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Breaking the Spell of Past Misdeeds: A Hauntological Reading of The House of the Seven Gables

Justyna Fruzińska


Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is a text about haunting on many levels: Hawthorne himself is haunted by his family history and by the literary influence of British gothic; the house is haunted by literal ghosts, signaling the unresolved nature of past events; the novel’s characters are haunted by the family history and their own unfulfilled futures. The book is also haunted by the Pyncheon nostalgia for the old aristocratic order, as well as by capitalist exploitation of racial and class others. This paper uses Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology to explore those different facets of the ghostly. As a result, the reading of Gables ghosts reveals a tension at the heart of the novel between a pessimistic and an optimistic reading of human life and how much it is determined by the past.

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1Since its very publication in 1851, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables has attracted critical attention as a text about the lives of a family haunted by its history. The Pyncheon family is visited by ghosts both literal and metaphorical, which makes the novel gothic and psychological at the same time. In recent studies, scholars analyzing the novel have focused mainly on political and formal issues. For example, the book’s queer potential is explored in The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne (2004) by T. Walter Herbert, who is interested in Hawthorne’s representation of masculinity, and by Christopher Castiglia, who writes about the characters’ “queerness,” not in sexual terms, but in the sense of “their status as fakes, counterfeits, bad copies—subjects who do not embody ‘natural’ identities and whose emotional excesses defy inner order” (Castiglia 197). Another popular scholarly interest is explaining the novel’s historical contexts: this is particularly visible in Samuel Chase Coale’s “Mysteries of Mesmerism: Hawthorne’s Haunted House” (2001), which discusses why Hawthorne was “simultaneously attracted and repelled by [mesmerism]” (Coale 49). Finally, critics have focused on Hawthorne’s craft (e.g., Coale’s abovementioned article, or Alan Trachtenberg’s essay “Seeing and Believing: Hawthorne’s Reflections on the Daguerreotype in The House of the Seven Gables” from 1997).

2Despite the fact that the theme of ghosts and the past’s influence on the present is the novel’s most overt topic, new critical insights can still be gained by examining the different levels of the text’s approach towards the ghostly. For this purpose, the present paper uses the critical concept of hauntology, introduced by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx (1993) and developed by Mark Fisher. While Fisher believes that the idea of hauntology applies particularly to the early twenty-first century, one may find in it some analogies to the first half of the nineteenth century. If the past haunts the twenty-first century especially strongly because of rapid technological progress, destabilizing human perception of time, the same could be stated about the early nineteenth century in America: the time of industrial, communication, and transportation revolutions. Therefore, I would argue that the peculiar ghostly property of the past described by Derrida and Fisher is characteristic of the whole industrial era.

  • 1 All citations from Marzec are provided in my translation.

3One of the characteristic features of hauntology is its insistence on the unstable category of existence, perhaps in response to the feeling of an increased lack of stability in the modern world. It is “deconstruction’s answer to traditional ontology’s previous favoring of the notion of presence,” through putting this notion into question (Marzec 13)1. In Andrzej Marzec’s view, a focus on specters allows Derrida to “weaken the category of existence,” see the present as “contaminated by the past,” and the subject as “inhabited by different voices and divided” (Marzec 14). With regards to temporality, hauntology “disorganizes the chronological order…, dislocates the past from its pastness, and introduces a radical discontinuity into the present, making it not contemporaneous with itself” (Lorek-Jezińska and Więckowska 12). It is a version of the return of the repressed: as Slavoj Žižek sees it, whatever has not been killed, buried, and properly mourned returns like a zombie to haunt the living (Marzec 33). This is noted also by Mark Fisher, who states: “[h]aunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or—and this can sometimes amount to the same thing—the refusal of the ghost to give up on us” (22). This points to hauntology’s indebtedness to psychoanalysis: the archetypal “‘science of ghosts’” (Fisher 18-19), especially in its formulation in Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s work, which may be seen as an inspiration for Derrida’s hauntology, or as another stream of hauntology proper. Unlike in psychoanalysis, though, for Derrida a cure is not possible; the specter cannot be explained away since it can never be fully known: the philosopher speaks of “the visor effect,” thanks to which the ghost is always an other (Derrida 101), teaching us to accept the state of unknowing (Lorek-Jezińska and Więckowska 9). Finally, hauntology stresses a “nostalgia for a lost future, which has never arrived” (Marzec 229). According to Fisher, “[t]he power of Derrida’s concept lay in its idea of being haunted by events that had not actually happened, futures that failed to materialise and remained spectral” (107).

