The Old Pyncheon Family: The House of the Seven Gables is a rusty, wooden house halfway down Pyncheon Street in a New England town. The house, also known as Pyncheon House, has a long and weighty history. It was not the first house in its location; when Pyncheon Street was once Maule's Lane, there was a small hut built in that place because of its proximity to a natural spring. Colonel Pyncheon, however, a prominent person of the town, insisted on his claim to that property when it became more desirable, and engaged in a bitter dispute with the hut's owner, Matthew Maule, a relatively obscure man generally regarded as a wizard. Personal influence proved more important than right of ownership, and Matthew Maule was executed for the crime of witchcraft. One of the most vocal supporters of his witchcraft trial was none other than Colonel Pyncheon. Colonel Pyncheon built a family mansion there, and upon its construction the spring became polluted. The house was imposing, striking awe into anyone who saw it. Pyncheon retreated into the house, refusing visits from even the lieutenant-governor, who was forced to bang on the door with his sword to no effect. The lieutenant-governor and his entourage finally forced their way into the house, where they found Pyncheon dead. His appearance indicated violence: there were marks on his throat and the print of a bloody hand on his ruff. They concluded that a man had climbed through Pyncheon's lattice-window. The lieutenant-governor claimed to see a skeleton hand at the Colonel's throat that vanished away. John Swinnerton, a doctor, claimed that Pyncheon died of apoplexy. During his funeral, Reverend Higginson claimed that even without Colonel Pyncheon, his family seemed destined to a permanent high place in society. However, Pyncheon's son lacked his father's eminent position and force of character. The Pyncheons had an absurd delusion of family importance, but in almost every generation there happened to be one descendant that recalled Colonel Pyncheon, and this person invariably caused people to wonder whether the Pyncheon family would experience a renaissance. Most of these descendants were troubled by owning the House of the Seven Gables; they wondered whether, since they knew of the wrong by which it was obtained, they were committing the same sin anew. Since Colonel Pyncheon, the Pyncheons were notable in only one instance, when one member of the family was convicted for murdering another. This occurred thirty years before the action of the novel. The victim of the murder was an old bachelor who had concluded that Matthew Maule had been foully wronged out of his homestead and life. This bachelor wished to make restitution to Maule's posterity, and might have even given up the House of the Seven Gables to the representative of Matthew Maule. Upon his death, the house passed to his nephew, the cousin of the man convicted of murder. The new heir showed more of the Colonel Pyncheon quality than any of his family since the time of the Puritans. He was a politician and later a judge. There were few other Pyncheons left, including a seventeen year old girl, the convicted murderer and his sister, and the judge's son, who was traveling in Europe. Matthew Maule's posterity seemed to be extinct. They were poverty-stricken, and likely did not know the wrong that had been done so many years before. The House of the Seven Gables itself was like a great human heart with a life of its own, full of rich remembrances. A green moss of flower shrubs called Alice's Posies (after an Alice Pyncheon) had grown upon one of the gables. In the front gable there was a shop door that had once contained a small store.
The House of the Seven Gables is, as Hawthorne explains in his preface, a romance, which he defines as "a legend prolonging itself" and connecting a bygone time with the present. Within this romantic sensibility there is the sense that events and personalities recur throughout time and even throughout the generations; the task of the first chapter is therefore to establish the origins of this legend. The tale of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule proves the central event of the novel, although it occurs more than a century before the majority of the novel takes place. The events leading to the origin of the House of the Seven Gables include a number of patterns and character traits that future characters will exhibit in very similar ways. This romantic sensibility that Hawthorne employs is therefore very deterministic; the sins of Colonel Pyncheon will be revisited upon his descendants, while Matthew Maule's progeny will bear similar burdens.
The two major continuities in the novel are continuities of character and continuities of plot. Colonel Pyncheon establishes the model for future Pyncheons, who when placed in similar circumstances will demonstrate the same qualities as their ancestor. Hawthorne even explicitly states that in every generation there seems to be one Pyncheon who exhibits the same characteristics as the founder of the House of the Seven Gables. The Colonel is a man of "iron energy of purpose" whose desires outweigh any moral considerations. Colonel Pyncheon typifies an aristocratic sensibility that borders on monarchism. He builds the House of the Seven Gables as a means to ensure the continued domination of his descendants, and the house even becomes an enclosed kingdom for the Colonel. The house becomes a separate country in which Colonel Pyncheon has final and absolute authority, even above the representatives of the English king. This aristocratic character of the Colonel continues among his descendants; the family sides with the royalists during the American Revolution, and retains an "absurd delusion of family importance" even after the accolades of Colonel Pyncheon have long passed. This monarchical tendency within the Pyncheon family is most apparent in the Colonel's desire for the vast tract of Eastern lands. This land that he desired would have made him the equal of a European prince.
