The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 21

Summary: Judge Pyncheons high reputation in society dies along with him, for the true events surrounding the death of his uncle, also named Jaffrey, now come to light. Holgrave learns the truth “from one of those mesmerical seers, who, now-a-days, so strangely perplex the aspect of human affairs, and put everybodys natural vision to the blush, by the marvels which they see with their eyes shut.” The truth is that, when he was a young man, the recently deceased Jaffrey was not the respectable citizen he was to become (or, at least, presented himself to the world as). One night his uncle caught him looking through the uncles private papers. The uncles shock was the catalyst for the seizure-like attacks to which the Pyncheons were prone; he fell and hit his head against the desk. Jaffrey, finding two wills left by his uncle, arranged to destroy the one that was favorable to Clifford and keep the one favorable to himself. He then arranged to have Clifford framed for his uncles death: “So craftily had he arranged the circumstances, that, at Cliffords trial, his cousin hardly found it necessary to swear to anything false, but only to withhold the one decisive explanation.” Now, however, Jaffrey himself is dead; in addition, his son died of cholera shortly thereafter. Clifford, Hepzibah, Phoebe and, through her, Holgrave inherit the Judges wealth. Furthermore, they discover, behind the old, glowering portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, the document that sealed the Pyncheon claim to the eastern lands. When building the House so long ago, Matthew Maule took the opportunity to create a niche in the wall in which to hide this land deed, “what the Pyncheons sought in vain, while it was valuable; and now that the find the treasure, it has long been worthless.” Holgrave reveals to Phoebe that he is, in fact, descended from Maule; he did not reveal the truth earlier for fear he would frighten her away. Phoebe prevails upon Uncle Venner to give up his dreams of retiring to his farm in order to come live with the Pyncheons in their new home, where he and Clifford will enjoy each others company. And, as Venner leaves the House behind a few days after the Pyncheons have left, he believes he hears one last strain of Alice Pycheons harpsichord, indicating that her spirit has finally left its prison.
Analysis: “The conclusion of this book,” wrote critic F.O. Matthiessen, “has satisfied very few” (2001 Modern Library Edition, p. 308). Modern readers, to be sure, may feel disappointed that the revelation of the truth behind the first Jaffrey Pyncheons death comes from a now-discredited source: as popular as spiritualism was in Hawthornes day-and even as it remains popular in many quarters today-the “mesmerist seer” from whom Holgrave learns the truth still seems something of a dues ex machine. In other words, the resolution to the problem does not flow naturally from the plot because, for all of the narrators hints and “teases” regarding the supernatural, nothing supernatural actually happens in the book. On the other hand, Hawthorne, through the character of Holgrave, is advocating an escape from the past and an embrace of the present throughout this book. Perhaps the inclusion of mesmerism, a “science” much in vogue in the mid-nineteenth century, was Hawthornes attempt to make the novel feel “up to date.” If so, we must read the conclusion in its original historical context. We know from one of Hawthornes notebooks, for instance, that he was excited about “[q]uestions as to unsettled points of History, and Mysteries of Nature, to be asked of a mesmerized person” (Gunn, p. 160).
Even aside from this modern, rational objection, however, Hawthornes supplying of a “happy ending” seems to undercut the very argument that he has been building in his tale: that, as he says even in this concluding chapter, “no great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our mortal sphere, is ever really set right.” The genius in Hawthornes story of a curse haunting one family for generations lies in the fact that the Pyncheons have, in effect, cursed themselves. It was Colonel Pyncheon who grasped at Matthew Maules land; it was Gervayse who could not move past the claim to the eastern lands; it is Hepzibah who has chosen to live as a virtual prisoner in the House; it is Jaffrey who chose to frame Clifford for his uncles death. The change in the familys fortunes after Jaffreys death as well as the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave seem unexpected and contrived. On the other hand, the move of the family out of the House of the Seven Gables (and the suggestion that even poor Alice may now rest in peace) at least suggests that the past may not be the omnipotent, all-oppressive force that the characters imagined it (and the narrator repeatedly claimed it) to be-unless we choose to grant the past that degree of power over us.