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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 17 : The Flight of Two Owls | Summary



With Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon outside the House of the Seven Gables, Clifford becomes very excited. Hepzibah feels that the whole situation is a terrible nightmare. As they walk along the streets they are an odd pair, but no one notices due to the gray weather. The siblings go to the train station. Clifford is happy to be among so many people, but Hepzibah thinks he has gone mad.

They buy two tickets with no specific destination in mind. While on the train, Clifford is extremely talkative and converses with an elderly gentleman. Clifford says how wonderful it is to be on the train, while the elderly gentleman says it would be better to be at home in front of the fire on such a rainy day. Clifford continues to spout his ideas. He says houses are "the greatest possible stumbling-blocks in the path of human happiness." It is better for the soul to be outside in the fresh air. When he refers to the House of the Seven Gables, Clifford says it would be "a relief to me if that house could be torn down, or burnt up." He also supposes about a dead man in a house. At one point, the conversation focuses on telegraphs.

When the conversation ends, Clifford tells Hepzibah it's time to exit the train. When they get off the train, Clifford's newfound energy wanes, and he tells Hepzibah to lead the way. She has no idea what to do and prays for help.


Though the Pyncheon siblings have escaped their Gothic nemesis, this chapter is no less suspenseful as Clifford Pyncheon is bursting with energy and excitement, and readers are unsure who or what the characters will encounter on their journey. Clifford, for his part, is making up for time lost, making the plunge he only fantasized about previously. He has become a man of action, not just words ... or bubbles. As Clifford spouts his theories, his "countenance glowed ... a youthful character shone out." Getting out of the house (and away from Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon) leaves Clifford feeling unencumbered and full of life, implying the possible end of a family curse and the sapping impact of the old Pyncheon legacy. In his conversation with the elderly gentleman, Clifford refers to the House of the Seven Gables as "an old home, rendered poisonous by one's defunct forefathers and relatives." The death of the judge is like a powerful tonic, and his demise has enabled the Pyncheons to literally move forward.

Clifford's ideas draw comparisons to those Holgrave shared with Phoebe Pyncheon in Chapter 12. For example, Clifford says man is not meant to flourish in a home as they are only temporary, just as Holgrave seems proud of his own nomadic wanderings. Both believe in a bright future and feel the past can be burdensome—a key component of transcendentalist thinking and an indication of Nathaniel Hawthorne's departure from the 18th-century Gothic mold in which the old aristocratic order is often restored at the end of the story. For Clifford, the future starts with an exodus from the house and, by proxy, from aristocracy—a sentiment with which Holgrave would seem to agree. This new chapter—in the novel and in Clifford's and Hepzibah's lives—is turning out to be an exciting, potentially transformative one, hinting at a happy ending.

However, for all his wild, excitable ideas, the talk and the train ride have exhausted Clifford; in particular, his idealization of nomadic wandering seems to have had an ill effect on him despite his initial feeling of giddy relief at departing from the dreaded Pyncheon mansion. Moreover, the conclusion of the chapter does not necessarily promise a happy ending—hence the tense narration, leaving unsaid what is to come. Clifford and Hepzibah's departure from the train imply that the "ascending spiral" of the future does not include them. The "wild effervescence of [Clifford's] mood ... had entirely subsided." Clifford is now off the train, which symbolizes the upward spiral he was referring to. The train takes him away from the past, but it can only take him so far. He remains a wrinkled old man, and the House of the Seven Gables continues to stand. With Hepzibah leading the way, the siblings are more sunk than ever. Hepzibah does not even know what to pray for and merely asks for mercy. They are alone in "a solitary way-station" and "the world had fled away from these two wanderers." Clifford and Hepzibah seem to have nothing.

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