With few exceptions, Hawthorne allows few extraneous details in describing the history of the Pyncheon family. Many of the events that Hawthorne tells in this history recur in the event of the story, including mysterious and unexpected deaths and a preoccupation with gaining title to the eastern lands. Even characters mentioned in passing during the description return at later points in the novel; both Alice Pyncheon, the woman for whom the posies in the nook between the gables are named, and the grandchild who discovered the dead Colonel will be featured as characters at a later point. That each detail has some relation to the novel's main story contributes to the novel's focus on recurring events; every event that occurs happens for a reason and relates to the Pyncheon family history. Eventually every major development that occurs among the Pyncheons finally traces its ancestry to the Colonel's avarice for both Matthew Maule's land and for the eastern settlement. The most recent of these major events is the murder of a Pyncheon who believed that Matthew Maule had been wronged. Both the convicted murderer and the man who inherited the victim's estate will play central roles in the story.
The murder victim's attempts to make amends to the Maule family bring up a major theme of the novel. If characteristics and traits can be passed from generation to generation, sins may also be transmitted. The novel assumes that the sins of Colonel Pyncheon are found among his descendants and that the Pyncheons shall remain guilty of their ancestor's crime until reparations are made.
The history of the Maule family is intimately connected to the history of the Pyncheons. The death of Matthew Maule is not an isolated event that connects the two families. The connection between the Maules and the Pyncheons will recur and become more clear as the novel progresses. The descendants of Matthew Maule also inherit the traits of their ancestor. Hawthorne indicates that the Maules possess strange powers passed down from the wizard Matthew Maule. Hawthorne leaves it unclear as to whether Matthew Maule himself possessed mystical powers, the reason for his execution, but does assume that the Maules have some strange power.
The House of the Seven Gables itself is a physical representation of the Pyncheon and the Maule family history. The House essentially contains the old Maule hut, inextricably linking the two families together. When the house was built, it spoiled Maule's Well, a metaphor for the Pyncheon's destruction of the Maule family legacy as well as an indication that the Pyncheons have disrupted the natural order. As the story begins, the House, much like the Pyncheons themselves, has fallen into a state of decay.
The Little Shop-Window: Hepzibah Pyncheon was an old maid living alone in the old house, with the exception of a respectable and orderly young artist who had been a lodger in a remote gable. Miss Hepzibah had dwelt in strict seclusion for nearly twenty-five years. She opens a secret drawer, looking for a certain miniature that represents the face of a young man, and sheds tears at its sight, then goes into a room of the house with a map of the Pyncheon territory and a portrait of Colonel Pyncheon. Miss Hepzibah pauses at the picture, regarding it with a singular scowl; this scowl had established her as an ill-tempered old maid, contrary to her actual character: sensitive, tender and weak. Hepzibah then goes into the shop that had been closed off and was now adorned with cobwebs. She nervously busies herself with arranging some playthings and wares in the shop window, appearing alternately sympathetic and laughable. Poverty had forced her to open this shop up so that she may support herself.
After tracing the family history of the Pyncheons in the previous chapter, Hawthorne details the present state of the Pyncheons. The author immediately establishes Hepzibah Pyncheon as a pitiful and pathetic character, reduced to abject poverty despite her familial legacy and possession of the House of the Seven Gables. That she must open a small store at her old age is a tragic loss of dignity, particularly for woman for whom dignity is the only thing that remains. Hepzibah is no longer a young nor a beautiful woman, although Hawthorne indicates that she was once attractive. She now looks upon the world with a great scowl that mars her appearance. This scowl, the result of poor vision, marks her as a mean and bitter old maid, yet does not capture the actual state of this frail and delicate woman.
