Hepzibah Pyncheon is the last in a long line of Pyncheon aristocrats. Hepzibah personifies the pitfalls of this aristocracy, both financially, as evidenced by her having to open and tend a shop, and spiritually, as shown by the permanent scowl on her face. Her extreme passivity makes it difficult to sympathize with her: the melodramatic way in which she mourns having to open her shop is treated with great disdain by the narrator, and her neighbors seem eager to see her fail. Hepzibah has good intentions and a good heart; she manages to convey only goodwill toward the children and customers who frequent her shop. The townspeople’s failure to recognize her beneficence stands as a rather searing commentary on the shallowness of New England society. Hepzibah is strongly devoted to her brother, Clifford, even though he is absent for thirty years and refuses even to look at her when he returns. By the end of the novel, Clifford comes to trust Hepzibah. He allows her to care for him. Clifford’s trust and dependence on Hepzibah serves as a sort of redemption for her. Clifford has come to recognize and appreciate Hepzibah’s kindness and devotion, and his trust elevates her to new heights of happiness and purpose. She even begins giving pocket money to her most loyal customer, little Ned Higgins.
Clifford is a complex character whose extended undeserved prison time makes him both unlikable and pitiable. His frequent bouts of weeping and his pitiable cries when the Judge approaches make him seem like a wounded or feeble animal. Clifford is a “sybarite,” someone who relishes natural beauty, luxury, and pleasure, which makes his incarceration seem all the more cruel and unbearable. Hawthorne makes luxuries seem more important to Clifford than food. He is also temperamental and brash, and despite his nearly imbecilic state, he still manages to be cruel to his adoring sister, even after three decades of separation. In the end, however, Clifford’s weaknesses convey the extent of his degradation. Prison has ruined him. A formerly beautiful, confident, and life-loving person, Clifford has become like a broken beast, cringing in fear as his persecutor passes. Hawthorne doesn’t make a martyr out of Clifford (someone who sacrifices himself for a cause greater than his own life), but he does not create a monster either. Instead, Hawthorne presents Clifford as a tragic victim of fate by balancing what Clifford has become against what he was before forces beyond his control led him to confinement and despair.
Judge Pyncheon is the novel’s most visible antagonist. An antagonist is a character or impediment that opposes the protagonist and creates conflict in a literary work. Judge Pyncheon provides a living example of the cruelty and ambition that have brought the Pyncheon family such misfortune. His most noteworthy feature is his deceiving smile, which is so alluring that it almost has a personality of its own. Despite his welcoming countenance, the Judge’s true nature is overwhelmingly greedy. The Judge appears to agree with the popular perception that he is innocent and righteous, but these perceptions differ sharply from what Hawthorne suggests to us. The Judge’s ties to the dubious Pyncheon past are unmistakable, most clearly revealed by his resemblance to Colonel Pyncheon’s portrait and by his death from apoplexy, a sudden hemorrhage, which killed both the Colonel and the Judge’s Uncle Jaffrey. In the public’s perception, the Judge is a model of austerity and morality, and Hawthorne devotes much of the novel to unveiling the dark truths that such popular perceptions hide. Only the truly good characters—such as Phoebe, Clifford, and Hepzibah—recognize that the Judge’s alluring smile hides a cruel soul. The Judge’s death seems to put an end to the Pyncheon legacy of misfortune.
Though only twenty-two, Holgrave is the product of passion, hard work, and travel. He is a man of great integrity, as we learn when he does not take advantage of the hypnotized Phoebe and when he supports and comforts the despondent Hepzibah. Although Hepzibah views Holgrave’s friends as disreputable, the young man’s politics come across as boldly exciting, rich with vitality and possibility. Holgrave is not without a dark side and foibles, and the familiar Maule bitterness toward the Pyncheon family infects him as well. This sense of bitterness and rancor shows how Holgrave continues the Maule legacy of revenge and faulty judgment. His politics, once so inspiring, end up seeming rather flimsy; they crumble almost overnight once he has won Phoebe’s love and seen the Judge dead. Moreover, he has a tendency to underestimate others, brashly assuming that he can read Phoebe like a book. Overall, though, Holgrave emerges as a sympathetic figure, and his decision not to abuse his family powers of hypnosis helps to diminish some of the family stigma he bears.
The name Phoebe derives from the Greek word “phoibos,” which means “shining.” Phoebe is therefore an appropriate name for a character who brings the only rays of light into the somber Pyncheon home. At times, Phoebe literally brings a breath of fresh air into the house, throwing open her windows, rearranging her room, and coaxing the garden back to health and beauty from its state of decay and disarray. Phoebe’s good nature is bolstered by a strong sense of moral judgment and wisdom. Within the novel’s morally ambiguous maelstrom, Phoebe emerges as a voice of reason. Holgrave makes the mistake of thinking he can read her like a book and is subsequently forced to retract this condescending view. Phoebe continues to surprise us by showing great strength and moral fortitude, unlike many of the other corruptible and malicious characters who pervade the novel. After the Judge’s death, for example, Phoebe enters the eerie confines of the house, and later argues that witnesses should be called, despite Holgrave’s feverish protest. Phoebe has the courage to resist her own heart and to endure being dismayed by Holgrave’s first proposal—she forces the man she loves to change rather than changing herself to suit him.