The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 2 : The Little Shop-Window | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 2 introduces Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon. Hepzibah is an old spinster who lives in the house alone save for a lodger, "a certain respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerreotype line," who has lived in a remote part of the house for three months. She awakens before sunrise and spends a good deal of time readying herself for the day. While doing so, she looks at a picture of a young man, a miniature portrait by the artist Malbone; the narrator notes the portrait is not of an old lover (for she never had one) but does not say who it is. Hepzibah sighs. She often has a scowl on her face, and it causes people to think she is ill tempered, but it is due to her nearsightedness. In truth, she "was naturally tender, sensitive."

It's a big day for Hepzibah, who has dwelt in near seclusion for 25 years. She enters a cobwebbed room previously used as a shop. Hepzibah decides to reopen the shop due to her precarious financial situation. She feels shame over having to do so, as she is "a lady—who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences." When Hepzibah finally reopens the shop, she is overcome by emotion as she "fled into the inner parlor, threw herself into the ancestral elbow-chair, and wept."

Analysis

With the introduction and description of Hepzibah Pyncheon, the fall of the Pyncheon family is clear. She is a sad character, as dusty and rusty as the house itself, who has shuttered herself away for years. She has fed on her "aristocratic reminiscences," readers are told (implying one source of her decline), but it's also apparent that she has been consumed by the house itself—a bonafide Gothic trope, anticipating the horror fiction of future American writers. But Nathaniel Hawthorne invites readers to pity the old lady, despite—or because of—her condition. Hepzibah has never experienced love, "nor ever knew, by her own experience, what love technically means." Each movement Hepzibah makes causes her to sigh. Her great disappointment over her new station in life seems excessive, although the author goes out of his way to paint Hepzibah as a decent woman whose "heart never frowned."

Moreover, Hepzibah's decency makes her more human than her ancestors. She has been misunderstood by others due to the permanent scowl on her face, a result of her shortsightedness, though it seems the family guilt is etched on her face, and body as well. This brings her grief, and is another example of things beyond her capability.

A villain in the true Gothic mode, the decadent aristocrat Colonel Pyncheon looms over Hepzibah in the same way he looms over the house itself. Hepzibah pauses as she looks at his portrait—a detail that Hawthorne might very well have lifted from The Castle of Otranto in which portraits of ancestors sigh or gasp. She believes she is besmirching the family legacy when she must reopen the store due to financial despair, so she has trouble letting go of her classism. Yet her actions are commendable. She is striving to make the best of a situation she was not prepared for. Just as she is opening up the store, she is opening up herself, creating a chink in the Pyncheon tradition that will allow some much-needed middle-class values to direct her actions.

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