Every fall, I try to teach a “spooky” work to capitalize on the Halloween spirit floating around campus. This semester, I selected Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables.
As part of the American gothic tradition, The House of the Seven Gables has all the right ingredients: a cursed family, unexplained deaths, mysterious characters, and, of course, a giant decaying house full of shadows, cobwebs, creepy portraits, and ghosts parading through the parlor at midnight.
Based on an actual house that still stands in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is the story of a mansion built in the late 17th Century by the well-respected Colonel Pyncheon over the execution site of the property’s rightful owner Matthew Maule. In order to take Maule’s land, Pyncheon falsely accuses Maule of witchcraft. From the scaffold, Maule curses the Pyncheon family, crying out, “God will give him blood to drink!” (8). By the 1800s, and after a handful of mysterious (and possibly curse-related deaths), the Pyncheon family line has degenerated under the weight of the Colonel’s crimes, and the only remaining inhabitants of the ornate house are the elderly Hepzibah Pyncheon, her brother Clifford (recently released after 30 years of false imprisonment), their young country cousin Pheobe, and the mysterious artist tenant Holgrave (who is later revealed to be a Maule). The only other living Pyncheon relative is the successful, yet deceitful, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon–a dead ringer for the original Colonel and the man who condemned Clifford to prison in order to seize Clifford’s inheritance.
The “Haunted House” Formula:
While many of my students this semester are first-time readers of the novel, most can readily recognize the characteristic conventions of the “haunted house” and “ghost story” narratives at work in the novel based on the current popularity of shows like American Horror Story. Reading The House of the Seven Gables, therefore, serves as an opportunity for students to see the origins of the haunted house formula in American literature and consider the ways in which the formula has evolved.
Dale Bailey understands most American gothic literature as social critique and credits writers like Hawthorne and Poe as founders of the genre in the United States: “If many of the themes the American haunted house tale invokes are rooted in a tradition of social criticism, the formula itself finds its origin in the complex and subtle literature of the American Renaissance, which borrowed a series of conventions already extant in the European gothic and cast them into uniquely American form” (15). In The House of the Seven Gables, students explore socially relevant issues, such as guilt stemming from America’s violent origins, the dangers of inherited weath and materialism, the question of ethics in politics, and the effects of technological advances like photography and railroads.
So what innovations on the European formula do writers like Hawthorne and Poe bring to the table? Bailey writes, “Most obviously, and perhaps most significantly, both Poe and Hawthorne displace the supernatural focus of the text from the figure of the ghost—the revenant spirit of a human being—to the house….As their titles frequently suggest…the house itself—the physical structure—serves as antagonist in the haunted house tale” (21). Hawthorne’s novel centralizes the house, “and not the ghosts who may or may not exist there–as the external manifestation of Pyncheon moral corruption” (23). Such commentary is confirmed through the “living” imagery repeatedly applied to 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). The novel’s end also confirms Bailey’s theory as the Pyncheons eagerly move into the country cottage of the recently deceased Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon despite the 30 years of torture he inflicts upon his cousins Clifford and Hepzibah, suggesting that the house itself is the real problem, not Jaffrey.
Hawthorne also strays from the European gothic tradition in his shift of setting. In “The Nature of Horror,” Noël Carroll identifies “marginal” spaces and “environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social life” like “old houses” as common horror “geography” (57). But instead of using a traditionally isolated marginal setting, the novel is “set not on some windswept alpine height” but on a busy street in Salem, Massachusetts. Though brother and sister Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon are barred from society by the ancestral forces within the house, the two can still longingly “look out upon the life of the street” from their “arched window” (159).
The Main Ingredients:
The first thing students need to know in order to tackle the novel are the “main ingredients” that comprise the traditional “haunted house” narrative.
According to Bailey, the basic 19th Century haunted house formula would opt “for a flatly prosaic description of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present” (5-6).
Next, insert a family that is “forced to confront the fault lines in familial relationships” when “subjected to gradually escalating supernatural assaults” (6). Upon Clifford’s release from prison, it is clear that the haunting elements of the house have pushed him to near insanity. Hepzibah is rendered helpless by the house’s ominous forces. When Clifford demands of Hepzibah, “Why do you keep that odious picture [of Colonel Pyncheon] on the wall?…Take it down at once!”, Hepzibah can only reply, “You know it cannot be!” (Hawthorne 111). According to legend, the House of the Seven Gables would crumble to the ground if the portrait were ever removed.
