Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Sins of One Generation Are Visited on the Next
This theme is the “moral” of The House of the Seven Gables, as Hawthorne states in the Preface, and he takes many opportunities to link the misdeeds of Colonel Pyncheon to the subsequent misfortunes of the Pyncheon family. The Colonel’s portrait looms ominously over the action of the story, and the apoplectic deaths of three separate Pyncheons clearly fulfill Matthew Maule’s curse on the Colonel: “God will give him blood to drink.” Old Jaffrey Pyncheon and his nephew, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, are both found dead with blood coating their shirts and beards, linking their deaths to that of the Colonel. Aware that the notion of an inherited curse is fantastic and perhaps inappropriate for an otherwise realistic novel, Hawthorne breaks literary convention just so that he can pursue the idea that the crimes of one generation can have awful repercussions for succeeding ones. In the Preface he emphasizes that The House of the Seven Gables is a “Romance” rather than a “Novel,” allowing him to include the fantastical elements that pervade the novel. Hawthorne portrays the disastrous results of sin as indelible. Even centuries cannot make the stain of the Colonel’s sins go away: though the primary action of the novel takes place almost 200 years later, the Pyncheons still feel the effects of their ancestor’s crime.
Hawthorne has less faith in the power of curses, however, and while Maule’s warning from the scaffold sets the story in motion, the novel does not suggest that a curse alone can punish a whole family. On the contrary, the Pyncheons’ misery seems to be brought about largely by their own greed and overreaching ambition. Colonel Pyncheon brings about the curse while trying to steal land; Gervayse Pyncheon’s life, once quiet and peaceful, takes a tragic turn when his attempt to recover a missing land deed results in the death of his daughter, Alice; and even old Jaffrey Pyncheon dies as a result of seeing his young nephew rooting greedily through his papers. The simple fact that a curse hangs over the family is not enough to damn them all; only when a Pyncheon grasps for excessive wealth or power is he or she brought down. Since the family’s greed brings about its demise, Maule’s curse, while certainly a warning against avarice, may in fact be no more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Class Status in New England
Hawthorne satirizes nineteenth-century New England society’s preoccupation with class status in The House of the Seven Gables. His critique of class distinctions becomes most pointed when Hepzibah frets over opening the store and when Holgrave proclaims his revolutionary ideology. The feud between the Maules and the Pyncheons is a class conflict of its own—a modest farming family pitted against elite Puritan followers of the church, the law, and the army. Matthew Maule is a poor farmer sent to the gallows with relative ease by Colonel Pyncheon, a wealthy landowner and, as implied in his name, a onetime army man. The interaction between the younger Matthew Maule and Gervayse Pyncheon makes this class distinction even more evident, for the young Maule first refuses to enter the house of the seven gables from the back, as would befit a member of the working class, and then is disturbed by Alice Pyncheon’s apparent disdain for his workman’s status. Even lineage fails to prevent class discrimination: Hepzibah knows that the Judge’s status makes his threat to send Clifford to an asylum very real. The scenes where Hepzibah sets up shop read like a humorous mockery of the aristocratic class, but in the case of Matthew Maule, and later of Clifford, New England society’s preoccupation with class is clearly shown to be no laughing matter.
The Deceptiveness of Appearances
The House of the Seven Gables frequently uses the Judge’s infectious smile to demonstrate that appearances can mask underlying truths. Even as his cruelty becomes apparent, Judge Pyncheon’s brilliant smile continues to dazzle almost everyone. Hepzibah’s scowl, which results from a physical impediment (nearsightedness), keeps customers away from her store and even repulses her beloved brother, Clifford. While authors often focus closely on the physical appearances of characters, Hawthorne makes physical appearance the defining feature of these two characters: the Judge’s smile seems to take on a life of its own, and Hepzibah’s scowl becomes her most identifiable trait. That Hawthorne chooses to put these features on such prominent display, and then to contrast them so sharply with the personalities behind them, seems to illustrate that he is making a point about how easily a person’s appearance informs judgments about them. Other examples, such as the popular opinion that the wise Uncle Venner is actually a simpleton, further demonstrate Hawthorne’s view that outward appearances are often misleading.