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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 15 : The Scowl and Smile | Summary



With Phoebe Pyncheon's departure and a lingering storm, the House of the Seven Gables is more depressing than ever. The shop has gone silent, as a rumor has gone around saying Hepzibah Pyncheon's scowl soured the merchandise. Hepzibah, feeling gloomy, tries to liven things up for Clifford Pyncheon, but to no avail. By the fifth day, Clifford stays in his room rather than coming down to breakfast. A note is heard from the harpsichord, but it is only the wind. At this point, the shop bell rings and in walks Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon.

The judge inquires about Clifford. When Hepzibah is once again cold toward him, the judge insists he has Clifford's best interests at heart. She insists that Judge Pyncheon actually hates Clifford and blames the judge for Clifford's imprisonment, and says if he really cared, he would stay away.

The narrator notes that the judge is a "man of eminent respectability," and everyone knows this other than Hepzibah and his political opponents. However, Judge Pyncheon has come to believe he is a better man than he actually is. His outward actions, or "splendid rubbish," mask something from the public and himself.

At this point, Judge Pyncheon becomes angry. He says it is he who had Clifford set free via his connections. He must therefore see Clifford to check on him. When Hepzibah again says no, claiming the visit will drive Clifford mad, the judge insists he must see Clifford—the reason is that Clifford has information about hidden wealth, which belongs to the judge. He told the judge this before he was taken away. Hepzibah does not believe the story and says the judge has enough money anyway.

Judge Pyncheon will not take no for an answer. He says people have been watching Clifford and reporting back to him. The judge says he will have Clifford locked up—claiming he is insane—if Hepzibah does not allow him to speak to Clifford. Because she feels she has no choice, Hepzibah agrees to the interview.


The effects of Phoebe Pyncheon's departure impact Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon instantly; while the domestic themes have softened the hard angles of the Gothic narrative, those old elements start to gain prominence once again. Even the weather has become dreary, eliminating the garden as a refuge. The shop loses its business, and Clifford becomes paralyzed. The dramatic turn of events makes clear how dependent the siblings are on Phoebe. They are vulnerable to any negative occurrence.

The negative occurrence comes in the form of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the novel's contemporary Gothic villain, whose arrival is described as "a harsher sound succeeded to the mysterious notes." The judge deludes himself into thinking he is a good man. He has convinced himself that the smile, which he so often wears, is indicative of his true self, though (like other Gothic characters) he masks his darker intentions by living a double life. His fairness while serving as a judge, his role as president of a Bible society, and his serving as treasurer of a widow's and orphan's fund constitute the surface actions, disguising the judge's corruption. Like his ancestors Colonel Pyncheon and Gervayse Pyncheon, the judge is controlled by greed and will do whatever it takes to enrich himself, including sacrificing members of his own family.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is setting up what looks like a final showdown—and readers might well wonder how the fragile Pyncheon siblings will fare against such an opponent as the judge. While Hepzibah Pyncheon dreams of money and feels ashamed to have to work, she is appalled at the judge's greed, and tells him, "It is you that are diseased in mind, not Clifford!" Greed has caused the judge to behave as if nothing else matters—not even family. Here, Hepzibah shows she is at least different from her ancestors, though they may still exert a powerful influence. She plays judge herself by noting how, with even half his money, the judge could build a house even greater than what he has, enjoy fine food and wine, and "make a far greater show to the world." This is a damning judgment. Though he may see himself as different from the colonel and Gervayse, the judge's "hard and grasping spirit" runs in the family, and Hepzibah reminds him, "you are but doing over again ... what your ancestor before you did." Something—perhaps the sins of the fathers—have continued to work in the new generations. For all her spirited tirade, however, Hepzibah admits, "You are stronger than I," and yields to the evil cousin.

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