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The House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapters 7–8

Chapters 5–6

Chapters 9–10

Summary — Chapter 7: The Guest

Phoebe awakes to find Hepzibah downstairs, deeply immersed in a cookbook. Hepzibah decides to buy a mackerel from a fishmonger walking along the street and immediately begins cooking it. Phoebe, surprised by Hepzibah’s sudden energy, helps to cook the large breakfast. Throughout the cooking, Hepzibah is on an emotional roller-coaster, hugging Phoebe joyfully one minute and bursting into tears the next. Phoebe is surprised to see three places set for the meal, and when they hear the sounds of their long-awaited guest, Hepzibah begs her to be cheerful no matter what. Finally, with Hepzibah’s assistance, in walks their guest, Hepzibah’s long-absent brother, Clifford. He wanders about in confusion, addresses his sister in the third person, and though he is quite taken with Phoebe, he can barely place her in the family. Phoebe eventually recognizes him as the man whose miniature portrait Hepzibah keeps in her drawer. Clifford eats his food ravenously, but he cannot look his sister in the face and keeps casting his eyes around so that he does not have to look at the ugliness of Hepzibah’s scowl.

After breakfast, Clifford begins to look around the room. It becomes apparent that, for all his frailty, he is at heart a sybarite—a person who devotes his life to the sensual pleasures of sight, sound, and touch. Clifford takes particular pleasure in the old house and the pleasant sight of young Phoebe. When he spots the old portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, however, Clifford recoils in horror and asks that it be removed. Hepzibah replies that, as Clifford well knows, she can do no such thing, but she agrees to cover it with a cloth instead. The sudden ring of the shop bell greatly troubles Clifford. Hepzibah explains to him that times have changed and that they are now so poor that she has been forced to take up shop-keeping. She frets that by doing so she has brought shame on the family, but Clifford replies that he cannot be shamed further and is not bothered by Hepzibah’s occupation. He weeps, however, over the ruins of his life. Eventually, he falls asleep in his chair, while Hepzibah looks at his face and sheds silent tears.

Summary — Chapter 8: The Pyncheon of To-day

The shop bell that so startled Clifford turns out to have announced the arrival of a new customer. This new arrival is the small boy who bought gingerbread from Hepzibah before. As the boy leaves the shop, in walks a portly man with a very noble bearing and a wide and endearing smile. This is no ordinary smile, for it seems to draw in anyone who sees it. Phoebe meets him, and the stranger at first mistakes her for a new assistant hired by Hepzibah. Once the stranger finds out who Phoebe is, however, he introduces himself as her cousin, Judge Pyncheon. As a way of greeting Phoebe, the Judge leans forward to kiss her, but Phoebe instinctively pulls back in spite of herself. This revulsion briefly annoys the Judge, and a shadow seems to pass over his face. His bright smile is suddenly replaced by a great frown, and in this frown Phoebe thinks she sees the Judge’s true nature, albeit only for a moment. Phoebe also realizes that this Judge Pyncheon is the same man as the smiling but unforgiving figure portrayed in the daguerreotype that Holgrave showed her. Phoebe recalls Holgrave’s claim that daguerreotypes, when developed in the sunlight, reveal truths about people that portraits do not.

Phoebe is amazed at how similar Judge Pyncheon is to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon: the Judge seems to be simply an updated version of the old Pyncheon patriarch. The narrator interjects at this point, remarking on the many similarities between these two personages, including a certain greediness and an ability to hide a rather ruthless nature beneath a friendly exterior. The narrator also notes that, in most respects, Judge Pyncheon is a weaker, less potent version of his ancestor. In addition to the physical similarities, Phoebe notices a more sinister connection to the past when the Judge makes a small noise in his throat, gurgling slightly as he does so. The noise makes Phoebe suddenly recall Matthew Maule’s curse on Colonel Pyncheon—“God will give him blood to drink”—and the whispered rumors that the blood can supposedly be heard to gurgle in the throats of Pyncheons. Judge Pyncheon asks to speak to Hepzibah and guesses that Clifford has arrived. He suggests that Phoebe may be scared of Clifford, something she is surprised to hear and against which she protests. Judge Pyncheon cryptically implies to her, however, that Clifford has done something terrible, but that it is best she think well of him and so remain ignorant of what he has done. The Judge says he wants to have a word with Clifford.

