The House of the Seven Gables

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapters 19–21

Summary Chapters 19–21

Throughout the novel, the village has been as guilty of myopia as the inhabitants of the house; the last chapters serve as an across-the-board rejection of popular opinion, the most pertinent example being the way in which the Judge’s reputation comes tumbling down so rapidly. Before his death, the Judge’s only guilt seemed to be his unjust treatment of his cousin, and even that was seen exclusively through Hepzibah’s eyes. With his death from apoplexy, however, the floodgates are suddenly opened. Now, not only does his attempt to extort property from Clifford become apparent, but the rumors that he is a thief, and responsible for the older Jaffrey’s death, snowball. The speed with which these truths is revealed is remarkable, but it also leaves room for doubt, and the fact that the novel prefers to call this gossip rather than absolute truth allows Hawthorne to both smear his villain and make us marvel at how quickly, and maybe even unfairly, popular opinion can make or break reputations. The character of Uncle Venner substantiates this point, as he is the novel’s wisest personality but confesses that he was once thought to be rather simple.

On the surface, the union of Phoebe and Holgrave seems like the quintessential fairy-tale romance, and the marriage between the two families ties up many of the novel’s loose ends. Holgrave’s reform is phrased with such regret, however, that it is hard to accept this interpretation. His love certainly seems genuine, but it comes at a high price, and in Chapter 20 Phoebe herself protests Holgrave’s promise to settle down. Of Clifford’s little band, Holgrave is the only one whom the novel scorns for moving to the Judge’s estate, a telling moment of sarcasm on the author’s part. Phoebe’s joking with Holgrave about his wishing for a stone house seems good-natured, but his reply is specifically and unmistakably characterized as “half-melancholy,” a word which seems to point to reluctance on Holgrave’s part. In fact, Holgrave, a onetime free spirit, seems to be held prisoner by a sense of the inevitable, and his entire proposal to Phoebe is tainted as a result. While Holgrave loves Phoebe, his later lack of enthusiasm makes his decision to marry her seem more like a gesture of resignation than of passion. Consequently, it is hard for us to enjoy Clifford and Hepzibah’s good fortune. It is difficult to celebrate their release from captivity when another character seems to be headed toward similar confinement.