To say that Hawthorne’s writing shows a preoccupation with guilt would be an understatement. Most of Hawthorne’s most famous works are permeated with the tragedy of guilt, with a form of the word “guilt” appearing 35 times in The Scarlet Letter, 4 times in “Young Goodman Brown,” and as many as 12 times even in a novel with an uncharacteristically happy ending, The House of the Seven Gables. While some of Hawthorne’s characters choose to embrace sin and others hypocritically deny it, there is a third response: the sensation of guilt or responsibility for sin.
|6233 House of Seven Gables - Salem, MA, a photo by lcm1863 on Flickr.|
The reader is then taken to the 1800s, when one of the last remaining Pyncheons, old Hepzibah, is living in her ancestral mansion in near poverty, forced to open a small shop to make ends meet. As the novel progresses we learn that the Pyncheon family has fallen lower in the world with each successive generation, and Maule’s curse seems to be to blame for the tragedy and ruin. The Pyncheon’s ancestral claim to a vast tract of land in Maine has never been realized; Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, was imprisoned years ago for a crime he did not commit and returned home a broken man; the only successful member of the family, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, is a hypocritical villain. The characters of Mr. Holgrave—a modern young man who lodges in the House of the Seven Gables—and Phoebe Pyncheon—a blooming girl who comes to stay with her aunt Hepzibah and Uncle Clifford—bring a ray of hope and life into the decrepit mansion, but it seems as though the sins of the past can never be atoned for. After harassing his cousins for a time, Judge Pyncheon threatens to send Clifford to an insane asylum unless he reveals the location of the long-lost deed to the Pyncheon land in Maine. Clifford knows nothing of the deed, and just when it seems that the Judge will in fact drive the feeble man mad, Jaffrey Pyncheon dies with a “broad crimson stain across his snowy neckcloth and down his shirt-bosom,” Maule’s blood (200).
The tale ends with the revelation of Mr. Holgrave’s true identity—he is in fact a descendant of Matthew Maule. He and Phoebe Pyncheon are engaged, uniting the two families at last and ending animosity once and for all, and Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon are free to start a new life away from the gloomy House of the Seven Gables.
We have seen that the sin in Hawthorne’s writings ranges from sexual immorality to complicity with the devil, and Seven Gables reveals an additional facet of guilt which Hawthorne knew from personal experience. The idea of “the sins of the fathers” being visited on their sons (inspired by Exodus 34.7) was one that Hawthorne embraced entirely, declaring that “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief…” (Seven Gables 11-12). His portrayal of inherited guilt is allegorized in several vivid symbols, most notably the old house itself which he describes as “bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within…”(13); “the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart…. The deep projection of the second story gave the house such a meditative look, that you could not pass it without the idea that it had secrets to keep, and an eventful history to moralize upon…” (28). Another symbol is the recurring image of “Maule’s blood,” which Hawthorne seems to have drawn straight from a historical incident. It is said that Sarah Good, a woman who was hung in the Salem Witch Trials, cursed her judge, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes, saying, “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink” (Sutcliffe). It is also said that Noyes died of an internal hemorrhage, literally choking on his own blood. This story of a deadly curse was circulated in the Hathorne family for generations, and seems to capture the concept of guilt as a sinister force that does not die with time.
While many of Hawthorne’s characters are sullied by guilt—both original and inherited—they do not all take action on it in the same way. Three distinct responses are apparent in his writings: penance, escape, and confession. However, there is only one response that Hawthorne shows us can leads to peace and absolution in the end.
Returning to the character of Dimmesdale from The Scarlet Letter, we see that he not only hides his guilt behind a mask of good deeds, but he also attempts to make a kind of amends for his sin through self-torture. “In Mr. Dimmesdale’s secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own shoulders…” (126). When flagellation and starvation are not enough, Dimmesdale carves (or it gnaws itself into his skin from the inside out) the letter “A” on his breast, but despite this self-punishment he cannot purify himself (127). Late one night, in a desperate bid for peace, Dimmesdale goes forth into the sleeping town and mounts the scaffold to somehow simulate public humiliation, but trembles lest he should be discovered. This is a “vain show of expiation,” a mere “mockery of penitence,” for there is no one present for Dimmesdale to confess to, and he leaves with less peace than before (130, 129). It has been said that “Dimmesdale’s sin is the pride of the Transcendentalist. With his own efforts, Dimmesdale believes he can purify himself. Instead he must discover the truth about himself and announce that truth publicly” (Trepanier 317).
An alternate response to guilt is the attempt to escape by running or hiding. Hepzibah Pyncheon hides from the world for years, growing old and lonely in the House of the Seven Gables, trapped by her ancestral curse without any hope for the future. After the death of Judge Pyncheon, Clifford rejoices, saying, “Hepzibah, we can dance now!—we can sing, laugh, play, do what we will! The weight is gone, Hepzibah!” (180). He convinces his sister to leave the house and board a train, thinking to escape forever the gloom of their mansion, but “fast and far as they had rattled and clattered along the iron track…(this) one old house was everywhere! It transported its great, lumbering bulk with more than railroad speed, and set itself phlegmatically down on whatever spot (Hepzibah) glanced at” (185). The weight is not gone, even after the villain has met his doom. Another pair that attempts to escape is Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. They make plans to leave America, taking Pearl with them to England where they might be free from the condemnation of their Puritan neighbors, and especially the revenge of Chillingworth. But their plans are thwarted, and they realize that guilt is not like a scrap of cloth pinned to a dress—it is something that lives inside of a person, and one might as well try running away from one’s own soul as escape the stain of guilt. “For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self” (125)!
The third response to guilt is taken by just a few of Hawthorne’s characters, the few who finally find true peace. At the end of The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale interrupts a grand public ceremony by taking Hester Prynne and their daughter, Pearl, up onto the scaffold and at long last announcing his guilt before all the assembled townspeople. He dies with his confession on his lips. In the novel’s conclusion Hawthorne writes, “Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:—‘Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!’” (224). While scourging could not purge Dimmesdale’s soul, he finds peace in public confession; though it brings him to death, he knows that “God…is merciful” (222)! His partner in sin, Hester Prynne, had tried a virtuous martyrdom of her own, caring for the poor and less fortunate as if in an attempt to purify herself, but the reader discovers that it is not until after she takes up the scarlet letter “of her own free will” that it ceases to be “a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (227). The Pyncheon siblings also find peace once their family curse is broken by the love of Mr. Holgrave (Mr. Maule) and Phoebe Pyncheon. Once the old grudge is brought into the open and forgiveness can be given, even the insidious inherited guilt vanishes. “The very nature of public confession appears to have a tendency to purge the soul of guilt; and with the curious kind of honesty which comes with public acknowledgment and public criticism comes, apparently, an equally strange kind of peace” (Brown 13). The confession of sin is the natural precursor of forgiveness, which is something that Hawthorne’s sinners long for (Hester Prynne’s plea for forgiveness in chapter seventeen is one of The Scarlet Letter’s most heartbreaking moments). This sequence of repentance leading to forgiveness and newness of life is yet another remnant of those beliefs which Hawthorne inherited from his Puritan ancestors.