Sam Houston State University
“In Brick, and Stone, and Old Worm-Eaten Timber”:
Prison in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is a picturesque tale which weaves together symbols of both the light and the dark. It is this darkness, which one critic refers to as a “sombre coloring” (Anonymous, 1851), that provides the reader with a greater understanding of the depth of the story, the passion of its characters and the richness of its themes. After all, without the shadows, one can never truly comprehend the light.
The house itself, set by Hawthorne in a small town in Massachusetts well after the locally-repressed memories of witchery and hangings, serves as an unforgotten representation of sin and darkness. One could easily say that the house symbolizes a sort of prison for the Pyncheons who must live out their sentences behind its great walls for familial sins of the past. Even Hawthorne himself makes this allusion repeatedly throughout the story.
In 1831 and 1832, both Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville of France toured various prisons in the United States searching for ideas for reformation of their own prison system. From their thorough research of exploring the American Prisons’ cells, workshops, chapels, and yards they found what they believed to be the most important and crucial technique for inmate rehabilitation:
Thrown into solitude he reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for anything better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.
Thus, the Frenchmen conclude that the isolation of a criminal (a combination of solitude within cells and silence while working near other inmates) would encourage prisoners to “meditate on their fallen ways” (Levine, 309)—much like the cursed Pyncheons are forced to endure living their lives beneath the shadow of their former sins. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Clifford, introduced into the tale as “the thirty years prisoner” (20), was likely to have spent his sentence in a Boston prison—which at this time followed this isolation technique.
It is logical to conclude that the isolation of Clifford and the rest of the Pyncheons living with him in the house does not, in the end, lead to their rehabilitation, likely because none of them were actually guilty of any great crime. Instead, Hawthorne uses the death of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, (who seems to be the reincarnation of the greedy Colonel Pyncheon to whom the actual guilt belongs,) to “rehabilitate” the remaining Pyncheons and remedy the family curse.
This paper will explore examples from The House of the Seven Gables that show Hawthorne’s usage of prison allusions, from Clifford’s time spent behind bars to the house itself as a prison. It will also attempt to define why he chose to use these examples as what one scholar considers to be an “apt metaphor for U.S. society” (Bumas, 125).
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The first reference to prisons that Hawthorne uses can be seen in his description of Hebzibah, who is Introduced as “a gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk-gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head” (32). Similar to Tocqueville’s ideas discussed above, this character has been subjected to long-term isolation from society within the gothic walls of the house of the seven gables. Hawthorne writes:
Hebzibah, though she had her valuable and redeeming traits, had grown to be a kind of lunatic, by imprisoning herself so long in one place, with no other company than a single series of ideas, and but one affection, and one bitter sense of wrong. (124)
Hawthorne also describes one of the effects of this isolation when he writes how she tends to suppress the minute amount of joy that she periodically experiences. In one example, Hepzibah is...
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