social reformer. He tells Phoebe that her family is too stuck in the past. He also tells Phoebe the story of her ancestor Alice Pyncheon, who was tricked into serving Matthew Maule's grandson, also named Matthew, and whose flight from Maule caused her death. Phoebe is transfixed by the story and by Holgrave.

Illustration from The House of the Seven Gables 1875 edition
Illustration from House of the Seven Gables 1875 edition

End of the Curse

Phoebe returns to her family for a visit. While she is gone, Judge Jaffrey insists on speaking to Clifford, whom he believes knows a secret about the family wealth and the location of the missing deed. Jaffrey pushes his way past Hepzibah and sits down in the parlor to wait for Clifford, while Hepzibah goes to find her brother. Jaffrey has a sudden stroke and dies. Clifford and Hepzibah, worried they will be accused of his murder, run away. Holgrave discovers Jaffrey's body, but keeps it a secret.

Phoebe returns to the House of the Seven Gables, and Holgrave tells her about Jaffrey's death. Holgrave admits his love for Phoebe, and she tells him she feels the same. Clifford and Hepzibah return and tell the world of Jaffrey's death. Soon after, news comes that Jaffrey's only son has died, and Clifford, Hepzibah, and Phoebe will inherit all his wealth and his country estate. They invite Holgrave to come to with them.

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