Nathaniel Hawthorne states in the preface to ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ that he hopes “the book may be read strictly as a Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead, than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex” (Hawthorne 3).
Despite this statement, which seems to disconnect the novel from the physical place and historical reality, ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ is firmly rooted in regional history.
As Charles L. Crow notes in ‘History of the Gothic: American Gothic’ (2009), “[t]he house of the title was a real structure in Hawthorne’s Salem (and a tourist attraction today)” and the plot of the novel “while fictional, resembles actual events of the Salem witchcraft trials” (Crow 49).
Moreover, Jarlath Killeen explains in ‘History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914’ (2009) that one of the aims of the Gothic romance is to “interrogate versions of legitimacy central to national mythology… by configuring [the past] as grotesque and monstrous” (Killeen 28-29), and this is precisely what Hawthorne does through the central motivic chronotope of the titular house.
By telling his story as a Gothic romance, Hawthorne is able to saturate the seven-gabled house with symbolic meaning and create a parallel between its dark structure and the oppressive world order it is founded upon; a world order which involves patriarchal dominance over women, aristocratic (and capitalistic) greed for land, and the abstract rationality of modernity over the Romantic connection with nature. In addition, the structuring influence of the house on the activities of its inhabitants prompts the reader to reconsider conceptions of homeliness, domesticity, and ownership of bodies as well as land in the American imagination.
The poetics of the ‘House of the Seven Gables’ are explicitly Gothic and plainly recall the chronotopes of earlier Gothic works: castle-like, this “imposing edifice” is “a specimen of the best and stateliest architecture of a long-past epoch”, and like gargoyles on a Gothic cathedral, “[i]ts whole exterior was ornamented with quaint figures, conceived in the grotesqueness of a Gothic fancy” (Hawthorne 10, 11).
Architect and designer Edwin Heathcote argues in ‘The Meaning of Home’ (2012) that gargoyles “draw you in, almost mesmerically” and mark the façade of a building as “a face from a different, dream-like world” (Heathcote 105). In the chronotope of the Gothic home, gargoyles essentially let visitors know that “here be dragons”, marking it as an enigmatic space where time and place are unknowable and unreliable.
Like turrets on a castle or spires on a cathedral, “the seven gables pointed sharply towards the sky, and presented the aspect of a whole sisterhood of edifices” (Hawthorne 11).
While the verticality of cathedrals is normally said to represent an upwards movement towards heaven, verticality in fictional Gothic buildings is typically an image of patriarchal power.
As Lefebvre argues in ‘The Production of Space’ (1974), architectural verticality “introduces a phallic or more precisely a phallocratic element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator.
Verticality and great height have ever been the spatial expression of potentially violent power” (Lefebvre 1974, 98). Arguably, the cluster of pointed gables represents the same phallic dominance and transgressive masculine posturing, while the many gables testify to the house-owner’s surplus of financial power through a surplus of space. In short, the patriarchy’s phallic ascendency and the aristocracy’s extravagant use of space are represented here by the same vertical architecture.
‘The House of the Seven Gables’ not only shows the traces of patriarchal power in its architecture; it is also founded on a patriarchal family myth.
As mentioned, adventure-time in the everyday novel of adventure is often founded on guilt and personal responsibility for a crime, and this is also the case in ‘The House of the Seven Gables’, where the titular house has been built “over an unquiet grave” (Hawthorne 9), on land that Colonel Pyncheon, the powerful Puritan progenitor of the Pyncheon family, has stolen from Matthew Maule, a member of the lower-class whom the Colonel has persecuted and caused to be executed as a witch.
Hawthorne, who was descended from Salem witchcraft judges “whose legacy apparently haunted the author all his life” (Crow 49), illustrates the hypocrisy of the Pyncheons’ Puritan ancestor by making it clear that the “invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule” (Hawthorne 8) is motivated by greed for the other man’s small plot of land.
Contrary to all Puritan restraint, Colonel Pyncheon’s claim to the land has been “unduly stretched, in order to make it cover the small metes and bounds of Matthew Maule” (Hawthorne 7).
Moreover, by making Pyncheon’s self-interested accumulation of land, wealth and power the founding event for his chronotope of the Gothic home, Hawthorne connects patriarchal dominance over the home with aristocratic dominance over place.
As will be seen, both types of dominance have an alienating and dehumanising effect: in Maule’s case through the dispossession of his pastoral plot of land and in Hepzibah Pyncheon’s case through the self-alienation of her body.
That these two scenes emerged in two distinct geographical locations has been a subject of debate among metal fans, musicians, and journalists for many years. When asked why death metal emerged within these two disparate locations, respondents (fans, musicians, writers, record label representatives) usually provide one or more of the following simple explanations: “It is in the water” or “We have nothing else to do” and even “It is the weather: really hot, really cold.”
Colonel Pyncheon also represents an oppressive and domineering rationalism in contrast to the Romantic spirit of freedom, imagination and intimate connection with nature. As Crow notes, “[f]or the Romantics, the greatest evil is to be found in obsessive rationalism combined with authority” (Crow 4). Likewise, Carol Margaret Davison notes that the Gothic romance “frequently offers the reminder that Enlightenment Reason involves a perverse, emotional repression that has dramatic and grotesque ramifications” and “excessive reason” is therefore typically the “paramount characteristic of the heartless Gothic villain” (Davison 52).
As the Puritanical version of this type of villain, Colonel Pyncheon is “[e]ndowed with common-sense, as massive and hard as blocks of granite, fastened together by stern rigidity of purpose” (Hawthorne 9). When he steals Maule’s land the Colonel rationalises place in abstract terms of “acres”, “metes and bounds” and “mouldy parchments”, making it an artificial space removed from nature.
Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule’s dispute over land ownership can be described as competing chronotopes. In contrast to the ‘House of the Seven Gables’, “the logbuilt hut of Matthew Maule” (Hawthorne 9) resembles Bachelard’s image of “the primitive hut, of prehistoric man” (Bachelard 31), which is characteristic of the chronotope of the idyllic rural home and a more elemental way of being in the world.
While Colonel Pyncheon represents a despotic aristocratic power which legitimises its claim to land by inherited wealth rather than by direct engagement with the world through labour, Maule represents the free pioneering spirits who “would have laughed at the idea of any man’s asserting a right — on the strength of mouldy parchments… — to the lands which they or their fathers had wrested from the wild hand of Nature by their own sturdy toil” (Hawthorne 19).
Like an American Adam in a New World Garden of Eden, Maule has built his simple home on land that he has “hewn out of the primeval forest, to be his garden-ground and homestead” (Hawthorne 7). Thus, Colonel Pyncheon’s crime against Maule is also a crime against the national mythology of America as the virgin land of free pioneers, and in this sense the novel does precisely what Killeen identifies as one of the primary functions of the Gothic romance by calling attention to the dark aspects of the nation’s past and interrogating national versions of legitimacy.
Pyncheon’s “hard and grasping spirit” (Hawthorne 237) is as much a part of the national character as Maule’s self-reliant, pioneering spirit, Hawthorne seems to say, and the former threatens to crush the latter with materialistic greed.