4A story of haunting is typically a story of a house, the two words being etymologically connected (Wigley 163). As Jodey Castricano puts it, haunting “implies interiority: the necessary construction of an ‘inside’ whether of a house, a text, a thesis, a system of representation, or a ‘subject’” (22–23). Hawthorne’s novel works on almost all of these levels: the eponymous House of the Seven Gables is haunted by the spirit of Matthew Maule—sentenced for witchcraft so that Colonel Pyncheon could build the house on his land—as well as the dead members of the Pyncheon family. The text, as Lesley Ginsberg points out, is also haunted by its European influences: it “rests uneasily on top of the unquiet traditions of British Gothic conventions” (Ginsberg 35). Finally, there is the haunting of a subject: both of the characters and of the author himself, whose family history is mirrored in the text. Hawthorne’s interest in America’s Puritan past is usually attributed to the fact that his ancestor John Hathorne had been responsible for convicting numerous alleged witches during the 1692 Salem witch trials, which led one of the victims to curse him and his descendants (Wineapple 15–16). This ancestral guilt haunted Hawthorne just like the Pyncheon family was haunted by the sin of the Colonel, who resorted to accusations of witchcraft in order to have Maule convicted. The book is, then, yet another iteration (alongside Hawthorne’s other ‘Puritan’ texts) of a ‘working through’ of the familial trauma; an attempt to break the spell of the past. That the author has a personal attitude towards the fate of his characters is best illustrated by his narrator’s savoring Judge Pyncheon’s death in the chapter “Governor Pyncheon,” slowing down the action of the entire novel. There is something almost sadistic in the narrator’s mock ignorance of the Judge’s demise and his focus on the dead man’s earthly obligations, highlighting their vanity. Evidently, it is not only Clifford who feels relieved and liberated at his cousin’s sudden passing; the narrator too celebrates it, appropriating an entire chapter for his own enjoyment. The writing of Gables seems to be Hawthorne’s attempt at facing the ghosts of his life; after all, storytelling is ghostly by nature, always resembling the conjuring up of spirits (Wolfreys 3).

  • 2 Abraham and Torok’s concept most fruitful to hauntology is that of a crypt: an internal tomb create (...)

5The novel makes it clear from the start that one of its main themes is the importance of the past in people’s lives. The narrator declares that older generations “sow the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow their posterity” (Hawthorne 6). Thus, the past not only perseveres but “grows”: its importance for the present may be bigger than its original significance. And it is especially the sins of the fathers that set the children’s teeth on edge: such actions live on, “divesting [themselves] of every temporary advantage, [and] become a pure and uncontrollable mischief” (Hawthorne 2). Hawthorne is interested in how sin becomes distilled into pure evil, losing its pragmatic justifications, but not its spiritual consequences. One may refer here to Abraham and Torok’s conception of the phantom: “a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography,” inherited from one generation to another (Abraham 173).2

  • 3 Holgrave is, in fact, a central character for two reasons. First, he is the one who changes the mos (...)

6However, the novel also contains more general reflections concerning the nature of the past. The daguerreotypist Holgrave exclaims that the past “lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body,” while people are “slaves… to bygone times,—to Death” (Hawthorne 164). This is a very Emersonian stance, reminiscent of the philosopher’s insistence on living in the present: “Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul” (Emerson 270). That the novel does not share Holgrave’s dream of shedding the past and living only for the present moment is testified to by the fact that, by its end, it makes Holgrave change his mind. His love for Phoebe makes him ultimately long for stone houses rather than those which would last only for one generation; this new conservatism is a golden mean between Holgrave’s initial radicalism and Phoebe’s love of order. What is more, the daguerreotypist’s dislike of the past is not so much a general opinion about the world, but a projection of his feelings for the House of the Seven Gables. After Judge Pyncheon’s death, when the family history loses its power, Holgrave no longer has to fight the past and experience it as haunting.3