Hepzibah thus becomes a character easy to misrepresent in the course of a story filled with representations of characters. Hawthorne includes a number of instances of portraiture: he makes great note of the painting of Colonel Pyncheon that still remains in the House, while Hepzibah gazes upon the picture of a young man before opening the shop. These examples of portraiture contribute to the idea of recurring events; even more than a century after his death, Colonel Pyncheon is still a fixture who dominates the House of the Seven Gables.
The indignity that Hepzibah must face is compounded by her position as a member of the Pyncheon family, for this status marks her as a lady "two hundred years old, on this side of the water, and thrice as many on the other" with a pedigree and tradition. As a member of this elite family, she is a direct representation of her ancestors, relating to the idea established in the previous chapter that the sins of Colonel Pyncheon have been passed to his descendants. This phenomena, however, seems to be contrary to the democratic tradition. Hawthorne writes that in a republican nation, family fortunes fluctuate, indicating that it is difficult to establish such a concrete and perpetual legacy. The Pyncheons therefore stand out as representing an elite, monarchical tradition contrary to the democracy in which they live.
It is the democratic character of Hepzibah's action that is the one redeeming quality of her new job. When Hepzibah opens the store, she emerges as an individual separate from an anonymous and impenetrable family tradition. When she opens the shop she stands "revealed in her proper individuality," however sensitive and fragile. Hepzibah may no longer be a lady in the Pyncheon tradition, yet for the first time she becomes a separate and distinguishable person.
The First Customer: While sitting in her shop, a bell alarms Hepzibah. Her first customer arrives, a slender young man in his early twenties with a grave expression but a physical vigor. This customer, Mr. Holgrave, is the daguerreotype artist who is a boarder in the house. He wishes her well on her shop, but she cries, thinking that she can never go through with running a shop. He comforts her, telling her that she now has a purpose in life that is joined with the rest of mankind. He tells her that titles of gentleman' and lady' now mean little, implying restriction rather than privilege. He tells her that her action is the most heroic in the history of her house. She claims that, if the ghost of Matthew Maule saw what she is doing, he would consider it fulfillment of his worst wishes. He buys biscuits from her, but she refuses to accept payment from her only friend. Later, Hepzibah listens to men outside her shop, who talk about how she scowls dreadfully and dismiss the idea of a cent-shop. Her next customer is a young urchin on his way to school who buys a bit of stale gingerbread. When she refuses to charge him, he stares at her with amazement at her kindness. When he buys a second one, he pays Hepzibah her first copper coin, a single cent that, to Hepzibah, demolishes the structure of her ancient aristocracy. Customers gradually come to Hepzibah's shop, often criticizing her for lacking certain wares. This led her to disagreeable conclusions about the temper and manners of the lower classes, but also to a bitter emotion toward the idle aristocracy.
The introduction of Mr. Holgrave places Hepzibah's actions in the firm democratic tradition that Hawthorne indicated in the previous chapter. Although Hepzibah views the shop as an indignity and an embarrassment considering her self-determined status as a lady, Mr. Holgrave views the shop as a victory for Hepzibah, for she will be part of the "united struggle of mankind." Holgrave enthusiastically espouses liberal values that clash with Hepzibah's reliance on heredity. He finds heroism in Hepzibah and restriction in her status as a Pyncheon.
Hepzibah, in contrast, cannot share the view of Holgrave and Hawthorne that her actions place her as a commendable member of a democratic tradition. She only sees the indignity of finding a career at such an old age and attempts to grasp and whatever nobility she has left. She refuses to let Holgrave pay for biscuits, for a Pyncheon must not receive money from her only friend, and equally refuses payment from the little boy who bought gingerbread. When she does finally make the boy pay, his copper coin demolishes Hepzibah's view of herself as a member of the aristocracy. However, although Hepzibah views this as a tragedy, she soon begins to grudgingly accept the view espoused by Holgrave (and Hawthorne). The sale invigorates Hepzibah, giving her "a thrill of almost youthful enjoyment," and her work even threatens to prove the ruin of her elitist moral system. By the end of her first day, she develops an animosity not for the lower order with whom she now consorts, but for the idle rich to whom she once belonged. Hepzibah thus makes an implicit repudiation of her own past, realizing the absurdity of her status. In a story that depends upon the recurrence of past events, this repudiation is a subtle yet significant change.