“We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!”
Hoping to lighten Clifford’s mood, Phoebe often takes him to the window of the front gable, which looks out onto the street. Clifford is surprised by many of the new innovations that have come about while he was gone, although he has trouble making sense of the endless stream passing by: water carts, omnibuses, the sound of a passing train. He is happier when he sees things he remembers, such as rickety old-style carts, and laments the lack of stagecoaches. One day an organ-grinder, who works with a monkey and a moving diorama, begins playing in front of the Pyncheon house. The diorama has many figures, including a young man who repeatedly kisses a woman, a miser who counts his money, and a drunk who continually takes swigs of liquor. The narrator notes the futility of the figures’ efforts, since once the music stops, they cease to move, and they are no closer to finishing their activity than before. The organ-grinder’s monkey, an ugly little thing, -constantly holds out his hairy palm for change and is never -satisfied. The narrator thinks this greedy, ugly monkey is an amusing caricature of many New Englanders’ souls, but Clifford is the only one to recognize the horror of the monkey, and he recoils from it.
Another day, a procession passes through the streets. The sight of so many people crowded into the same place at once greatly affects Clifford, who suddenly steps onto the windowsill and seems about to jump off. Phoebe and Hepzibah pull him back down, but the narrator suggests that the leap may not have been so bad and that it might have awakened Clifford from his thick, endless stupor. On Sunday, the entire town turns out for church, as does Phoebe. Watching them all go, Clifford suggests to Hepzibah that perhaps they too could go to church. They dress and walk out the door, but then immediately stop. They cannot make themselves go farther. Clifford laments that he and Hepzibah have become ghosts and are tied to the Pyncheon house forever. Another afternoon, Clifford amuses himself by blowing bubbles out the window, only to have one land on Judge Pyncheon, who looks up to the window and makes a slightly sarcastic comment to Clifford before moving on. It’s a brief exchange, but it leaves Clifford paralyzed by fear.
Phoebe has now been at the Pyncheon house for a month. Since she is young and hungry for company of her own age, she becomes friends with Holgrave, the daguerreotypist. Their conversations are especially important to Phoebe, who craves a break from the dour company of Clifford and Hepzibah. Phoebe discovers that Holgrave, at the age of twenty-two, has already lived a diverse life, having worked a dozen jobs and visited not only the Midwestern states but also parts of Europe. He is an excitable young man who has been impressed with the ideas of revolutionaries. He makes a long speech to Phoebe about how everything in their world—their books, their laws, their houses—is based on the works of dead men, and he thinks each generation should tear down the institutions of the past and put up new ones in their place. These ideas unnerve Phoebe, but she listens nonetheless. The narrator notes that Holgrave’s “earnestness and heightened color” which are increasingly evident as he speaks, might lead one to imagined that he is in love with Phoebe, although she has never been able to discern anything of the sort in his heart.
Holgrave makes many inquiries about Clifford, as he is very curious about both the man’s welfare and his past. Phoebe does not share Holgrave’s inquisitiveness and is consequently unable to give him any of the information he seeks. We are told that Holgrave is not a particularly well-read young man, and that while he considers himself a thinker, he still has much to learn, including how to really think about things. Nonetheless, he possesses a natural courage and resolve that are made all the more admirable by the fact that they have survived many trials. Holgrave is wrongly convinced that he can read Phoebe like an open book, and he fails to recognize that such personalities often conceal deep thoughts and emotions. Holgrave then expresses to Phoebe his belief in a Pyncheon curse, at least as much as it has caused something of a Pyncheon “lunacy.” Phoebe rejects the notion, asking whether such lunacy might be catching. Holgrave tells her that it is no superstition, and that he has written an in-depth story about the ancient Maule curse for a magazine. Holgrave asks Phoebe if she would like to hear it, and when she assents, he reads it to her.
While the organ-grinder himself is not a particularly gripping figure, he nonetheless offers up a number of symbols that allow Hawthorne to comment on the world around him. The first of these is the moving diorama, whose figures indulge in a fruitless, endless pantomime of activity in which goals remain unreached—particularly the lover, who is no happier for all the kisses he has obtained from his girl. Hawthorne’s narrator remarks of the scene: “Possibly, some cynic, at once merry and bitter, had desired to signify . . . that we mortals, whatever our business or amusement—however serious, however trifling—all dance to one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity, bring nothing finally to pass.” It’s a rare but telling moment in the narrative in which Hawthorne steps outside his authorial stance to admit that he is using this part of his story to impart his own “merry and bitter” opinions, revealing to his readers that his novel may have more than a simple storytelling agenda.
The organ-grinder’s monkey offers an even more grotesque commentary, personifying the stingy individuals that Hawthorne must have seen in the society around him. The monkey becomes associated with the demon of avarice when it is described as “the Mammon of copper-coin, symbolizing the grossest form of the love of money.” The monkey is not the sole source of avarice, however, for the narrator notes that as New Englanders walk by and drop their money in the monkey’s hairy palm, they fail to see how well their “own moral condition was here exemplified,” meaning that the monkey is the spitting image of the humans from whom he collects his coins. Again, Hawthorne seems to be eager that we not miss the point, for not only does he take great pains to ensure we understand the ideas he is trying to express, but he states outright that the monkey is “symbolizing” something, in case we try to read such an obvious image too literally. Rather than letting us stroll happily by the monkey, as all the characters in the story except Clifford do, the author lets us in on his intentions and takes great pains to make sure we understand.
Holgrave’s diatribe in Chapter 12 allows Hawthorne to give voice to contemporary philosophy that transforms the house of the seven gables into a metaphor for society. When Holgrave touts some of the Transcendentalist ideas to which Hawthorne himself was exposed, he stresses the importance of renewal, arguing that society is based on the views of “Dead Men”—a rather chilling way of arguing that New England culture is based on stale ideas. Holgrave’s argument that what is important is to rebuild with each succeeding generation is of unmistakable relevance to the Pyncheons, still haunted by a curse generations old. Holgrave’s statement could even suggest that Matthew Maule’s curse has become a handy excuse for the misery of the Pyncheon family. Until now, for the most part, Hepzibah and Clifford have seemed to be helpless prisoners of an ancient evil, but Holgrave’s politics assign them a degree of agency, and it becomes somewhat harder to sympathize with their sufferings when we realize that their problems could disappear once they left the Pyncheon homestead. Of course, The House of the Seven Gables is a romance, and in previous pages, including the incident where Hepzibah and Clifford are unable to go to church, Hawthorne has presented circumstances as being beyond their control. Holgrave nevertheless offers a very different perspective, and for a brief moment the story of the house seems to stand for our own inability to deal with the problems around us and our unwillingness to even try.