7There are several levels on which haunting happens in Gables. First of all, there is the literal haunting of the house by the ghost of Matthew Maule and the history of the feud between the two families. Secondly, the main characters of the novel are all marked by a past beyond their control. Thirdly and fourthly, there is what we might term ‘political’ and ‘economic’ haunting, widening the scope of the novel’s interest beyond the story of the Pyncheon family. When Matthew Maule is wrongfully sentenced to death for witchcraft for Colonel Pyncheon’s material profit, he “plant[s] a heavy footstep, all the way, on the conscience of a Pyncheon,” making the family history one large consequence of the colonel’s sin (Hawthorne 18). The ghost’s power lies, firstly, in the curse uttered by him before death: “God will give him blood to drink!” (Hawthorne 8), which is effective not only in the case of the colonel, but also of several descendants, and secondly, in the Maules’ hereditary ability to control people’s dreams. This makes the Pyncheons haunted not only by the presence of the dead wizard, but also by the influence of the living Maules.

  • 4 Yet, according to the critic, Hawthorne’s solution does not seem to be a total overcoming of the pa (...)

8What is more, both families have members who are direct reiterations of their ancestors, expressing the past’s “compulsion to repeat” itself (Diamond 68): like the old wizard, the younger Matthew Maule has supernatural powers, which allow him to hypnotize Alice Pyncheon, and Holgrave, the youngest representative of the Maules, has the same power over Phoebe. As a comparison between the colonel’s portrait and the daguerreotype of the judge reveals, Judge Pyncheon is an exact copy of his greedy ancestor, both physically and morally: “His [the Colonel’s] character, indeed, might be traced all the way down, as distinctly as if the Colonel himself, a little diluted, had been gifted with a sort of intermittent immortality on earth” (Hawthorne 18). Hauntologically speaking, the subject is never purely itself, but rather, “like a palimpsest, it is already inscribed; from the beginning it contains within itself traces of foreign writing, belonging to someone else” (Marzec 209). It is a heteroglossic view of the self, incompatible with the Romantic belief in individualism and self-reliance. Instead, the subject is never free to be truly itself, bound by the influence of ghosts which force it to take a role in a previously written play. As Andrzej Marzec points out, Derrida’s conception means that to exist is always already to inherit an unclosed past (65). That is why Alan Trachtenberg sees the characters (particularly Holgrave) as oscillating between being their own selves and copies of their ancestors, trying to overcome the ghostly power of their predecessors (Trachtenberg 467, 469).4

  • 5 This is another point that links Gables’ haunting to Abraham and Torok’s return of the phantom: as (...)

9Finally, the Pyncheon family is haunted not only by Maule’s ghost and the progenitor’s sin, but also by an unrealized future, typical of Derrida’s characterization of hauntology: a future “that failed to materialise” (Fisher 107). Since Colonel Pyncheon’s death, the family title to a piece of land in Maine, guaranteeing them immense riches, has gone missing, and each subsequent incarnation of the Puritan is obsessed with the idea of finding it and capitalizing upon what it promises, cherishing “an absurd delusion of family importance” (Hawthorne 17).5 The document is discovered thanks to Holgrave only at the end of the novel, when it no longer has any legal power, substantiating a future which has never arrived and has lost its potential to be fulfilled.

10The second type of haunting mentioned above is the inseparable link with the past of the main protagonists: mainly Clifford and Hepzibah, but also—to a degree—Holgrave and Phoebe. Clifford, after he is released from prison, remains a ghostly figure, as if buried alive, unable to function in the external world. When Phoebe meets him for the first time, he sits without uttering a word, making the girl doubt whether somebody is really in the house—this scene aptly illustrates the diluted character of Clifford’s existence. Even he himself tells Hepzibah that they are ghosts who have no right to live among real people. When he looks out of the window, he longs to be part of society, but is ultimately unable to join it; the window is a liminal space between the outside and the inside of the house, symbolizing Clifford’s suspension between life and death. This makes Clifford the most ghostly of the novel’s characters. For Derrida, specters exceed the binary oppositions of presence and absence, being and non-being (63), and as a result, their “presence cannot be fully acknowledged, yet it cannot be denied either” (Lorek-Jezińska and Więckowska 9).

