Allegory is one of the primary literary devices used in “The House of Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne and, as in the case of many other works by Hawthorne, it sets the tone for the story and communicates a number of messages to the reader. In his preface to “The House of the Seven Gables",Nathaniel Hawthorne establishes that this work is a romance and not a novel in the traditional sense. In fact, in Chapter One of “The House of the Seven Gables", Nathaniel Hawthorne goes to great lengths to define both the work and his relationship to it, stating that “Were [the events] to be worthily recounted, they would form a narrative of no small interest and instruction, and possessing, moreover, a certain remarkable unity, which might almost seem the result of artistic arrangement (Hawthorne 1). Whether the events are recounted worthily will be left to the reader’s judgment, but it is the “instruction" part of this introduction to The House of the Seven Gables that will become crucial to understanding the narrative form and structure of the text.
The allegorical meaning of many of the symbols in “The House of Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne are often planted within the text at frequent intervals so that these aspects of allegory create more meaning in “The House of Seven Gables" than does the actual plot of “The House of Seven Gables" in many ways. According to one piece of literary criticism, “The House of the Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an allegory, “a narrative in which the agents, and…the setting, are personified concepts or character-types, and the plot represents a doctrine or thesis" (Abrams & Greenblatt 2937). A closer examination of the Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s The House of the Seven Gables yields evidence that there are many allegorical symbols in The House of the Seven Gables, and that the function of each is to reinforce the moral lessons of the narrative. The lessons, which are based upon Purtian beliefs, are that greed and selfishness are always destructive, and that the sins of one generation are visited upon the next.
According to literary scholars and critics, Hawthorne was “allegory-mad," “infinitely too fond of allegory" (Crowley 32, 149). Holetje, in his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, states that from an early age, before he was even a writer, Hawthorne was enchanted with allegories (27); these apparently made an initial imprint on his young mind. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s entire body of work, particularly works such asThe Scarlet Letter, The Birthmark, and The Minister’s Black Veil, and similar texts such as Young Goodman Brown, critics observe, consists of allegorical tales that were intended to convey various Puritanical messages about the personal characteristics and actions constituted a proper moral existence. This fact should not be surprising, however, given that Hawthorne was a preacher and was undoubtedly fond of the greatest literary allegories in existence: the tales from the Bible (Chandler 68). Surely these influenced Hawthorne’s writing style significantly. Like other Hawthorne texts, such as The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables instructed readers about how to live by showing them how not to make irrevocable moral blunders that would bring shame upon themselves and destruction and wrath upon their communities or society at large. Chandler identifies the basic ways in which allegory functions in The House of the Seven Gables, noting that the text appears “to offer simple equations of meaning, stark contrasts between good and evil, and symbolic characters who represent a spectrum of human qualities" (68). She goes on to observe that “The rhetoric is that of a moral tale or sermon" (Chandler 68).
One of the most obvious and most important allegorical symbols, of course, is the seven-gabled house itself. More than one scholar has observed that the house is a “symbolic space" (Chandler 68). As Tharpe points out, the house of the seven gables is consistent with Hawthorne’s frequent use of an “enclosure or stage" within which characters are contained. In these closed spaces, which are typically impervious to outside influences, the characters are forced to forge “some kind of bond," however tenuous or dysfunctional it may be. In this “theater of human action…[where] universal drama[s] of greed, punishment, and redemption are played out," Nathaniel Hawthorne cautions the reader against moral decline either through the positive resolution of their conflicts or, more frequently, through their tragic scripted endings (Chandler 69). In The House of the Seven Gables the symbol and image of the house takes on multiple meanings. Chandler suggests that the house is “like the body that houses the soul of a sinner" (69). She adds that both the house and the sinner’s body are alike in that they are “an ambiguous text, open to readers who are ‘conscious of something deeper’ and yet are constrained to interpret these deeper things through the filters of their own innocence or guilt" (Chandler 69).
Chandler offers still more interpretations of the allegory and symbol of the seven gabled house. It is, she writes of this particular allegorical symbol in “The House of Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “an emblem of the psyche; a mirror of the human face and form, sharing genetic characteristics with its inhabitants" (69). It is also “a structural replica of the social institutions that shape national character (the church, the family, the government)" (69), “a text on which history is inscribed" (69), “a stage for a domestic morality play" (69), and “a vaultlike repository for guilty secrets; a prison, a tomb, and a womb harboring the seeds of its own renewal" (69). How one “reads" the house and applies these possible interpretations depends upon one’s own perspective and critical reading ability. A superficial reading of the house symbol in this allegory may simply observe the house as an old but important structure that mirrors society at large. Yet, as Chandler points out, there is a certain deceptive quality about the “venerable edifice" (Hawthorne 321) that everyone knows and recognizes.
The impressive architectural wonder of the house, albeit aged and in disrepair, is merely a façade that conceals “the evil that infests the house" and which cannot, seemingly, be eradicated (Chandler 69). Indeed, Hawthorne’s own narrator confirms this observation that alludes to the fact that the house is a symbol and represents part of the allegory in ‘The House of Seven Gables”, and explained that, in one of the important quotes from “The House of the Seven Gables" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “A person of imaginative temperament…would conceive the mansion to have been the residence of the stubborn old Puritan, Integrity…." (Hawthorne 321). Here, Hawthorne explains both the allegorical symbol of the house and divulges the moral of his tale, stating that the spectator would assume that Integrity, in another of the important quotes from The House of the Seven Gables “had left a blessing in all its rooms and chambers, the efficacy of which was to be seen in the religion, honesty, moderate competence, or upright poverty and solid happiness, of his descendants, to this day" (Hawthorne 321-322). Of course, it is the absence of integrity, religion, honesty, and moderate competence that plagues the house’s inhabitants and their successive generations.