Symbolism in The House of Seven Gables

Symbolism in The House of Seven Gables

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Symbolism in The House of Seven Gables           

   Literature reflects life, and the struggles that each

of us must face. Great authors incorporate life's

problems into their literature directly and indirectly.  The author

bluntly tell us a story, however, he or she may also use symbols

to relay to us a message in a more subtle manner.  In Nathaniel

Hawthorne's book The House of Seven Gables symbolism is 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 his book.

        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

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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


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. Ltd., 1970.

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.
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