  • 6 Another character who loses his future in exactly the same way is the old Matthew Maule. He, too, i (...)

11Clifford is does not fully belong to the ordinary world, but floats above it; as the narrator puts it, he “had never quaffed the cup of passionate love, and knew that it was now too late” (Hawthorne 127). Like Rip Van Winkle, having spent thirty years in prison, he has “slept” through the whole period of masculine productive life, remaining an old child—like Irving’s character, keen to play with children, but unable to function in the social roles of a grown man. Once again, we are reminded of hauntology’s focus on the unrealized future: Clifford’s future has not materialized, as it was taken away from him by the unfair imprisonment, which is why he haunts the House of the Seven Gables with a feeling of lost possibilities. The situation changes (at least for a moment) only after Judge Pyncheon dies: Clifford becomes invigorated in an almost hydraulic manner, as if life energy had been transferred to him from his cousin. Yet this state of agitation does not last, and Clifford will never regain the self he might have been.6

12The specter’s dubious ontological status is strictly connected to its functioning in time: according to Derrida, “it has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer” (Hägglund 82). Thus, both Clifford and Hepzibah embody the bygone era of the Pyncheon greatness, but from the point of view of the present, they are mere “holograms.” Although more grounded than her brother, Hepzibah is another ghostly figure in the story. She is a recluse, having renounced a large portion of life, and a relic of the aristocratic past, not keeping up with America’s changing social landscape (I shall comment on this aspect further on). She, too, is not just her own self, but a sort of reincarnation or echo of an earlier Pyncheon who first opened a shop in the House of the Seven Gables. There is a clear separation between, on the one hand, Clifford and Hepzibah hibernated in the past and defined by it, and, on the other, the new generation: Holgrave and Phoebe, who will be the ones to lift the curse through uniting the two feuding families. Even flowers wilt faster in the hands of the old siblings than in Phoebe’s—like in the case of Beatrice Rappaccini from Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” this is a sign of being poisoned: Clifford and Hepzibah are poisoned with the past. And yet, the young generation is also marked by it, as their story is inextricably connected to the family history. Their life forces, however, are stronger: there is nothing ghostly about any of them. Quite the contrary: especially Phoebe seems to be a reservoir of energy for the whole family. She is so alive that she has the power to heal Clifford’s and Hepzibah’s unhappiness; John Gatta calls her “the Incarnation of a transcendent religious principle of redemptive love” ( 47).

13The third kind of haunting is a political or class-related one. The book takes a strongly pro-democratic stance, presenting the Pyncheons’ aristocratic aspirations as anachronistic at best, and sinful at worst, the family history being based upon “illegitimate class privilege and abrogated power” (Trachtenberg 468). The narrator clearly mocks Hepzibah’s unease at opening a cent shop, which in her eyes degrades her as a lady. How he feels about Hepzibah’s pretentions is best illustrated by the description of her chickens, which are clearly intended to represent the Pyncheon family: once beautiful and strong, “the hens were now scarcely larger than pigeons, and had a queer, rusty, withered aspect, and a gouty kind of movement, and a sleepy and melancholy tone throughout all the variations of their clucking and cackling” (Hawthorne 81). Hepzibah’s nostalgia for old forms no longer has a basis in the mid-nineteenth century reality; on the contrary, it is laughable. The new America is personified by Holgrave, representing the working class, and Phoebe, who comes from the country. They are the new generation: young, healthy, and egalitarian. Together, they build their middle-class future defined by middle-class values (Elbert and Marshall viii). This is also one of the reasons why they are the first not to have their lives overshadowed by the ghosts of the past; in a way, the older Pyncheons bring upon themselves the haunting through an attachment to obsolete political norms.

