Symbolism In The House Of The Seven Gables
American literature reflects life and the struggles faced during existence. Symbols are an eloquent way for an author to create a more fully developed work of art. The stories themselves tell a tale; however, an author also uses symbols to relay his message in a more subtle manner. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the earliest authors to use symbols as an integral part of his plots. This is clearly seen in both The Scarlet Letter and in The House of the Seven Gables. The use of symbols causes an “association psychology” to enter into the story, making it more intriguing.1 In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance The House of the Seven Gables, symbolism is used eloquently to enhance the story being told by providing the reader with a deeper insight into the more complicated intentions in the story.The novel begins by describing the most obvious symbol in the book, being the house itself. The exterior of the house is a “rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst.”2 The house is almost organic because of its aura and the vines that cover it.3 It is significant that the house is made from wood because wood is a degradable material. A stone house’s beauty grows greater with age, and the interior can be redecorated, but a wooden house without good upkeep can only decay.4 The roof of the house is so rotted that there is mosses and other vegetation growing in between the gables. The house is truly the decaying yet proud spectacle of the neighborhood. Yet, though the house is the spectacle of the neighborhood, it is also the focus of young children’s imaginations. This is seen where the first customer of the shop appears asking for a cookie. It is clear that the young boy was very curious as to what is happening in the great mansion. The house is an old wooden building that is rotting away but still is a good enough quality to withstand some of the test of time.The house is referred to as a prison by Hawthorne; he calls Hepzibah and Clifford inmates. The house is a prison because it prevents the inhabitants from truly enjoying any freedom. The inmates attempt an escape from their prison twice. Initially, as Phoebe and Clifford watch the parade of life in the street, Clifford realizes that his life has become meaningless, and he cannot help but try to join the masses below. This could mean the only way for Clifford to become truly reunited with mankind is through death. Unfortunately, Clifford fails to win his freedom and returns to the solace of his prison. The second attempt at escape is by Clifford and Hepzibah. They attempt to escape the clutches of the house, but, alas, it is too late for them. The house has affected them too much to stay away. This is apparent when Hepzibah and her brother made themselves ready- as ready as they could in the best of their old-fashioned garments, which had hung on pegs, or had been laid away in trunks, so long that the dampness and mouldy smell of the past was on them- made themselves ready in their faded bettermost, to go to church. They descended the staircase together…pulled open the front door, and stepped across the threshold, and felt, both of them, as if they were standing in the presence of the whole world… Their hearts quaked within them, at the idea of taking one step further.5Hepzibah and Clifford are completely cut off from the outside world. They are like prisoners who, after being jailed for decades, return to find a world they do not know. Clifford realizes this and offers his insight, “‘We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings- no right anywhere, but in this old house.'”6 The house has imprisoned their souls and trapped their lives; hence, the house symbolizes a prison for the characters. Although the most obvious of Hawthorne’s symbols is the house, many of the things in and around the house are also token items. The elm tree outside of the house is very large in stature. It is the symbol of nature and life. The elm tree began very small in comparison to the house, but over time has grown to so large that it overpowers the house with its immense presence. The tree “though now four score years of age, or perhaps nearer a hundred, was still in its strong and broad maturity, throwing its shadows from side to side of the street, overtopping the seven gables” is obviously prospering in this decaying scene.7 Because the tree continues to grow during and despite the generations of the Pyncheons, it show that regardless of bad circumstances in the house, life outside will continue to grow and prosper. Several things inside the house are very important to the story. These things represent the history of the Pyncheon family dating back to the original Colonel Pyncheon who had been cursed by Matthew Maule for the evil way in which the Colonel had obtained land for the house. The