The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851, the same year as The Scarlet Letter. As in that more famous book, in Seven Gables Hawthorne explores the legacy of violence upon which white, wealthy United States culture is built. The story begins in the seventeenth century, when the Colonel Pyncheon accuses another man, Matthew Maule, of witchcraft. This is the era of the Salem witch hunts, and Maule is convicted and executed. That Maule is, in fact, something of a sorcerer is curiously unproblematic for Hawthorne. He is more interested in criticizing Pyncheon, who took advantage of the public’s fear of witches to rid himself of an enemy. After Maule is hung, Pyncheon builds a spectacular house, a house with seven gables, where Maule’s modest house had previously stood. But Pyncheon doesn’t occupy the house for long: He is soon found dead, probably murdered, with blood dripping down upon his beard.
All this is just the backstory. The majority of the book is set in what for the author would have been the present day. People are no longer being hung as witches, but American society still offers its most powerful members plenty of ways to oppress their comparatively less powerful peers. In the place of the gallows, there is the workhouse, the prison, and the asylum. The narrative follows Jaffrey Pyncheon, who bears a physical resemblance to Judge Pyncheon that is certainly not coincidental, and his cousins, Hepzibah, Holgrave, and Phoebe, who inhabit the house of seven gables and are struggling to retain their place in New England society. If, for Judge Pyncheon, the bug to be squished beneath his boot was Maule, for Jaffrey Pyncheon, it is these members of his own family–particularly Hepzibah and Holgrave, who don’t have the good sense either to die or willfully vacate the house so that the wealthier, greedier Jaffrey may have it to himself.