The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 21 : The Departure | Summary

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Summary

Within a couple of weeks, people are no longer interested in Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. It is theorized that the death of Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon was due to foul play. According to one version of the story, Uncle Jaffrey was startled by the entrance of his nephew Judge Pyncheon into his private chambers and fell and hit his head on the side of a table. The blow killed him instantly. Rather than call for help, the judge proceeded to search through Uncle Jaffrey's valuables and papers, and tore up a will indicating Clifford was his heir while leaving an old will showing the judge as the heir. The judge blamed the death on his cousin Clifford.

Apparently, as a youth Judge Pyncheon was an "irreclaimable scapegrace ... wild, dissipated, addicted to low pleasures, little short of ruffianly in his propensities, and recklessly expensive." This behavior caused Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon to change his will. People speculate that the judge had come to his relative's house to borrow or even take money. While he did not plan on Clifford being accused of murder, during his trial the judge did not reveal what "he had himself done and witnessed."

A week after his death, Judge Pyncheon's son dies of cholera. The judge's estate is passed to Clifford Pyncheon, Hepzibah Pyncheon, and Phoebe Pyncheon, leaving them wealthy. This turn of events helps Clifford recover, but he is not able to return to his former self. The three cousins, along with Holgrave, decide to leave the House of the Seven Gables and move into Judge Pyncheon's estate. They invite Uncle Venner to join them. Holgrave shares a secret: he is a Maule.

As the family leaves, Hepzibah gives Ned Higgins money so he can continue buying candy. The two workmen note how Hepzibah was in business for a short time and is now riding off in a carriage "with a couple of hundred thousand."

Analysis

The dramatic irony (in which what happens is contrary to what is expected) and sarcasm of Chapter 18 is evident again in this chapter as the narrator relates how Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon had become "a stale subject" even before his obituary shows up in the country newspapers. All the judge's plans and schemes are for naught. Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe moving into the judge's home is the ultimate retribution. The judge's punishment is complete. More than this, the Pyncheons do not restore the only remaining vestige of their aristocratic origins: the House of the Seven Gables. The new middle-class attitudes, especially of Holgrave and Phoebe, reinforces Nathaniel Hawthorne's divergence from his 18th-century Gothic models in the form of his own "Yankee" variation.

As Curran notes, Hawthorne dispenses with the Gothic motif in which a plebeian hero turns out to have aristocratic origins (something that occurs in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto); Holgrave is the "hero and dispossessed heir; but he actually is a plebeian," being tied by blood to the Maules. Though readers might expect him to, he does not seek his right to land but, in another divergence from the older Gothic tradition, represents a self-made man who takes initiative (a sentiment and plot element made famous, though often for ironic purposes, by Mark Twain). Readers discover that Holgrave actually has sympathy for the aristocrats who, in an earlier generation, robbed his family of its inheritance. He, unlike his ancestor Matthew Maule (the younger), does not take revenge on the Pyncheon maiden. Moreover, Hawthorne was willing to go only so far in his support of an egalitarian society. He has even put aside his more radical ideas about the purifying emblems of the past "till only [their] ashes remain" (Chapter 12), gravitating more toward the soothing fire of the hearth, as represented by Phoebe.

Other breaks from tradition abound in the figure of Phoebe. Though she bears the Pyncheon name, she is not only the daughter of a "young woman of no family or property" (Chapter 1) but embraces very quickly and energetically the middle-class values of hard (domestic) work and commerce (she's very adept at running the shop). In contrast, Hepzibah—at least up until the very end of the tale—seems almost fully overthrown by the forces of aristocracy. Alice Pyncheon, despite the lasting influence of her beauty, was clearly arrested in her development. While she played the harpsichord, Phoebe, in the present, works the hearth. This cult of domesticity champions the "value of love and human relationships as opposed to materialism and self-centeredness." According to Hawthorne's perspective, with Phoebe as his key mouthpiece, this type of human relationship is best fostered in the home.

What of Clifford and Hepzibah? Thanks to her newfound wealth, Hepzibah closes the store, which she never wanted to open in the first place, proving that some old habits die hard. In like manner, Clifford's wealth will enable him to have all the beautiful things he desires, implying he, too, won't have to sully his hands with "filthy lucre." But despite the suggestion the older Pyncheon siblings have not entirely given up their aristocratic ways, the curse, if there ever was one, has been lifted. This is symbolized by the literal fall of the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon that loomed over the house for generations. The two families have united and all is forgiven. The Pyncheons and Maules are about to enjoy a life of ease and luxury they have never experienced. So, in a certain sense, they seem destined to live happily ever after.

Of course, the focus in the conclusion is another happy ending—again, one that relates to Hawthorne's middle-class leanings and his domestic theme. The author comes full circle in his symbolism of the chickens when the narrator notes: "two hens had forthwith begun an indefatigable process of egg-laying, with an evident design, as a matter of duty and conscience, to continue their illustrious breed under better auspices than for a century past." Previously scrawny and unlikely to thrive, the chickens have surpassed expectations; the parallel to the human union in the novel's conclusion is apparent with the reference to "design" and the suggestion that, like Holgrave and Phoebe, family structure and a good home was all those chickens needed to enable their rejuvenation. In like manner, Holgrave, who earlier seemed more interested in transience and felt houses should be temporary, wants to change his residence to one of stone (rather than wood) to give the "impression of permanence which [he] considers essential to the happiness of any one moment." This is not a temporary union. The curse is dead and the (overtly middle-class) bond is sealed.

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