house has collected many memories and many artifacts from the different residents over the decades. The house has an elaborate interior, but is mostly gloomy and grim. It can also be seen as a symbol of light verses dark. Most of the family items are old and dark, except for the tea set. The tea set is very exquisite and expensive; it has been kept in mint condition throughout the years of use. Hepzibah introduces this item when she carries in “the old silver spoons, with the family crest upon them, and a China tea set…still unfaded, although the tea-pot and small cups were as old as the custom of tea-drinking.”8 This tea set is allowed to shine only because it was brought into the home by a wife of the Colonel, who was not a Pyncheon. Unfortunately, everyone and everything in the house is slowly decaying. This is obvious when Phoebe thinks Clifford is a ghost. Clifford’s clothing is even used as a symbol of his imprisonment. His dressing gown is worn and faded and has been soiled over time by house. Even the Colonel’s old room was once plush and shining, but is now worn, ragged, and old. All of the other things and people in the house contrast with the bright China and the cheerful street outside. Hawthorne shows the house to be the gloomy, dismal castle from a Gothic tale.9 The garden is also very symbolic. Gardens are symbols of growth and renewal. It is not a coincidence that the only romantic scenes take place in the garden. Just as the house harbors decay, the garden induces romance and life into the story. The scenes in the garden are more realistic than the scenes in the house.10 The garden provides the characters with a sort of sanctuary. Phoebe goes there to be alone and to relax. She goes to be amongst the flowers and the trees. It is her escape from the bustle of the world and a sanctuary from the house. Clifford enjoys going to the garden because of the bees. He appreciates the bees buzzing by and the blossoms in the trees. The garden is a place to be alone, and a place of refuge for the characters. The well in the garden symbolizes the past and tells the future of the Pyncheon family. The well was a “spring of soft and pleasant water- a rare treasure on the sea grit peninsula” when the land was first settled.11 It was a prized asset because it was one of the few freshwater wells in a salt-water area. It was soiled once Colonel Pyncheon took the land from the Maules and began living there. The well is like the land that the house now sets upon. It was once a very valuable piece of property, but now is tainted. The well soon shows the effects of the Pyncheon curse: “It was a curious, and some people thought, an ominous fact that, very soon after the workmen began their operations, the spring of water, above mentioned, lost its pristine quality.”12 This is because of the evil manner in which the property was obtained from the Maules. The well tells the future of the family for certain people. It gave the Maules their magical power, and has given Holgrave his power. The water also casts up a rainbow of colors onto the walls of the well. These colors represent the good future of the family.13 The well adds a mystical touch to the growing group of symbols. The outside symbols bring the house into a very realistic setting with an intriguing quality. Inside of the house the characters also participate in the contrast of light verses dark. The characters in The House of the Seven Gables “symbolize the poles of human existence.”14 Each one has a set role, and none contradicts his or her character. They range from the stereotypical old spinster to the young, liberal democrat. Each of these characters marches to his or her own drum, but when all of the drums are played together, a magnificent novel is produced. Even when the characters are set alone, they are symbolic. Hepzibah and Clifford are the dark elements, and Phoebe, like the China, is the light. Holgrave is not light or dark; but rather, in the shadows.Hawthorne wished for this book to be of a lighter spirit than his first The Scarlet Letter. To accomplish this, he used more normal characters. Phoebe is the symbol of good; Hawthorne describes her in one word: May. Like the month of May, she is blossoming into maturity. She is one of the few people that go to the garden. The act of going out in the sunshine to tend the flowers is reminiscent of the month of May. Hepzibah will not go to the garden because she prefers the shadows of the house.Phoebe enjoys nature. She likes the feel of earth under her fingertips, and she is enraptured with the odd hens in the garden. The hens are mirrors of the Pyncheon family. The time-thinned blood of the chickens is similar to the family’s.15 The hens were originally great birds, growing to be the size of a small turkey. However, because of inbreeding and generations of keeping the “great” blood unspotted, the hens now appear gaunt and