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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 12 : The Daguerreotypist | Summary



Clifford Pyncheon tires easily and goes to bed at dusk. This leaves Phoebe Pyncheon with free time, which she uses to get out of the house for fresh air and to spend time with people her own age. The only person around who is close to her age is Holgrave; hence, the two spend time together. Phoebe is happy to have a break and refresh, though if she and Holgrave became acquainted "under different circumstances, neither ... would have been likely to bestow much thought upon the other."

Holgrave, who is 22, shares his life experiences with Phoebe. He gives the impression of being rather unstable, flitting from job to job; he does not see himself being a daguerreotypist for very long, either. In fact, he strongly believes that everyone should lead a nomadic existence, unbound by possessions or obligations. Phoebe views Holgrave as a "calm and cool ... observer." He shows an interest in his fellow housemates, particularly Clifford. Phoebe tells Holgrave she cannot read Clifford's mind and does not try to. While Holgrave is not well read, he "was certainly of a thoughtful turn." One thought he has is to be rid of the past, and he explains the influence of the dead upon the living. He lives in the House of the Seven Gables as a way of studying the past.

Phoebe asks Holgrave if he believes in the curse. He says he does believe in it, and has written a story on it. When he offers to read Phoebe the story (which he intends to publish in a magazine), she accepts.


Even a flower seems to droop in the hand of Hepzibah Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon, reflecting the tenacious grip of the old Pyncheon curse. Phoebe Pyncheon, the burgeoning heroine in this middle-class Gothic narrative, does not want to be like the flower and escapes the dreary house to revive herself, which allows her to continue caring for her cousins. Here again, the motif of the ministering angel comes to the fore. But as indication of her depth as a character, the house and her experiences there have changed Phoebe; she is no static protagonist. The change impacts her, "although whatever charm it infringed upon was repaired by another, perhaps more precious." Phoebe has grown and become deeper and more thoughtful, losing her simple ways. Even her eyes indicate the change and growth in her as she becomes "less girlish, but more a woman."

The impact of transcendentalist thought can be best seen in the figure of Holgrave, whose character emerges more in this chapter. He is a proud man who considers himself a nonconformist with important ideas about social reform. He had little formal education and was "self-dependent while yet a boy ... a condition aptly suited to his natural force of will." Here again are those Emersonian ideals of self-reliance, which surface in earlier sequences where Holgrave encourages Hepzibah Pyncheon in her middle-class enterprise and, a bit later, proves himself to be an independent, hard worker in the garden. Despite his youthful age, Holgrave has done many things and has had a number of different professions; he has the sort of Bohemian personality that craves new experiences and, like the transcendentalists, sees the past as something to break free from.

For these reasons, Holgrave stands somewhat apart from the Pyncheon family. Holgrave believes in the present and is convinced the future holds brighter and better times and that society should not be based on the ideas of dead men. Holgrave's insistence and thirst for the future contrast with Hepzibah and Clifford, who are tied to the past. The siblings cannot even leave their house, and call themselves ghosts. The world has passed them by while they hold onto the past. Holgrave shares this same philosophy with Phoebe, though she finds it difficult to understand. "It makes me dizzy to think of such a shifting world!" she tells him. And while readers might see this as a simplistic response, there are indications that Phoebe's sentiments might be shared by the narrator and, implicitly, Nathaniel Hawthorne: "His [Holgrave's] error lay in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork." This might very well be a transcendentalist thought, but if so, it is a conservative one and a caution against too rapid a change. The middle way—that is, Phoebe's domestic approach of slow growth and gradual renewal—might be a better alternative, the narrator seems to be saying.

By the end of the chapter, Holgrave should still strike the reader as mysterious, especially given his keen interest in studying the history of the Pyncheons and the House of the Seven Gables. His introduction of this topic implies he is willing to carefully study the past rather than burn it, as he suggests hyperbolically in conversation with Phoebe. As readers see a few chapters later, Holgrave has a personal stake in the Pyncheon history; hurtful though it may be to peel back the painful layers of this Gothic tale, readers might gain some respect for Holgrave's wish to "speak true thoughts to a true mind!" Despite her doubts about his belief system, Phoebe is similarly willing to hear him out, reinforcing her decency.

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