The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 1

Summary: The narrator summarizes the long, complex history of the House of Seven Gables, beginning with the circumstances surrounding its establishment. Before the house stood in its present location on Pyncheon-street in “one of our New England towns,” a more humble dwelling stood on the same spot. The street was then, in the early 17th century, known as Maules Lane, for that humble house was occupied by one Matthew Maule, who was engaged in a dispute over ownership of the land with Colonel Pyncheon. Maule, in fact, designed the new house for Pyncheon. Their dispute over the property ended when Maule was executed on charges of witchcraft-at the Colonels instigation. Tradition holds that Maules last words, directed at Pyncheon from the scaffold, were, “God will give him blood to drink!” And, indeed, Pyncheon died a mysterious death not long after he took possession of Maules Lane and built the House of Seven Gables: he was found inside his study, his face and clothes bloodied. Apparently, Maules curse had come to fulfillment. Later rumors held that there were finger marks on Pyncheons throat; or that a man had been seen escaping through the rooms window; but the exact cause of his sudden death remained unexplained.
At Colonel Pyncheons death, his family stood poised to claim possession of a vast tract of land to the east; however, his son was not able to make good on the claim, and so the family lost that inheritance, beginning a precipitous drop in the familys fortunes. All the Pyncheons retained was “an absurd delusion of family importance.” In every succeeding generation through the next two hundred years, hopes of restoring the familys greatness would briefly arise, only to be again extinguished. About thirty years prior to the beginning of this story, the narrator tells us, an old bachelor Pyncheon was murdered by his own nephew. The victim (whom readers will later learn was one Jaffrey Pyncheon, the uncle of the current family patriarch of the same name) had at one point wished to make reparations to the Maule family for the Colonels long-ago seizure of Matthew Maules land; however, the elder Jaffrey did not follow through with his plan of ceding the land and the house to the Maule family, and it passed to another nephew, identified in this chapter by his title of Judge (we will only later learn his given name is, like his uncle, Jaffrey) because of his appointment to the bench of an “inferior” court-enjoys a good reputation and high status in society, but few Pyncheons now remained: Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon; his son, who is traveling in Europe at the time of this story; the young man accused of the elder Jaffrey Pyncheons murder and imprisoned for thirty years (whom readers will later learn is named Clifford); a female cousin (whom we will later learn is Hepzibah Pyncheon) who lived as a recluse inside the House; and the teenage daughter of his cousin Arthur (whom we will later learn is Phoebe Pyncheon). The descendants of Matthew Maule continued to live in poverty and “the opaque puddle of obscurity.” They were suspected, however, of possessing the supernatural power of influencing other people through their dreams.
The narrator concludes the chapter by describing more fully the House of the Seven Gables itself. The House is old and moss-covered; some flowers called Alices Posies (after the girl who flung the seeds upward, and of whom we will discover more later) grow between two of the gables. There is also a shop-door beneath the gable that fronts the street, installed by a former Pyncheon in difficult financial circumstances. His commercial efforts, however, failed, and the shop-door was “locked, bolted, and barred” upon his death.
Analysis: Hawthorne would have been understandably concerned with the witch trials of colonial New England and their aftermath; he himself was the descendant of John Hathorne, one of the judges in the 1692 Salem witch trials. Like his previous novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthornes House of the Seven Gables is in many ways a sustained examination of the legacy of Puritanism on New England (in this case, unlike in The Scarlet Letter, “the New England of [Hawthornes] own period” (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition). Both novels also reflect Hawthornes ambivalence about the legacy of Puritanism on him as an individual.
This chapter demonstrates Hawthornes skill at creating suspense. His narrators reports of rumors about the supernatural, to which the narrator never quite gives credence, nonetheless establish an ominous air for the novel, and hint that unexplained phenomena may well play a major part in it. (As Hawthorne has already told us, of course, the novel is a “romance.”) Another form of “hearsay” figures largely in this chapter, as Hawthorne examines the role of oral tradition in families and in society. The text suggests that tradition may not always be an accurate reporter of the past but may nevertheless exercise considerable influence in shaping the future.