ugly. The family with the genteel blood is now unattractive and ineffectual like the hens.16 The hens really like Phoebe and react to her in a similar manner as Hepzibah and Clifford react; they react as if in automatic approval of her regardless of her common strengths. Holgrave tells Phoebe, “The chicken really treats you like an old acquaintance.”17 He also tells her that the Pyncheon hens are not like common hens. The hens act as if they are better than other hens, a sort of aristocracy. Phoebe is compared to a ray of sunshine by Hawthorne. In her entering moment, she does not look like she belongs in the shadowy, weed-filled yard, yet Hepzibah cannot turn her away. Phoebe loves the garden, and it is one of the few places at the house where she can be herself. Hawthorne wrote, “The eye of heaven seemed to look down on it.”18 Phoebe is the perfect character to be in the viewing area of heaven and is very worthy of the garden. Hepzibah is a true picture of “decayed gentility.”19 Her character is the opposite of Judge Jaffery in many ways. The judge appears to be a very nice and sincere man, but appearances can deceive. He is a horrible and cruel man, very similar to his ancestor Colonel Pyncheon. Hepzibah is dark on the outside.20 She is old and “a tall figure, clad in black silk… feeling her way towards the stairs like a near-sighted person.”21 She has a permanent scowl of wrinkles on her forehead because of her nearsighted condition. Her clothing is all dark shades of grey and black similar to the clothing worn while in mourning. This goes along with her “title” November. She is in the November stage of her life; she is older and alone in the world. When Hepzibah takes Phoebe to see the harpsichord that looks like a coffin, Hepzibah recognizes that she is a dark and dismal old woman.22 She is comparative to the straight back chairs in the house.23 The chairs are very stiff, and uninviting; however, amongst the other chairs there is one that stands out. It is compelling; it is old, plain, roomy, and comfortable looking. These chairs are like her character. Hepzibah’s outward beauty is nearly non-existent, but her true character is seen in the way she treats Phoebe and Clifford. Hepzibah is “very humble at heart, but rigidly conscious of her pedigree.”24 This is most noticeable when she attributes all of Phoebe’s common heritage. Phoebe’s mother was a lower class country-girl, so Phoebe is not a true lady. Despite these feelings she does have love and compassion for Phoebe. She is truly a November soul.At the time this novel was published the entire United States had become enthralled with the daguerreotype. A daguerreotype is a picture of a person that when turned in a certain direction the negative can be seen. Thus when Hawthorne created the character Holgrave he used the daguerreotype as another name for him. Holgrave is symbolic of the young and prospering America.25 He is a psychologist and a daguerreotypist. He offers different characters insight on the symbols in the story, including the hens in the garden. One of the most important symbolic things about him is his being a daguerrotypist. To make a daguerreotype, light and dark must be combined.26 Making the daguerreotypes is symbolic of his insight to human nature. Like a daguerreotype Holgrave’s character contains light and dark; he is the most realistic and complete character in the book, regardless of his slight morbid outlook. His morbid outlook is seen when he makes a daguerreotype of the Judge after he dies. He also wants to show Phoebe to reassure her and himself that the Judge is actually dead. Though Holgrave is a young man with an attitude, he is a very good psychologist.The House of the Seven Gables is a great novel containing many symbols. Richard Harter Fogle wrote that the book was more aesthetically pleasing and harmonious than Hawthorne’s previous work.27 Each of the symbols work together harmoniously to make a melodious symphony. The house is like a bassoon, deep and dark with a foreboding sound. The elm tree is like the percussion section of an orchestra, because regardless of how badly the rest of the group is doing, it continues its steady pace. Violins and violas make a rich, quality garden, all of the components work together to make chords and harmonies creating the sounds of a garden. The well has the sound of a harp; the light, bubbly sound is like the sound of cascading and swirling water in the well. Phoebe is a clarinet; she doesn’t stick out with a brassy sound, but rather a warm earthy quality of a woodwind like the clarinet. Hepzibah would definately be the most difficult instrument, the French horn. She is like the French horn because she is the most complicated character in this novel. Also like French horn, in hands of a master Hepzibah is one of the most fully-developed characters. Holgrave is similar to a trombone; Holgrave’s unique