Book Review: The House of Seven Gables – Portrait of a Cursed Family

– From Archived Site – 
The House of Seven Gables – not to be confused with  Anne of Green Gables – is a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne that takes place in Salem, Massachusetts.  Given the setting it is probably not surprising that the alleged “curse” arises from a humble farmer named Matthew Maule who was executed for wizardry.  The basic story is this, a wealthy and prominent local man, Colonel Pyncheon, identifies the ideal spot to build his family mansion.  Unfortunately, the land is currently owned by Mr. Maule who refuses to sell his plot.  After much negotiation neither party is willing to budge and the result is the execution of Mr. Maule during the witch hysteria in Salem, subsequently freeing the land for purchase by none other than Colonel Pyncheon.  Here he builds his House of Seven Gables.
How was poor Mr. Maule cast as a wizard?  Well, the origin of that claim in the book is intentionally hazy, much like the actual accusations of witchcraft in Salem in historical record.  One could suppose that the whispers that strategically began in the village led to suspicions by the authorities.  Authorities would then interview prominent people in the community to collect “evidence” from which a judgement and sentence would be derived.  Not unlike the scant evidence and faulty judicial process that doomed twenty people to death in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693.
Was Mr. Maule a wizard?  No, of course he wasn’t.  He was simply a righteous and innocent, but sadly unfortunate, soul who defied the wrong person during a time when the locals were hunting witches.  His dying words to Colonel Pyncheon provide the context for the curse upon the House of Seven Gables.
“God will give him blood to drink!” 
All this context is set in the beginning pages of the book.  The story really centers on the dying embers of the Pyncheon family, long having fallen to destitution and despair.  The house itself is in a state of disrepair and only a handful of family members remain alive.  Throughout the book, I was reminded of the classic theme that the sins of the fathers will taint future generations.  Indeed, this idea is directly discussed in the context of the surviving Pyncheons.  They believe they are cursed, not necessarily by the questionable actions of their ancestor but by the dying words of a wrongly convicted man.
Can a family really be cursed? I found myself pondering this question as I read the book.  I believe they can, but not by some extraneous words flung by are disgruntled acquaintance.  No, a curse is only powerful if one allows themselves to believe it.  Which unfortunately the Pyncheons, with one notable exception, seem to readily – if resignedly – accept.  This acceptance brings their family to the brink of extinction.
Amid all this darkness and doom comes a ray of sunshine, however.  The youngest Pyncheon arrives on the scene early in the story.  She has been raised away from the House of Seven Gables and as such does not allow an ancient curse to color her expectations for the future.  The bulk of the story centers on how the remaining Pyncheons come to terms with their colored past and in doing so try to imagine a better future.  This is laborious process, however, and requires the Pyncheons to acknowledge truths about themselves, and their ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, that are disturbing and uncomfortable.  But only in facing the truth can this family finally be set free.
Published in 1851 The House of Seven Gables is not an easy or fast read.  Like the authors of the day, Hawthorne painstakingly describes settings, character motivations, and backstory over pages of long and complex paragraphs.  It takes some time to sink into the tempo of the novel.  So different from many books of today where action is packed into each page.  This is not a book for those with a short attention span.  At least not initially.  But if you can commit yourself to the story a rich portrait of a New England family emerges, and proceeds, albeit slowly, to a well-earned and satisfying resolution.

PS: I’ve never actually read Anne of Green Gables.  Maybe I’ll tackle that book at some point in the future.  Now, though, I need a break from all those gables.  Liane Moriarty is calling!

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