14Yet while Hepzibah receives only the narrator’s mild mockery, earlier generations of the family are punished more severely, as their aristocratic ambitions are bigger. Two generations after Colonel Pyncheon, his descendant, Gervayse, virtually sells the soul of his daughter Alice to the dark powers of Matthew Maule’s grandson, also named Matthew. Gervayse hopes that young Matthew will help him locate the lost title to the Maine territories and allows him to hypnotize Alice for this purpose. But it is not only greed that motivates him; additionally, he dreams of riches which would guarantee him the title of a lord or earl, revealing aristocratic longings for which he will have to pay. Alice herself treats Maule with an air of superiority because of the class difference between them, committing the sin of aristocraticness, similar to the eponymous character from Hawthorne’s short story “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle.” This part of Gables is nearly a rewriting of the earlier story (first published in 1838) of a woman punished for her aristocratic pretensions and haughtiness. It even contains the same motif of a man being trampled upon by the proud woman; exiting the coach, Lady Eleanore literally steps upon the body of Jervase Helwyse, while Alice Pyncheon only inspires such feelings: “a man of generous nature would have forgiven all her pride, and have been content, almost, to lie down in her path, and let Alice set her slender foot upon his heart. All that he would have required was simply the acknowledgment that he was indeed a man, and a fellow-being, moulded of the same elements as she” (Hawthorne 181). Alice, however, does not seem to think that young Matthew Maule is made of the same elements as she, for which she is punished by being subjected to his hypnotic powers. Seizing control of her mind, Maule turns her into a ghost, obedient to his whims and never again able to lead a normal life and be truly happy.

15The last type of haunting mentioned by several scholars is the economic one. Castricano claims that “[h]aunting always implies a debt,” and as such has an economic basis (11). The scholar provides precisely the example of Gables, pointing to the fact that each generation inherits both the property and the sin associated with it, which signals that “Hawthorne’s novel explores both personal and national guilt predicated upon capitalism” (Castricano 11). This corroborates how Derrida sees haunting as both individual and collective, finding its expression in history, society, and culture, with the two levels always intertwined (Castricano 14). Moreover, Lesley Ginsberg shows how the House of the Seven Gables “is haunted by the ghost of transatlantic English commerce,” as many of the cheap products which Hepzibah offers in her shop are provided by the triangular transatlantic trade—subtly signaling its presence as a foundation of American economy (42).

16Yet, despite all the types of haunting mentioned above, the hauntological reading reveals that Gables is not a usual gothic story: the novel is not only interested in the heavy burden of the past, but also in a way out. In this respect, it is closer to the psychoanalytic optimism of Abraham and Torok, who believe that the “phantom effect” is treatable and can even fade on its own with time (Abraham 176), than to Derrida’s skepticism. In Derrida’s hauntology, the haunting can never stop, as it is an inseparable part of human life: “a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back” (Derrida 99); all one can do is to learn to live with the ghosts. Or, at least, “haunting explicitly points to the need to face the past and to accept its multifarious inheritance” (Lorek-Jezińska and Więckowska 12). One could argue that the characters in Gables do face their past, especially through letting Holgrave into the family. However, the novel focuses not so much on accepting it as part of their lives as on finding a way to break the spell and finally set the protagonists free. This happens through several mechanisms: first, with Judge Pyncheon’s death dies the last incarnation of the initial wrongdoer, which makes the ghost of the old colonel loosen its grip on the living. As Trachtenberg notes, Holgrave’s daguerreotype of the deceased Judge reveals that the cause of his (and all the previous Pyncheons’) death was a natural hereditary illness, which suddenly makes Matthew Maule’s curse void (Trachtenberg 476). Secondly, there is the traditional comedic solution: the union of the two feuding houses through the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave, which cancels the conflict of both economic and moral interests between the Pyncheons and the Maules.

