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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 16 : Clifford's Chamber | Summary



This chapter continues right after the previous one left off, as Hepzibah Pyncheon goes to Clifford Pyncheon's chamber in order to bring him to Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. The walk is painful to Hepzibah, and she is in no rush to finish her errand. The house seems more dismal to her than ever. She feels that whatever will come of the meeting will add an "incident to the annals of the house, with a bolder relief of wrong and sorrow" that will stand out from the others.

Hepzibah feels she cannot stand up to "the powerful character" of Judge Pyncheon. She looks out the arched window as she wishes someone could help her. She hopes to see Uncle Venner, but the weather has impacted his health, keeping him inside. She briefly considers if Clifford knows the secret the judge is searching for, but Hepzibah decides he cannot know.

When Hepzibah reaches the door of Clifford's chamber, she calls out to him repeatedly. When he does not answer, she goes in, but Clifford is not there. She hurries back to the room where she left Judge Pyncheon to ask him to help her find Clifford. Hearing no response, Hepzibah calls out to the judge as she enters the room but finds him "with his face somewhat averted, and looking towards a window." He is very still and does not respond. Hepzibah yells out again to Judge Pyncheon. Just then, Clifford appears and says, "We can dance now! ... the weight is gone." Judge Pyncheon still makes no response. Clifford says they must leave the house, and Hepzibah obeys.


This is perhaps the most suspense-filled chapter to this point, and readers are on the edge of their seats; with each step Hepzibah Pyncheon takes toward Clifford Pyncheon's chamber, she is filled with dread. At first, the contest with the judge appears to have been lost, with Hepzibah submitting to the force of her cousin's will only with resignation. The horrors of the past have been visited upon the present, and she recognizes she is in the midst of an ugly chapter in Pyncheon history but is powerless to stop it. Without the angelic influence of Phoebe Pyncheon, she tries to pray, but "her faith was too weak; the prayer too heavy to be thus uplifted." The family history, which included "stories which had heretofore been kept warm in her remembrance," remain only terrors now.

Tables are turned, however, when it is discovered that Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon has died from some unknown cause. Though the narrator does not explicitly pronounce the judge dead, the reactions of Clifford and Hepzibah strongly imply that this has occurred. Clifford's exclamation, "the weight is gone," indicates that, despite Hepzibah's original fears, the judge has lost after all. Though not cheered by the sight of his inert body, the discovery of the curse's continuance in the present is actually a boon to brother and sister.

In addition to Gothic elements, the novel has now become a murder mystery. For the moment, the only logical guess about a suspect is Clifford. When Hepzibah left the cousin, he was alone. When Hepzibah returns, Judge Pyncheon is dead and Clifford is nearby. For the judge to have died of natural causes at this exact moment seems too great of a coincidence. The fact that neither the author nor the characters explicitly say the judge is dead indicates both the potential to incriminate Clifford and the possibility the curse might continue beyond the judge's lifetime; neither of them want to admit the death, a reticence suggesting a fear of supernatural forces. Given Holgrave's tale in a previous chapter, readers might wonder if this is the hand of Matthew Maule (the younger) exerting power again. Like his ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, whose appearance he shares, the judge shares his fate. Both die under mysterious circumstances, end up slumped over a chair, while on the cusp of their greatest accomplishment. The family history continues to repeat itself.

Despite these horrors, the end of the chapter indicates some optimism. Though Clifford's face is "deadly white," he is revived with the death of Judge Pyncheon. The passing of his cousin seems to have awakened Clifford. He is full of joy and takes control "in a tone of brief decision, most unlike what was usual with him." In his new state, Clifford instructs Hepzibah what to do, and he acts in a decisive manner. The death of his rival has left Clifford rejuvenated.

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