Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables is, as the author notes in a short preface to the novel, a romance. The story thus, as Hawthorne states, includes fantastical occurrences, improbabilities, and attempts to connect the past with the present, sacrificing literal authenticity for more abstract truths. The connection between the past and the present is the most pressing of Hawthorne's concerns in The House of the Seven Gables, which begins with the checkered history of the eponymous house. The house was constructed during the Puritan era in New England by the prominent Colonel Pyncheon. He acquired the property through dubious means: the property on which the house was built was originally owned by Matthew Maule, a relatively obscure man who was often called a wizard. Soon after Matthew Maule refused to sell the property to Colonel Pyncheon, he was charged with witchcraft and burned; Colonel Pyncheon led the charge against him, and thus acquired the property. Years later, Colonel Pyncheon himself died suspiciously, with a bloody hand-print on his throat. The Pyncheon family seemed poised to remain prominent, yet the family steadily declined throughout the subsequent generations. However, every generation or so another Pyncheon appeared who seemed to possess Colonel Pyncheon's characteristics and would instill hope that the Pyncheons would return to their former glory once more. Yet the most recent notable occurrence in the family history was the murder of a Pyncheon by his nephew years before.
Having traced the family history, the story begins in its contemporary period in which Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly woman and the current resident of the House of the Seven Gables, opens a tiny penny store in the house. She has been forced to do so because of a decline in the family fortune that reduced her to poverty. Her most prominent feature is an angry scowl, caused not by any ill temper, but rather because of vision problems. Hepzibah has few customers in this little store. One little boy, Ned Higgins, buys tons of gingerbread from her. Another customer, the young daguerreotypist Mr. Holgrave, is a boarder in the House of the Seven Gables and Hepzibah's only friend. When she sees her cousin Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, she retreats back into the house. Jaffrey is the current embodiment of Colonel Pyncheon's spirit among the Pyncheons. She blames Jaffrey for the imprisonment of Clifford, the Pyncheon mentioned earlier who was convicted of murder and whose return from prison after many years is imminent. That night, Phoebe Pyncheon, a seventeen year old relative, arrives from the country, wishing to stay at the House of the Seven Gables. Phoebe immediately brightens the dreary and decrepit house, and even helps Hepzibah establish her store. Holgrave tells Phoebe the history of the Pyncheon family, in particular the controversy surrounding the supposedly murderous Clifford.
Clifford soon returns to the House of the Seven Gables after decades in prison. Now an old man, he is frail and weakly. A natural lover of beauty, he responds most strongly to the young and pretty Phoebe. Although he wishes to leave the house for Europe, Hepzibah admits to Clifford that they are now impoverished and she has been forced to open a shop.
The next day at the store, Judge Jaffrey meets Phoebe and insists that he see Clifford. He also attempts to kiss Phoebe, an action that she sternly refuses. Hepzibah refuses to allow Jaffrey access to Clifford, despite the Judge's offer to take Clifford off her hands. Yet after this episode things return to some sense of order. Clifford begins to rely on Phoebe for his sustenance. She dotes on him, for he needed so much love and had received so little. Clifford, Phoebe and Hepzibah essentially enclose themselves within the House of the Seven Gables. Their only visitors are Holgrave, who constantly observes the family as if he were collecting information, and Uncle Venner, a local elderly man largely considered mentally deficient. Clifford spends most of his time watching the outside world from the arched window of the house. When an organ-grinder stops and plays for him, Clifford suddenly goes into hysterics and nearly jumps off of the balcony.
Holgrave soon reveals the history of the Pyncheon family to Phoebe. He tells her that he has been collecting information in order to a publish a story on the Pyncheon family history, and details to her the story of Alice Pyncheon. Several generations before, Gervayse Pyncheon, the grandson of Colonel Pyncheon, summoned the grandson of Matthew Maule (who shares the name of his ancestor) to the House of the Seven Gables. He wanted to find a hidden map and deed to land in the eastern part of Maine. Gervayse accused Matthew Maule's father of hiding the deed as revenge for his grandfather's fate, but Matthew Maule replied that he would help Gervayse Pyncheon only if he gave up the land that rightfully belongs to the Maules. Matthew Maule then asked to see Gervayse's daughter, Alice. Matthew Maule cast some sort of spell on her that rendered her under his control. While in a trance, Alice Pyncheon claimed that she knew the secret to the eastern land. Alice Pyncheon died from illness some time later when Matthew Maule ordered her to serve his fiancee and caused her to walk home in the rain.
When Holgrave finishes his story, Phoebe is shocked, appearing to be in a trance similar to that which afflicted Alice Pyncheon, but Holgrave soon snaps her out of it. She soon departs from the House of the Seven Gables for her home in the country. Without Phoebe, Clifford becomes extremely depressed. Judge Pyncheon visits once more and demands to see Clifford. He threatens Hepzibah with having Clifford institutionalized for his irrational behavior, such as his outburst at the arched window. Hepzibah accuses Judge Pyncheon of committing the same crime as Colonel Pyncheon, but goes to find her brother. When she cannot find him, she returns to the room where the Judge was sitting to find Clifford next to him, and the Judge dead from a stroke.
Thinking that he will be blamed for Judge Pyncheons' death, Clifford and Hepzibah immediately leave town on a train, yet have no concrete destination. Clifford is energized by his escape from the House of the Seven Gables, and eagerly chats with others on the train. However, his conversations with the passengers are fanciful and often indicate his tenuous grip on reality. He even muses on the actual state of a supposed criminal, hypothetically describing a situation such as the one he now faces. Clifford and Hepzibah leave the train at a desolate town.
Back at the House of the Seven Gables, the townspeople realize that something is wrong when Hepzibah does not open her little shop that day. Phoebe returns to the house to find Holgrave, who tells her what has happened. The stroke that killed Judge Pyncheon was the same affliction that killed his uncle years before. Judge Pyncheon framed Clifford for this natural death in order to receive his cousin's inheritance. According to Holgrave, Pyncheon men have a tendency to die in this manner: likewise, Colonel Pyncheon's death can be attributed to this brain failure. Holgrave declares his love for Phoebe, claiming that she brought the first stirrings of life to the House of the Seven Gables in years.
Clifford and Hepzibah return to the house, drained by their panicked flight. Clifford is not blamed for Judge Pyncheon's death; rather, since the Judge's son had died in Europe, he was named the heir to the Judge's fortune. Holgrave, who reveals himself to be a descendant of Matthew Maule, reveals the location of the map and deed to the eastern lands, which were hidden behind the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon. After receiving their inheritance, Phoebe, Clifford and Hepzibah move into Judge Pyncheon's mansion, leaving Holgrave in the property rightly belonging to his ancestors. When they leave the House of the Seven Gables, people remark how it appears that Hepzibah became rich from her little penny store.