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.