Cousin Pheobe serves as one of the “outsider” or “interloper” figures common to the formula. As Hepzibah explains, “Pheobe is no Pyncheon. She takes everything from her mother!” (Hawthorne 79). Unlike Hepzibah and Clifford who have long internalized the family curse, young cousin Pheobe is initially skeptical of the “absurdity” of superstition that Maule’s blood “might now and then be heard gurgling” in Pyncheon throats (Hawthorne 124). Her skeptical nature is challenged, however, upon meeting Jaffrey and hearing him cough: “Thus it happened, that when Pheobe heard a certain noise in Judge Pyncheon’s throat…when the girl heard this queer and aukward [sic] ingurgitation…she, very foolishly, started, and clasped her hands” (Hawthorne 124).
Holgrave is the novel’s second “outsider” figure. Unlike Pheobe, however, the photographer, writer, and mesmerist is oddly hyper-familiar with the Pyncheon family legends, even penning the legend of Alice Pyncheon’s possession under the Maules’ influence. By the novel’s end, it is clear that Holgrave holds the key to unlocking the secrets of the Pyncheon family’s past.
When Bailey asks “How should a ghost story be told?”, the answer is “at second hand through shrouds of uncertainty” (18-9). The narrator employs first person plural pronouns like “we” and “our” throughout the novel to convey his membership in the Salem community. Students spend almost as much time considering the narrator’s role in the novel as they do for any member of the Pyncheon family—noticing the contrast between moments when the narrator is able to divulge minute details and moments when he explicitly acknowledges his shortcomings: “the writer never did hear [the noise], and therefore cannot describe” (Hawthorne 124).
According to Anthony J. Fonesca and June Michele Pulliam, “Ghost and haunted house stories are tales of guilt thought to be long buried in the unconscious mind. The ghost or haunted house serves as a reminder to the person guilty or repressing knowledge of wrongdoing, as well as a portent to the others who know nothing of that person’s sin” (5). If, as Bailey suggests, “haunted house” narratives “employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might profitably be reformed” (6), is any effort at “reformation” implied by the novel’s end?
The “haunted house” formula traditionally allows for two possible endings concerning the house: “In the first, it is destroyed” (think Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”) and “in the second, it survives to await fresh victims” (such is the case in The House of the Seven Gables). Though the novel seems to reach a happy resolution through the death of the villain Jaffrey, the revelation of missing deeds proving land inheritance, the union of Pheobe (a Pyncheon) and Holgrave (a Maule) to lift the legendary curse, and escape to the country-side, students still find themselves feeling unsettled by the fact that the house remains standing. To use Samuel Chase Coale’s phrasing, it is unclear if “romantic rescue will succeed” or if “the dark house triumphs…in Hawthorne’s evocation of the past, of hidden deeds, hidden chambers, and ghostly processions” (17). Upon completing the novel, I ask students to develop a list of unanswered questions that still linger around the house to generate our closing discussions, and the first questions raised were:
Is the marriage really enough to break the curse?
Is simply leaving the house enough to break the decades long hold it has had over Hepizbah and Clifford?
In a novel that explores how “the weaknesses and defects, the bad passions, the mean tendencies, and the moral diseases which lead to crime, are handed down from one generation to another, by a far surer process of transmission than human law has been able to establish” (Hawthorne 119), students are left wondering whether or not simply leaving the house is enough to halt the cycles of the past from rolling into the future.
Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999.
Carroll, Noël. “The Nature of Horror.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 46, no. 1, 1987, pp. 51-9.
Coale, Samuel Chase. In Hawthorne’s Shadow: American Romance from Melville to Mailer. UP of Kentucky, 1985.
Fonesca, Anthony J. and June Michele Pulliam. Hooked on Horror: A Guide to Reading Interests in Horror Fiction. Libraries Unlimited, 1999.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Edited by Michael Davitt Bell, Oxford UP, 2009.