Hawthorne, frequently haunted by the sins of his ancestors in the Salem witch trials, examines guilt, retribution, and atonement in this novel. His Pyncheon family carries a great burden — for almost 200 years — as a result of the dishonest, amoral way that the land on which the titular house sits was acquired. In the Preface to the novel, he states that its moral is that "the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones and... becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief." It is not until the Pyncheon family and the Maule family are joined in the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave that the “curse” is broken and remaining family members can breathe easy.
However, an opposing theme also emerges. Hawthorne, though guilt-ridden with respect to his ancestors' past, actually does suggest in a number of scenes that the Maule family really are witches. Alice Pyncheon is indirectly killed by Maule's grandson, using his wizard powers (or, more likely, the powers of mesmerism) to enchant her. Meanwhile, the narrator details a phantasm of Colonel Pyncheon's descendants returning to attempt to shake the Colonel's picture off the wall, only to be prevented by the original Maule's ghost and magic. Yet Hawthorne, as ever concerned with the moral and emotional truths behind peoples' actions and appearances, refers to actual witchcraft within the Maule line only within the framing devices of works of the imagination (the incidents above take place within respectively a story written by Holgrave and a dreamlike nighttime reverie hypothesized by the narrator). Similarly, the overall imaginative framework of the novel itself provides a vehicle for Hawthorne to confront the moral and emotional experience of magic: Holgrave, Maule's descendant, gradually enchants Phoebe, throwing over her "love's web of sorcery."