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The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapters 17–18

Chapters 15–16

Chapters 19–21

“A man will commit almost any wrong—he will heap up an immense pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, . . . only to build a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for his posterity to be miserable in.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary — Chapter 17: The Flight of Two Owls

Clifford and Hepzibah flee the house of the seven gables, worried that they will be implicated in the death of Judge Pyncheon. They walk along the village streets, fading into the gloomy background of the overcast day, noticed by no one. Hepzibah feels as if she is living in a nightmare, but Clifford has never seemed more youthful or alive; the death of the Judge has left him feeling liberated and elated. They board a train, and an old gentleman sitting on the other side of their passenger car strikes up a conversation with Clifford. He remarks that it is a poor day to travel and would be better spent inside near a fireplace. Clifford, however, disagrees, arguing that the “admirable invention of the railroad” will “do away with those stale ideas of home and fireside, and substitute something better.” The old man disagrees, and Clifford begins to speak at length. He outlines his belief that mankind moves in an “ascending spiral,” where previous ideas are revived and reformed. In this case, the advent of the railroad will allow mankind to return to the nomadic culture of its primitive era, and will prevent people from becoming “prisoner[s] for life in brick, and stone, and old worm-eaten timber.”

Clifford becomes very animated and almost youthful during this lecture. He goes on to suggest that houses, particularly those created by people guilty of something, can visit old curses on future generations. Clifford describes a “hypothetical” house, with seven gables, where a dead man sits in the parlor. He says, “I could never flourish there, nor be happy,” and claims it would be a relief if this house were torn down or destroyed. He hopes for a more “nomadic” future, where houses are out of daily use. He also believes that a more spiritual age is approaching, and speaks on the unifying nature of the telegraph, which he believes will serve to make the world smaller by allowing lovers to talk over long distances. He deplores, however, the ability of the telegraph to aid in hunting down criminals, because it prevents them from being able to escape their crimes and start afresh, robs them of their rights, and deprives them of a “city of refuge.” The old man becomes very embarrassed and suspicious during Clifford’s tirade. Clifford and Hepzibah get off the train at a lonely way station, where Clifford’s strength leaves him. Exhausted, Clifford tells Hepzibah to do with him as she will.

Summary — Chapter 18: Governor Pyncheon

Judge Pyncheon is both spoken of and directly addressed in this chapter, as if the man were not dead but merely asleep or meditating in his chair. The narrator exhorts the Judge to awaken while simultaneously listing all of the scheduled plans that the Judge is now missing. The most significant is a dinner meeting at which the Judge had planned to get himself nominated as a candidate for governor of Massachusetts. Even for this, however, the bloated body will not wake up. A solemn march of ghosts begins. Deceased Pyncheon after deceased Pyncheon parades by, from Colonel Pyncheon on. Each of them stops at the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and shakes it, looking in vain for something hidden inside the painting. Among them is the Judge’s own son, whom he has long ago disowned. The novel wonders what the son is doing here—if he is dead, then the Judge’s property will go to Clifford and Hepzibah. The next day comes, and Judge Pyncheon still resists the narrator’s jeers and calls to wake up. A fly crawls across his face and creeps toward his open eyes. The narrator gives up in disgust. The Judge continues to sit slumped in his chair, and the novel’s reverie is interrupted by the tinkling of the shop bell.

Analysis — Chapters 17–18

In Clifford’s animated discussion with the old gentleman on the train, we see both a continuation of and a variation on Holgrave’s arguments in Chapter 12. Like Holgrave, Clifford ridicules the idea of relying too heavily on the institutions of the past; he sees society as rolling toward nomadic greatness on an unstoppable tidal wave of progress. He is especially offended by the habit of “planting” a family in a single spot, which he says traps people in old misery and taunts them with the memories of their past glory. Unlike Holgrave, however, Clifford does not dismiss all of the past and even holds up humankind’s primitive era as an example of the ideal society. His contempt seems to be more for the more recent past. Clifford’s tirade constitutes an escape, a mental abandonment of the house that parallels his physical flight on the train, and his elation is due to the fact that he feels real liberty awaits him ahead. The house does not give up easily, though, and even at a distance it pushes Clifford toward insanity, prompting him to reveal the presence of his cousin’s body in the house and to commit other indiscretions, even as he cheers on the house’s destruction.

Chapter 18 is a descriptive tour de force. The rather unusual tactic of having the narrator jeer at the villain’s corpse serves to lay bare both the full extent of the Judge’s ambition and the extent to which he was hated. The Judge does not have the same powers of interior monologue as the other characters, so revealing the details of his day, most notably his bid for the governorship of Massachusetts, could be a tricky endeavor, one that falls well outside of the rest of the novel’s narrative structure. Although the details provided here are not vital to the plot, they offer a powerful comment on the aspirations of the Judge and of people like him. The discussion also confirms what the novel has maintained since the beginning—that it is when such men are on the verge of their greatest grasp that they are cut down, as was evidenced by the fate of both Gervayse and Colonel Pyncheon. Even more important, it allows us to witness firsthand the disdain the Judge deserves. There is something distasteful about gloating over the body of a fallen foe, but the fact that it occurs forces us to wonder what the Judge has done that could merit such mockery, and consequently to understand the threat that the Judge has posed to so many lives.

The other significant scene in this chapter is the ghostly procession of Pyncheons, a powerful moment that Hawthorne carefully disqualifies by saying, “The fantastic scene, just hinted at, must by no means be considered as forming an actual portion of our story.” As with Holgrave’s story about Alice Pyncheon, Hawthorne seems reluctant to sacrifice the novel’s realism, so he casts the fantastic as a character’s story or, in this case, as a flight of the imagination. By having the scene be a daydream instead of an actual occurrence, Hawthorne fulfills the promise he made in the Preface—that he will balance the novel form with the romance. This story, like Holgrave’s story about the younger Matthew Maule, is also a distinct foreshadowing of events, allowing us to divine that the frame surrounding the portrait will be of some importance in the future.

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