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The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapters 3–4

Chapters 1–2

Chapters 5–6

Summary — Chapter 3: The First Customer

The shop’s first visitor is actually the Pyncheon house’s only lodger, Holgrave, a young man of twenty-two who makes daguerreotypes, an early kind of photograph. Holgrave gently chides Hepzibah for being so worried about losing her dignity, saying that now she will become a “woman” rather a “lady.” Hepzibah’s decision to begin working, Holgrave continues, means she is “lending [her] strength . . . to the united struggle of mankind. This is success …!” Hepzibah resists this interpretation, but Holgrave claims that in their modern world the title of “lady” is more of a restriction than a privilege. Holgrave asks for some biscuits, which makes him Hepzibah’s first customer, but as he is her lodger she gives them to him freely. Hepzibah then overhears a conversation between two workers. They are surprised to see her shop open and discuss her business prospects quite openly in front of her. One points out that better shops can be found on every street corner, while the other adds that his own wife actually lost money by trying to start a shop. As they walk off, Hepzibah frets over their assertions that she will probably fail.

Hepzibah is even more concerned, however, with the casual way that the workmen discuss her painful fall from dignity. She finds their frank conversation about the mechanics of her fall mortifying, and she is especially offended by the way that what is so important to her is of only passing interest to the two workmen. The shop bell rings again, and in walks a small boy, who asks for a gingerbread man. Hepzibah, who appears to have a low opinion of her own goods, thinks its wrong to take a child’s pocket money for a piece of stale baking, so she gives him the cookie for free. Five minutes later, however, the small boy returns for another cookie. This time Hepzibah, having overcome her disdain for pocket change, takes his money. Now that her day has begun to pick up, Hepzibah begins to feel better about opening up her shop. Throughout the day, she experience brief uplifting moments, and things begin to look better. Several more customers come through, and most of them are quite grouchy. Unable to keep up her good spirits, Hepzibah begins to worry again that the shop will ruin her. When a wealthy woman walks by, Hepzibah wonders bitterly what use such people serve, then instantly feels guilty about her bitter sentiments.

Summary — Chapter 4: A Day Behind the Counter

As the day wears on, an elderly gentleman walks by the house. With his cane and fine clothes, he is clearly someone of importance. The man peers into the newly reopened shop window and frowns briefly. When he sees Hepzibah, the man smiles, nods at her, and moves on. She recognizes the man as Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, a wealthy cousin who has built a house for himself just outside of town. Hepzibah is visited by “Uncle Venner,” an elderly man who is known around the neighborhood as something of a character. Uncle Venner is pleased to see that Hepzibah is working, and he stops to offer her advice on shop-keeping. He assures her that the days of minding a store will probably only be temporary and that “[s]omething still better will turn up for you.” The statement inspires Hepzibah to dream up many fantasies of sudden, untold wealth. Venner also asks whether an unnamed “he” will return soon, and adds that everyone in the village has been speaking of “him.” After Venner leaves, the rest of the day does not go particularly smoothly for Hepzibah. She has trouble concentrating on helping her customers and getting the specific items they want.

Just as she closes her shop, an omnibus arrives and stops in front of the house. A girl hops out and knocks on the door, and Hepzibah realizes that it is Phoebe, a young Pyncheon family “offshoot” who has come to visit, unaware that her letter, sent in advance, never arrived at the house of the seven gables. Hepzibah decides to let her in, but tells her that she can only stay one night because she might disturb Clifford.

Analysis — Chapters 3–4

Between Holgrave, the workmen, and the wealthy lady, Chapter 3 features a varied sampling of New England society. We learn a great deal about the society’s class and social structure from the way Hepzibah interacts with her fellow villagers. The young Holgrave, a daguerreotypist by profession, is something of an early bohemian, defined entirely by his personality rather than by his money. (Daguerreotype was an early form of photography.) Holgrave represents a new kind of socially mobile New Englander, one who can interact comfortably with the snobbish Hepzibah but certainly does not meet the criteria necessary to be considered a gentleman. The workmen, however, have little connection to Hepzibah’s world. Where her house is somber and grave, the banter between the workers is Hawthorne’s equivalent of comic relief. They openly discuss their financial success and their wives, whereas Hepzibah seems to see both money and romantic relationships as taboo topics. In spite of herself, however, Hepzibah begins to see life through the eyes of her profession, as evidenced by her scorn for the wealthy lady. That Hepzibah wonders aloud what such people contribute to the world indicates that she no longer sees herself as being in the same social category as the wealthy woman. In her descent from haughty aristocrat to embittered shopwoman, Hepzibah becomes a powerful symbol of the importance of money in determining New England social status.

Both Uncle Venner and Judge Pyncheon are introduced to us in this chapter, and the way they are first presented provides clues about the roles they will play in the novel. Uncle Venner is immediately recognizable as a colorful neighborhood character. He is so uncontroversial a character that he even helps the author along: after offering Hepzibah sound advice, Uncle Venner alludes to the fact that a certain “he” is expected home, allowing Hawthorne to alert us that something is in the works without breaking the pattern of his narrative. Judge Pyncheon is a mysterious figure, and Hawthorne’s approach underscores the fact that the Judge’s appearance may well be deceiving. Hepzibah’s dour response to the man’s good-natured smile signals that his outward kindness may mask something less pleasant. Hepzibah’s final observation connecting the Judge to the deceased Colonel Pyncheon adds an ominous note to this initial depiction of the Judge.

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