The oldest surviving mansion in the United States was built in 1668 for Captain John Turner in the historic seaport of Salem, Massachusetts. This house inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to pen his 1851 classic novel.
Hawthorne’s relatives, the Ingersolls, acquired the house after John Turner III lost the family fortune. During several visits, Hawthorne’s reclusive cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, entranced him with stories of its lore. According to papers, the impressive dwelling once boasted seven gables. This seemingly innocent fact stirred Hawthorne’s imagination.
When creating the novel’s villian, Nathaniel had only to turn to his own family ancestry. One infamous ancestor was Colonel John Hathorne, a judge at the Salem Witch trials. He presided at the trial in which Sarah Good swore: “I’m no more a witch than you’re a wizard! And if you take my life God will give you blood to drink!” In the novel, the character, Matthew Maule, sentenced to death as a wizard, hurls similar words to Judge Pyncheon who falsely accused him in order to steal his land. After Judge Pyncheon’s sudden and mysterious death, his descendants move into the house. His evil deed holds a subtle but affective hold on each passing generation.
When the novel opens, the current inhabitant, spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon, has been reduced to opening a shop to make ends meet. Reclusive, she has become as lifeless as the faded curtains and darkened timber. Her only real companion is Holgrave, the radical daguerreotypist who rents a room in the house.
Into Hepzibah’s carefully guarded world comes bright, country cousin Phoebe (less of a person than symbolic of the free world beyond Seven Gables). Not long after Phoebe’s arrival, Hepzibah’s feeble-minded brother, Clifford returns home after being released from prison. Clifford had been falsely accused of a crime by their cousin, Judge Pyncheon, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Puritanical judge of long ago. Things come to a climax when Judge Pyncheon threatens to send Clifford back to jail unless he discloses the whereabouts of hidden wealth.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a member of the literary movement, Dark Romanticism, which included Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. As with Gothic fiction before, their stories often involved vampires, ghouls, and haunted houses. While the earlier Gothic writers concentrated on sheer terror, the Dark Romantics explored the dark nature of man and universe.
Nathaniel Hawthorne told his publisher he wished to write passages, “with the minuteness of a Dutch picture.” Indeed, the house and shop are so finely described that one can hear the old stairs creaking, the window shutters banging, the shop door opening. Readers see poor Hepzibah, frightened, out of her depth, yet determined as she meets her first customer (a little boy who wants a gingerbread). They watch as Phoebe reads to the child-like Clifford and walks in the garden with Holgrave as they quietly fall in love.
The chapter, “Judge Pyncheon” is a poetic tour de force on death. “The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at first become more definite; and then, spreading wider, they lose their distinctiveness of outline in the dark gray tide of oblivion, as it were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one human figure sitting in the midst of them. The gloom has not entered from without; it has brooded here all day, and now, taking its own inevitable time, will possess itself of everything. The Judge’s face, indeed, rigid, and singularly white, refuses to melt into this universal solvent. Fainter and fainter grows the light.”
The novel is not without its flaws. The conclusion comes too quickly and easily. Also, while Hawthorne richly describes the characters of Seven Gables, the reader is still kept at an emotional distance. The camera lens zooms in to study them like an impassive scientist. One explanation for this is Hawthorne struggled with his desire to be a writer, considering it “unmanly”. Throughout the novel he keeps himself tightly leashed, afraid to reveal any part of his inner being.
The House of Seven Gables is not a frightening tale of any kind. In fact, it has sprinkles of quiet, macabre humor throughout. It is not a passionate novel. It won’t raise anyone’s temperature. Yet the house and its inhabitants linger in the mind of the reader long after they’ve turned the last page.