17However, what is most interesting when it comes to overcoming the past is Hawthorne’s view of history, which seems to lead inevitably to the denouement of the novel. Gatta sees Gables as including “a teleological drama of redemption,” and he attributes this to Hawthorne’s belief in Providence (Gatta 38–39). On the other hand, the scholar states that, unlike some Romantic historians, Hawthorne did not entirely subscribe to the idea that history is characterized by human progress, guided by Providence (Gatta 43). Gatta warns against identifying the author’s views with those of Clifford, laid out in his speech on the train:

all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future. (Hawthorne 234)

18Clifford’s monologue echoes Holgrave’s earlier praise of impermanent houses, which also results from his hatred of the House of the Seven Gables. Yet I would argue that his views on progress as spiral, as repetition with variation, are not only his; they are illustrated throughout the novel in its construction. Contrary to Gatta’s view, the novel does seem to suggest that a melioristic tendency is inherently present in human history as it unfolds in the story of the two families. It is especially visible in the scene when Holgrave tells Phoebe about young Matthew Maule hypnotizing Alice Pyncheon, and nearly gains power over Phoebe’s mind as well. It is clear that the couple repeats the pattern from the past, but the repetition is not exact. Holgrave resists the temptation to hypnotize Phoebe, and because this happens right after his story about Alice, the contrast between the two temporal levels is even starker. The variation in repetition is crucial, as this is what allows for a way out of haunting; the spell of the past is not in fact broken suddenly through the judge’s death and the young couple’s marriage, but is a result of the slowly ascending spiral of history which has made it possible. Even in hauntology, the past which returns is never the same (Marzec 254); in Hawthorne’s work, there is an optimistic interpretation, resulting in a promise of getting rid of the ghosts altogether.

19To conclude, haunting in Gables is not limited to the plotline; rather, it happens on several levels: biographical, esthetic, and political. What makes Hawthorne’s ghosts even more ethereal is the form of romance itself, according to the rules of which any supernatural events may be explained rationally (for example the water in Maule’s well becomes salty and hard, which is attributed by the narrator either to the depth of the new cellar or to the wizard’s curse). Hawthorne’s romance functions always on the verge of the unreal, and the fact that the ghosts may be explained away makes them even more ghostly.

  • 7 Fisher’s statement mirrors Derrida’s views on the matter, which, in turn, are inspired by Max Stirn (...)

20What is perhaps most interesting, though, is how Hawthorne’s ghosts reveal a contradiction at the heart of the novel. On the one hand, Gables is concerned with how people are defined by the past, both their own and that of their communities. In accordance with the hauntological understanding, the book presents individuals as not fully belonging to themselves, since they are composed of layers inherited from previous generations. In this respect, being haunted reveals an inherent feature of the human condition: “[t]he one who is possessed is also dispossessed—of their own identity and voice” (Fisher 45), as people are never free to be just themselves.7 Holgrave’s Emersonian dream of getting rid of the crippling burden of the past is depicted as radical and unrealistic, and needs to be toned down. On the other hand, while a large portion of the novel portrays people as weighed down by the past, there is the optimistic ending, which many scholars (for example Walter Benn Michaels and Alan Trachtenberg) have found surprising, to say the least. What I would argue is that the book’s conclusion does not stem from Hawthorne’s decision to cater to his readers’ tastes and subdue his dark vision in favor of a sentimental ending, but is inherently connected to the book’s subject. Two impulses seem to be at war in Gables: the dark, ‘anti-Emersonian’ one, which sees in the human fate an almost deterministic element, and a more optimistic one: a belief that the past may in fact be overcome, if not by individual effort, then by the very nature of things, which do not repeat themselves exactly, but progress, slowly but surely, through an element of variation in each repetition. Even if breaking the wizard’s curse requires virtually the extinction of the Pyncheon family, those who remain become purified by history itself. To return to the psychoanalytic discourse, Gables is a book about life as therapy, allowing its characters to break through the ghostly melancholia of their family.

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Castiglia, Christopher. “The Marvelous Queer Interiors of The House of the Seven Gables.” The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Richard H. Millington, Cambridge UP, 2004, pp. 186–206.

Castricano, Jodey. Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2001.

Coale, Samuel Chase. “Mysteries of Mesmerism: Hawthorne’s Haunted House.” A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Larry J. Reynolds, Oxford UP, 2001, pp. 49–78.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 1994.

Diamond, David B. “‘There Is Nothing but Love Here’: Toward a Recovery from Massive Psychic Trauma in ‘The House of Seven the Gables.’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, vol. 28, 2002, pp. 61–68.

