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The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 11 : The Arched Window | Summary



Periodically, Phoebe and Clifford sit and look out an arched window facing the street. Clifford Pyncheon is curious about vehicles invented while he was in prison. However, he is particularly happy to see things he knows, as "all the antique fashions of the street were dear to him." His favorite sight is the scissor-grinder. Clifford listens to the items being ground "with rapturous delight." An organ-grinder, along with a monkey, performs in front of the arched window. They draw a crowd as people enjoy the act, including Phoebe Pyncheon who throws them some money. Clifford enjoys the music, but the monkey's "horrible ugliness, spiritual as well as physical," causes him to cry.

One day, a large political procession passes in front of the house. Clifford is intrigued by the mass of people and wants to join them. He is ready to jump into the crowd, but Hepzibah Pyncheon and Phoebe stop him. When Hepzibah asks what he was thinking, Clifford says, "had I taken that plunge, and survived it, methinks it would have made me another man!"

As Phoebe heads off to church along with many others in the town, Clifford and Hepzibah feel an urge to go as well. They dress up and get a couple of steps out the door when Clifford stops them. He says it is too late for them and they are tied to the house.

Clifford blows bubbles out the arched window. One lands on Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, and he makes a sarcastic comment about playing with bubbles. The comment sends Clifford into a state of fear.


Clifford Pyncheon is referred to as a child (or some derivative) multiple times in this chapter. He is stuck watching life pass him by. As he and Phoebe Pyncheon watch the activity below, the things that interest Clifford most are those that most remind him of his childhood. He lost part of his life while he was away, and he longs for another time. In one sense, this childlike aspect of Clifford is negative, particularly because it relates to his desire for the "antique fashions" of his family's aristocratic legacy; from this point of view, his growth is stunted. At the same time, readers cannot help but see how the innocence of childhood and the opportunity to start new and fresh hold great appeal to Clifford, showing he might be in arrested development but capable of moving forward once again.

The organ-grinder and the monkey appear to be extensions of the narrator's ongoing critique of aristocratic decadence. The monkey stands on his feet and could be viewed as the embodiment of greed, representing people's desire for money with its "man-like expression." For example, the monkey approaches each individual with its palm out, "signifying his excessive desire for whatever filthy lucre might happen to be in anybody's pocket." Man's greed, this passage seems to imply, makes him "ready to gripe at every miserable advantage," and it might symbolize "the grossest form of the love of money." The monkey, after all, takes the money in "with joyless eagerness." Greed apparently turns a person into a devil who is never satisfied.

At the same time, the performance could also reflect the aristocratic tendency to fetishize the past and simultaneously demonize middle-class values. After all, however greedy the monkey might appear, the organ-grinder himself is unlikely to make much income from his occupation. And though it's never emphasized, the reference to "filthy lucre" could implicitly be Clifford's response, and might be, like his aristocratic-minded sister, a revulsion to seeing physical money: it is emblematic of middle-class values and, as such, a step down for the Pyncheons.

There are moments where Clifford seems to want to be part of the world—and implicitly, its diverse walks of life; he is apparently ready to jump into the crowd in order to join the action. This may indicate his readiness to take the plunge into the contemporary middle-class lifestyle, and with more abruptness than his sister. He says doing so will make him another man. The narrator agrees, saying the shock and sinking down will allow him "to emerge, sobered, invigorated, restored to the world and to himself." However, the narrator adds, with some irony, that he might need only one "remedy—death!"

This bleak picture is reiterated by Clifford himself, and it reflects how wildly his moods fluctuate as well as the extreme difficulty of dispensing with old habits, like classism and the fetishization of past "fashions." As he and Hepzibah emerge from the House of the Seven Gables only to quickly reenter, an opportunity has been lost, Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to suggest. Clifford believes their chance has passed: "We are ghosts!" he exclaims. He and his sister are "doomed to haunt" the old cursed house, like the other Gothic entities that still resonate in the portaits. Life has passed them by, and they are now trapped. The problem, especially in contrast with characters like Holgrave and Phoebe, is that Clifford and his sister have little connection to the outside world. Clifford can send bubbles into the world, but he, himself, will stay behind. It is this detached position that stands in the way of true growth, true unity with the rest of society.

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