As the Judge moves past Phoebe toward the kitchen, Hepzibah appears and resolutely blocks his way. In an effort to soften her, Judge Pyncheon makes a kindly offer to support Hepzibah and Clifford financially, but Hepzibah refuses, her eyes glowing with bitterness and maybe even hatred. From the kitchen, Clifford, who is now awake, begs Hepzibah to make the Judge go away, but his entreaties are more pitiable than strong. When the Judge hears the sound of Clifford’s voice, however, the narrator tells us that “a red fire kindled in [the Judge’s] eyes; and he made a quick pace forward, with something inexpressibly fierce and grim, darkening forth, as it were, out of the whole man.” Hepzibah stands strong, however, and manages to prevent the Judge from entering the house. The Judge quickly calms himself and returns to his usual congeniality, adding that he hopes to visit the house later, when Clifford and Hepzibah are in a better mood. He leaves beaming his great false smile. -Hepzibah collapses after the encounter and asks Phoebe to entertain Clifford for the morning. Phoebe goes to speak with the old man, deciding that there must be some old feud between Judge Pyncheon and his cousins.

Analysis — Chapters 7–8

Clifford is a figure shrouded by suspense, and in Chapter 7 Hawthorne uses the setting of the table to draw out the suspense until the very final moment. From the moment that Phoebe enters the kitchen, it becomes clear to her that something unusual is afoot. As the action unfolds, every detail emphasizes how Hepzibah’s behavior has changed. She is immersed in a cookbook when we first find her, a sure indication that she is trying something new. The fish seller makes his appearance, and Hepzibah rushes to get his attention, a sharp contrast to the earlier self who appears incapable of making even the simplest decisions. And there is the noteworthy addition of a third place to the table. The house that was, when we first saw it, so definitively the domain of one woman has tripled its number of places almost overnight. When Clifford finally appears, however, he cuts something of an anticlimactic figure. He is almost delirious, a doddering old man, incapable of even looking directly at his sister. He shrinks with alarm at the smallest things. This homecoming is more tragic than the one Hepzibah’s frantic preparations lead us to expect, and it is made all the more pitiable by the fact that our expectations, like Hepzibah’s, have been raised in Clifford’s absence.

The loss of the past is a recurrent theme in The House of the Seven Gables, but nowhere is it more poignantly expressed than in the comparisons between what Clifford once was and what he has become. When Phoebe was shown his picture in past chapters, she exclaimed that he was a handsome man, but we see no evidence of that here. Hepzibah’s preparations also seem far too great for such a man. But most telling of all is the description of Clifford as a man who takes great pleasure in luxury and sensual pleasure. His eyes consume the beautiful with a hunger as ravenous as the hunger he brings to the dinner table, and it seems as if he is taking in all such luxury for the first time in years—which we will discover in later chapters to be the case. There is a sadness, too, in the way that he cannot look directly at his sister, even when she is standing next to him. For these reasons, although the Judge darkly hints to Phoebe that there is reason to be afraid, it is hard to attribute any menace to Clifford’s appearance. His feebleness has already given him an air of innocence.

Judge Pyncheon here loses any remaining respectability he had in our eyes, though Hawthorne’s decision to have the Judge remain smiling does allow us to see how thoroughly he has disguised himself. That Phoebe, who is so unquestionably good, is instinctively reluctant to endure a kiss from the Judge tells us something is wrong that is not apparent on his face or person. He suffers another comparison with Colonel Pyncheon, but this one is even more unflattering—not only does he have his ancestor’s cruelty, but he isn’t even endowed with the Colonel’s strength. And the image of him with red fire raging naturally invites comparison to the red fires of Hell and makes him seem almost devilish. Nonetheless, even though the Judge’s true nature is revealed to Phoebe and to us in this scene, he is able to regain his composure; the fact that his smile returns so effortlessly shows us how false this disguise is. It adds, too, to our perception of the Judge’s evil. Once a character’s true nature is unveiled, it is usually expected to stay that way; to see it cloaked again makes it seem all the more devious.

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