Hawthorne's Symbolism in The House of Seven Gables
American Literature reflects life, and the struggles that we face
during our existence. The great authors of our time incorporate life's
problems into their literature directly and indirectly. The stories
themselves bluntly tell us a story, however, an author also uses symbols
to relay to us his message in a more subtle manner. In Nathaniel
Hawthorne's book The House of Seven Gable's symbolism is eloquently 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
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.
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.
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,