and fresh perspective make him this instrument. The sliding action of the trombone makes it a truly unique instrument like Holgrave’s unique character. The Judge must be a trumpet; this loud and boisterous instrument has the same sound as Jaffery’s attitude. The ghostly Clifford would be the oboe. The oboe’s haunting and somewhat clumsy sound is similar to Clifford’s character. Each of these instrument work together to make this romance anything but boring. Hawthorne took more care when he wrote this book and it can be seen in the complexities of the characters and the extreme focus on the other symbols in this book.The House of the Seven Gables is a great classic. The symbols create a rich tapestry that is woven together to make this novel a masterpiece. Hawthorne’s use of symbols has made this tapestry more elaborate and wonderful. The mood of this romance is created through the symbols used. The book is a great model of perfection, and it is a wonderful novel that has not had the attention it deserves. The book makes an intriguing representation of Hawthorne, and is a great classic that will last through the ages.Notes1 Simon ; Scuster, Inc, “Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Introduction,” Monarch Notes (1 Jan. 1963, Electric Library ;http://www.elibrary.com;) (24 Oct. 1999) 8.2 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance (New York: The Penguin Group, 1990) 11.3 Roy R. Male, “Evolution and Regeneration: The House of the Seven Gables,” The House of the Seven Gables, ed. Seymour L. Gross (New York: W. W. Norton ; Company Inc., 1967) 431.4 Susan S. Williams, “‘The Aspiring Purpose of an Ambitious Demagogue’: Portraiture and The House of the Seven Gables,” Nineteenth-Century Literature (California: Regents of the University of California, 1994. 49n2: 221(24). Infotrac) (30 Nov. 1999) 7.5 Hawthorne 151.6 Hawthorne 150.7 Hawthorne 30.8 Hawthorne 73.9 Simon ; Schuster, Inc. 6. 10 Clark Griffeth, “Substance and Shadow: Language and Meaning in The House of the Seven Gables,” The House of the Seven Gables, ed. Seymour L. Gross (New York: W. W. Norton ; Company Inc., 1967) 385.11 Hawthorne 12.12 Hawthorne 14.13 Williams 7. 14 Henry T. Tuckerman, “Seven Gables.” NCLC. ed. Joann Cerrito (Detroit: Gale,1993) 39:168.15 Frank N. Magill, ed, “The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance.” Masterpieces of World Literature (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1989) 388.16 Magill 388.17 Hawthorne 84.18 Hawthorne 82.19 F. O. Matthiessen. “Seven Gables.” NCLC, ed. Joann Cerrito (Detroit: Gale, 1993) 39: 170.20 Richard Harter Fogle, “Seven Gables.” NCLC, ed. Joann Cerrito (Detroit: Gale, 1993) 39: 213.21 Hawthorne 34. 22 Hawthorne 70. 23 Male 433.24 “Hawthorne Gables.” The Three American Novels, (dogpile.com. Netscape 5.1. http://eldred.ne.mediaone.net/nh/nhh; 5.html) (23 Nov. 1999) 6. 25 Peter Buitenhuis, “Seven Gables.” NCLC, ed. Joann Cerrito (Detroit: Gale, 1993) 39: 248. 26 Michael Jay Bunker, “Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.” (The Explicator) Noble (1 Jan. 1998. Electric Library ;http://www.elibrary,com;) (12 Oct. 1999) 1.27 Fogle 211.Works CitedBuitenhuis, Peter. “Seven Gables.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. ed. Joann Cerrito. Detroit: Gale, 1993. 39: 248.Bunker, Michael Jay. “Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.” (The Explicator) Noble 1 Jan. 1998. Electric Library ;http://www.elibrary.com; (12 Oct. 1999).Fogle, Richard Harter. “Seven Gables.” NCLC. ed. Joann Cerrito. Detroit: Gale, 1993. Griffeth, Clark. “Substance and Shadow: Language and meaning in The House of the Seven Gables.” The House of the Seven Gables. ed. Seymour L. Gross. New York: W. W. Norton ; Company Inc., 1967. 211-3. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance. New York: The Penguin Group, 1990. “Hawthorne Gables.” The Three American Novels. ;http://www.dogpile.com;Netscape 5.1. ;http://eldred.ne.mediaone.net/nh/nhh;5.html; (23 Nov. 1999).Magill, Frank N., ed. “The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance.” Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1989. 388.Male, Roy R. “Evolution and Regeneration: The House of the Seven Gables.” The House of the Seven Gables. ed. Seymour L. Gross. New York: W. W. Norton ; Company Inc., 1967. 431-3.Matthieson, F. O. “Seven Gables.” NCLC. ed. Joann Cerrito. Detroit: Gale, 1993. 39: 170.Simon ; Schuster, Inc. “Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Introduction.” Monarch Notes. 1 Jan 1963. Electric Library ;http://www.elibrary.com; 24 Oct. 1999. Tuckerman, Henry T. “Seven Gables.” NCLC. ed. Joann Cerrito. Detroit: Gale, 1993. 39: 168. Williams, Susan S. “‘The Aspiring Purpose of an Ambitious Demagogue:’ Portraiture and The House of the Seven Gables.” NCLC. California: Regents of the University of California, 1994. 49n2: 221(24). Infotrac. 30 Nov. 1999. 7.