Elbert, Monika M., and Bridget M. Marshall. “Introduction: Haunted Hawthorne, Hawthorne’s Hauntings.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2012, pp. ii–xvi.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures, Library of America, 1983, pp. 257–82.

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, 2014.

Gatta, John Jr. “Progress and Providence in The House of the Seven Gables.” American Literature, vol. 50, no. 1, 1978, pp. 37–48.

Ginsberg, Lesley. “Hawthorne’s Transatlantic Gothic House of Fiction: The House of the Seven Gables.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2012, pp. 27–46.

Hägglund, Martin. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford UP, 2008.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Signet Classics, 2010.

Lorek-Jezińska, Edyta, and Katarzyna Więckowska. “Hauntology and Cognition: Questions of Knowledge, Pasts and Futures.” Theoria et Historia Scientiarum, vol. 14, Dec. 2017, pp. 7–23.

Marzec, Andrzej. Widmontologia. Teoria filozoficzna i praktyka artystyczna ponowoczesności. Fundacja Nowej Kultury Bęc Zmiana, 2015.

Trachtenberg, Alan. “Seeing and Believing: Hawthorne’s Reflections on the Daguerreotype in The House of the Seven Gables.” American Literary History, vol. 9, no. 3, 1997, pp. 460–81.

Wigley, Mark. The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt. MIT Press, 1993.

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1 All citations from Marzec are provided in my translation.

2 Abraham and Torok’s concept most fruitful to hauntology is that of a crypt: an internal tomb created by the subject as a result of a failed process of mourning, guarding the memories of the deceased. However, the idea of the crypt does not seem relevant for the analysis of Hawthorne’s novel, as it refers to a loss of an object of love (albeit disguised as hatred or anger), which is not the case in Gables.

3 Holgrave is, in fact, a central character for two reasons. First, he is the one who changes the most, not only tempering his political views, but also acquiring empathy for Clifford. While in the beginning he dispassionately studies Hepzibah and Clifford in connection to the two families’ history, after Judge Pyncheon’s death he feels for the first time concerned for Clifford and wants to help him (see Diamond 67). Second, as an artist he is the closest to the author’s spokesperson there is in the novel; the daguerreotypes allow him to reveal the truth of the human heart because he is able to look at people in a different light, which is precisely Hawthorne’s definition of Romance (cf. Trachtenberg 460). What is more, Holgrave’s craft, like writing, is indeed hauntological; as Fisher puts it, “photography—with its capturing of lost moments, its presentation of absences—has an inherently hauntological dimension” (152). It is a sort of recording, like the mirror in the house of the seven gables, said to remember everything that has ever been reflected in it.

4 Yet, according to the critic, Hawthorne’s solution does not seem to be a total overcoming of the past; Trachtenberg sees the novel’s ideal in Uncle Venner, who is “both a copy and an original, whose patched exterior at once discloses and conceals his inner truth” (Trachtenberg 477).

5 This is another point that links Gables’ haunting to Abraham and Torok’s return of the phantom: as Abraham explains, it is particularly the dead who took secrets to the grave that are likely to haunt others ( 171).

6 Another character who loses his future in exactly the same way is the old Matthew Maule. He, too, is robbed of the rest of his life through an unjust sentence. That both men, a Pyncheon and a Maule, are victims of the Pyncheon greed, shows how the hereditary sin, like a double-edged sword, is destructive towards both families.

7 Fisher’s statement mirrors Derrida’s views on the matter, which, in turn, are inspired by Max Stirner, for whom, according to Derrida, “I am” always means “I am haunted” (Derrida 133).

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Electronic reference

Justyna Fruzińska, Breaking the Spell of Past Misdeeds: A Hauntological Reading of The House of the Seven GablesEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2023, Online since 07 September 2023, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Justyna Fruzińska

Justyna Fruzińska holds an MA in American Literature and a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Lodz, Poland, where she holds the position of Assistant Professor and teaches American literature, culture and history. Her publications include Nineteenth-Century Visions of Race: British Travel Writing about America (2022) and Emerson Goes to the Movies: Individualism in Walt Disney Company's Post-1989 Animated Films (2014) as well as numerous articles on American popular culture, Transcendentalism, travel writing, and Polish poetry.

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