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Learning Hawthorne's lesson in The House of Seven Gables

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.


On reading Nathaniel Hawthornes’ book, The House of Seven Gables, we find a very contemporary message; one that resonates with people today.  At its heart is an old story, yet an on-going conflict, between colonialists and the original peoples of North America that have been displaced. It is about the dysfunction which occurs in those who would take what is not theirs. Hawthorne writes:

  The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes pure and uncontrollable mischief.

Hawthorne wanted to show us-

The folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms.

We must learn from the moral of Hawthorne’s work. 

            In The House of Seven Gables, Colonel Pyncheon, an influential settler in an early New England town wants land that belongs to another.  Mr. Maule’s prior occupancy and stewardship of the land seems to symbolize the position of the Native societies of North America. Pyncheon accuses Maule of witchcraft in order to get his land.  In colonial New England, this was a sure way to ruin someone’s life. Maule is sentenced to hang, but before he is put to death, he places a curse on Colonel Pyncheon, and his future generations. “He shall drink blood,” he cries out on Gallow Hill. The Colonel has brought the curse on himself.  Having taken possession of the land, he builds a seven-gabled mansion.  This parallels present actions of oil , uranium, and other extraction companies, with government consent which are using devious means to take lands that belong to First Nations people. We are familiar with the dirty tricks with money proferred to individuals, and t the destruction of community cohesion. Environmentalists and First Nations peoples, under Bill c-51 can be called terrorists. Treaty Rights are being ignored and the Charter of Rights for all Canadians trampled on. Bullying of those who live on the land is rampant.

             Maule’s curse is realized, for death, madness, and dysfunction plague the Pyncheon family. The Pyncheon patriarchs die at the height of their power. The water of life, like that of the beautiful spring on Matthew Maule’s usurped property, symbolically turns black and brackish, a source of disease.

            We see how the curse has played out, how the house is in shambles, the people in the family disconnected, unhealthy and fearful. Now is time for reparation and reconciliation. The story takes a turn for the better.

We meet old Hepzibah , the sole and last Pyncheon relative to occupy the house of seven gables. She is a frayed descendent of Colonel Pyncheon. Her grief is heavy, cursed as the gloomy house is, and she is alone. Her beloved brother, Clifford, framed for murdering his uncle by the uncle’s own son, has been in prison for thirty years.  She is out of money and must start working to earn her bread.  but she is conditioned to believe that a lady shouldn’t work. It is the wrongful conviction of her brother, and the colonial definition of a lady that has kept her so unhappy all these years. Out of necessity, she opens a store, in a part of the house which fronts the street. Thus begins her transformation from an isolated, discarded, elderly woman living with fear and the ghosts of the past, to a woman alive with her remaining vitality, awakened to a new connection with others. Her first customer is a child, who comes looking for a cookie. Other people, needing her goods, come. She starts to trust and develop relationships that she has long neglected. She cautiously confronts the demon which tells her she is no longer a lady debased by real work. It is one of the most touching themes of the book. We see the stifling weight of the curse begin to lift.       

            When her brother, Clifford, is released from prison, she is a trembling caregiver, expecting further doom at any moment. Without the arrival of young Phoebe from the country, she might not have been able to carry on.  

            A mysterious young man, a daguerreotypist, rents a room in the house, and encourages Hepzibah in her new endeavour. Phoebe and he bring the house’s abandoned garden back to life. Though she is a cousin of Hepzibah’s, the influence of the country and lack of social strictures, gives her a fresh view towards life.  Phoebe befriends the young man. Together, they help Hepzibah and Clifford. Old norms are fall away. They begin to experience cohesive community which was destroyed for generations in the wake of the curse. Pyncheon’s greed, obsession with power and control is being replaced with caring, and life itself.

  Empowered white society behaves as if power and wealth in society is the be all and end all. Wealth, possessions are glorified. The peril is that we persist and become immune to these beliefs. Though Hawthorne didn’t have much hope that we would learn from his tale, he wrote it hoping we would. Multi-national companies are stealing land and bringing, as Hawthorne suggested, calamity on all future generations. Land and water are being destroyed. The food supply is being poisoned. Catastrophic climate change will affect all future generations. In the end, as the well- known Native prophecy predicts, when the earth is destroyed, the corporate masters will find they are not able to eat the money they have amassed.

             As in The House of the Seven Gables , there must be an awakening in our modern world as well.  The effects of colonialism can be thrown off.  We can look at life in a new way.  The misdeeds of past generations can be put right. We feel Clifford’s joy in his liberation and in the renewed hope for the future when they break away from the cursed house. Joy and sunshine, which has been  heart-breakingly absent from their lives, returns. They leave the cursed House of the Seven Gables forever. The daguerreotypist is non-other than Matthew Maule’s heir. Phoebe Pyncheon loves him. The next generation will be an act of salvation, reconciliation. There will be a restoration of proper relationship, fairness, hope and light for the future, caring and respect for those who have suffered injustice at the hands of colonists past and present. Let us hope the lesson can be learned before it is too late.  

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