Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables focuses on the Pyncheon family cursed by the cruelty of one of its members to the family of Matthew Maule decades before. Like the biblical Ahab, the old aristocratic Pyncheon wrests a beautiful piece of land from his much poorer fellow man Maule, and on it he builds his seven-gabled house. Now, decades later, the house is occupied by his relative Hepzibah, her lodger Holgrave Maule, and eventually by her formerly imprisoned brother Clifford. The three characters play very important roles in the novel, both literally and symbolically, and their presence contributes greatly to the significance of the work as a whole.
In Hepzibah can be seen the symbolic representation of the evils of the father being visited upon the children for generations. She is an old maid, and in her life so far is reflected the barrenness and non-productivity that such a curse (as was placed upon the family by the old Matthew Maule) generates. Though unmarried and without children, she seemed to have subscribed to the creeds of Cult of Domesticity (or the Cult of True Womanhood), and was now forced to desecrate herself by violating that cult’s forbidding women to do business. Of Hepzibah’s entrance into trade, Hawthorne writes, “It was the final throe of what called itself old gentility. A lady—who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady’s hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread—this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank” (35). This points not just to the relic of aristocracy from which Hepzibah has sprung, but also to the irony of the creeds of the Cult of Domesticity, which demands that a woman be sexually frigid (apparently like Hepzibah), and at the same time fertile. The incongruence of the two possibilities places Hepzibah in a bind, because her frigidity has led her toward spinsterhood and with no way to stay alive but to soil her hands, which she is also forbidden to do according to her aristocratic pride.
In any case, she condescends to open a cent shop, transforming herself from “the patrician lady […] into the plebeian woman” (35). The shop undergoes a similar transformation, but with the opposite effect. The shop, which was once in a state of neglect, is now polished and painted and made fruitful with stocks placed on its shelves. This shop may, in fact, be symbolic of Hepzibah’s true progress, which is not the one of devolution as she thinks. Rather, she has stepped up from the disgrace and poverty of unemployment and near-mendicancy to the fruitfulness and independence of trade.
Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, is ruined in jail, sent there to be punished for a crime he did not commit, and wastes thirty years of his life. He returns the mere shell of a man. In reality, he is still a child, having lost his opportunity to grow up and to deal with the everyday situations of manhood. The cold severity of the prison walls have so impressed darkness upon him that he can find no force in himself that propels him to be nice to the sister who has sacrificed her dignity for him. Clifford’s exposure to the drab and dreary prison has intensified his love for beauty. Yet he demonstrates superficiality in his inability to perceive beauty in his sister, who has grown harsher in her appearance not just because of her age but also because of her distress for his imprisoned condition over the years. That she is scorned by him, Hawthorne describes as “the mournfullest of pities” (137), and it is indeed, showing that Clifford’s sensibilities where beauty is concerned are as retarded as his manhood. He exhibits again the characteristics of a child who has not yet gained the aesthetic sophistication that allows people to see beauty beyond the merely merry and colorful.
Holgrave Maule is Hepzibah’s boarder and, unbeknownst to her, the descendant of Matthew Maule who allegedly placed a curse on the family. Holgrave is there under false pretences, yet he proves himself to be the most sympathetic of the characters. He has accomplished much in his short life, distinguishing himself in many offices, and now he befriends Phoebe Pyncheon (Hepzibah’s niece), becoming “the only youthful mind with which Phoebe had an opportunity of frequent intercourse” (179). Though he has reason to dislike the Pyncheons, his deep-seated good nature causes him inevitably to behave favorably toward them all. His good nature causes him to refrain from alerting the police about Judge Pyncheon’s death when he knows that the circumstantial evidence would immediately implicate Clifford and Hepzibah. He proves himself to transcend the malice of the curse in his attitude here, and also in his refusal to manipulate Phoebe though he succeeds in hypnotising her. He is in truth a character of sympathy to whom we must “concede […] the rare and high quality of reverence for another’s individuality” (218).
The three characters Hepzibah, Clifford and Holgrave represent the various dimensions of the story. Hepzibah points toward the socially critical aspect of the text as she represents the relics of a dying aristocracy. In her appearance and her behavior, she exhibits the characteristics of one who has fallen from grace, and one who has disregarded her own humanity in adherence to the creeds of a cult. The victimized Clifford has too lost his bloom, and has not gained in return the seasoned experience of life, but a retarded growth that offers nothing but the most puerile response to beauty. Holgrave’s character demonstrates a redemptive idea. He is the one who has reason to hate, yet he redeems his clan (and, by extension, humanity), showing himself to be a man of honor in his dealings with the family of the man who ruined his own.