The House of the Seven Gables
[T]he delicate springs of his character, never morally or intellectually strong, had given way, and he was now imbecile . . . the fragrance of an earthly rosebud . . . had summoned up reminiscences or visions of all the living and breathing beauty, amid which he should have had his home.
Summary — Chapter 9: Clifford and Phoebe
Hepzibah comes to realize that she cannot be a comforting presence to Clifford. Her voice croaks when she reads to him; he finds the books she chooses uninteresting; and he cannot even bear to look at her withered, scowling face. So Phoebe becomes the sole source of happiness for the two miserable elders. Miraculously, Phoebe is not brought down by the pathos and misery that envelop the house, and she even begins to brighten it up. Phoebe’s is not a mindless happiness, however, and she begins to acquire a womanly wisdom. She sings as she works, and the sound always makes Clifford happy, or at least less unhappy. He becomes “youthful” when he is near her. His fascination is not lecherous, however, as it has more to do with his enjoyment of watching her youth and vigor develop than it does with Phoebe’s appearance. She, in turn, is not one of those people who is fascinated by misery. In fact, she finds the mystery surrounding Clifford frustrating, and the time she spends with him is motivated by pity rather than morbid fascination. In the shop, too, Phoebe continues to be an asset, and most customers prefer her to Hepzibah.
Summary — Chapter 10: The Pyncheon-Garden
One of the few sources of amusement for Clifford is the garden, which, under Phoebe and Holgrave’s tender care, has slowly been coming back to life. Phoebe often takes Clifford out into the garden, where she reads aloud to him. These little excursions with Phoebe always please Clifford, particularly when she reads poetry. In a magnanimous gesture, he decrees that the old chickens be allowed to roam free throughout the garden. They often can be found clustered close to Maule’s Well. Earlier in the summer, Holgrave discovered some bean-vine seeds hidden away in a chest of drawers in a garret over one of the seven gables, stored away by a long-deceased Pyncheon ancestor. To see how long such seeds last, Clifford planted them, and now they have shot up as healthy bean vines laden with bright red blossoms, always swarmed by hummingbirds, to Clifford’s great delight. The sight of Clifford admiring the hummingbirds and puttering about his garden with an innocence that is almost childlike warms Hepzibah’s heart. At the same time, however, the sight of such happiness, and the thought that both she and Clifford have seen so many years wasted, give Hepzibah a slight twinge of sadness.
Hepzibah has begun arranging Sunday-afternoon lunches with Phoebe, Clifford, Holgrave, and Uncle Venner. Clifford, whose social interactions are typically muted, is surprisingly animated at these lunches. He enjoys speaking with Uncle Venner, whose greatly advanced age makes Clifford feel almost young. Holgrave also makes friendly overtures toward Clifford, but the narrator notes the “questionable” expression that occasionally appears in the artist’s eye. On one such occasion, Uncle Venner mentions that he dreams of eventually retiring to the workhouse, which he refers to as the “farm,” and Clifford insinuates that he has bigger, more ambitious plans for Uncle Venner. Uncle Venner, however, politely refuses to be party to any such strategies, saying that he feels no burning desire to heap up property, since it seems to take away from what God has provided him with. As the sun begins to set, Clifford’s high spirits decline. He mutters to himself, “I want my happiness! . . . Many, many years have I waited for it! It is late!” The narrator expresses pity for Clifford, for his past troubles and his half-imbecility, and says that Fate holds no happiness for Clifford unless he can find it in his time with Phoebe and luncheons like the one he has just consumed. The narrator advises Clifford to accept this as happiness: “Murmur not—question not—but make the most of it!”
Analysis — Chapters 9–10
The tableau of relative domestic tranquility that is painted in these chapters is given weight by the fact that we see Phoebe not only surviving but actually growing in her new environment. Until now, the house has been depicted as unfriendly territory at best, but it now takes on an air of fertility and nourishment. Phoebe, we are told, is noticeably developing into a woman, a strange claim when one considers that she has been at the house for only a matter of weeks, but one that is stressed nonetheless. Her emotional maturity is remarkable: she sings sad songs, but without any tragedy or self-pity, and she is more annoyed than fascinated with the pathos that surrounds Clifford. Granted, Phoebe arrived at the Pyncheon house with an air of natural vigor and determination, but in Chapter 9 these assets blossom into something more grounded and serious. While this makes Phoebe all the more admirable, it also casts a shadow of doubt on the melancholy that dyes the novel’s every page. Phoebe’s annoyance with Clifford’s martyrdom may indicate that not everything in The House of the Seven Gables is as predestined as its owners have come to believe.
Clifford is also allowed to grow, and as he emerges from his half-imbecilic state, he blossoms in a manner that is clearly linked to the garden he so adores. The bean vines are an obvious indicator of this growth, and they also come to stand for the more general revitalization of the house of the seven gables. Planted from seeds discovered buried in the musty belongings of an old Pyncheon ancestor, they indicate that something good can come out of the corruption of the past; the fact that they grow in the face of all expectations that they would fail—Holgrave plants them more as an experiment than as a serious attempt at agriculture—inserts some hope into what has so far been a predominantly bleak narrative. While the bean vines thrive, Clifford’s own rejuvenation and spiritual rebirth are far from complete. It should be noted that as he extracts himself from his insanity, he also begins to exhibit some less likable Pyncheon traits. His disdain for his sister’s face is cruel but may be justifiable given his penchant for all things beautiful, yet his plans for Uncle Venner’s future seem strangely greedy, as do his grumblings that he now wants his happiness. Because Clifford has suffered through much, a somewhat vengeful spirit seems understandable, but some of his comments bear an eerie similarity to avaricious remarks we might have expected to hear from Colonel Pyncheon.
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