The House of the Seven Gables: Theme Analysis

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The theme of appearances versus reality looms large in The House of the Seven Gables. For instance, readers should consider Holgrave's remarks on the differences between painting and photography. The daguerreotype technique was still relatively new at the time this novel appeared; Louis J. M. Daguerre, the process' inventor and for whom it is named, only patented it in January, 1839, and the American Civil War, in which-at the hands of Matthew Brady and others-the process would gain wide acceptance, was still a decade away. Holgrave states that he relies on "Heaven's broad and simple sunshine," implying that, in his opinion, photography involves less artifice than portrait art. He sees a direct correspondence between subject and photograph: "Most of my likenesses do look unamiable; but the very sufficient reason, I fancy, is, because the originals are so." (This belief-expressed in the proverb, "The camera never lies"-also explains his comment to Hepzibah in Chapter 3 that he is on his way to "abuse" the sunlight.) He also credits photographers with a daring painters lack, because natural light, while seeming to illuminate only the surface layer of a subject, "it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon." Interestingly, Hawthorne, in the first chapter, has already established that Colonel Pyncheon's portrait has, over time, thrown the patriarch's negative personal qualities into "relief" for the portrait's viewers: "Those stern, immitigable features seemed to symbolize an evil influence, so darkly to mingle the shadow of their presence with the sunshine of the passing hour, that no good thoughts or purpose could ever spring up and blossom [in the parlor of the House]." It may be that, for Hawthorne, both forms of representation will betray the inner self. The inner self (true to the Puritan theology of Hawthorne's ancestors, a fallen, totally depraved self) cannot be concealed, and will always surface. (This theme appears in other examples of Hawthorne's work; for example, the titular symbol of the short story "The Minister's Black Veil.")
Sin and guilt are obviously also major thematic concerns of the book. From his Preface on, Hawthorne hammers home the point that his tale is intended to show readers the ineradicable nature of sin-not so much, perhaps, in the strictly dogmatic sense of "original sin" in which is Puritan forebears believed, but rather in the sense that, once sin has been committed, it has consequences that are inescapable. The old Colonel's sin of covetousness proves well nigh impossible for his family to escape; indeed, the fact that they manage to do so in the final chapter has often rendered the conclusion unsatisfying to readers (see Analysis, Chapter 21, above). And, beyond the obvious conclusion that Hawthorne would urge his readers not to become, as did Colonel Pyncheon, the "evil geniuses" of their families, readers are hard-pressed to say what practical action Hawthorne would have them take as a result of his attention to this theme. On the other hand, that lack of directed, tangible action may not be the artist's responsibility; to again refer to the Preface, Hawthorne has clearly stated that his goal is to produce an impression, not an exact representation of reality; to confront readers with "the truth of the human heart," including their own, and to which they must hold themselves accountable.

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