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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 3 : The First Customer | Summary



Hepzibah Pyncheon opens her shop, and her first customer is her tenant, Holgrave, a 22-year-old daguerreotypist. While he comes to encourage her, Hepzibah cries over her fate as she has been brought up to be a lady. Holgrave encourages her, saying, "You will at least have the sense of healthy and natural effort for a purpose." He also notes that titles such as lady "imply, not privilege, but restriction!" He considers her actions heroic and more noble than those of any person in her family. If others acted as she has, he says, "I doubt whether an old wizard Maule's anathema ... would have had much weight." Hepzibah says if Maule could see her, then he would know his curse worked. Hepzibah does, however, appreciate Holgrave's efforts.

After Holgrave leaves, Hepzibah hears men out in the street talking about her venture. They are convinced she will fail due to her scowl and the lack of a need for another shop. The conversation leaves her with no hope for success. At this point, a young boy walks in and wants a cookie. Hepzibah allows him to have it for free, which shocks him. The child comes back for a second cookie, but this time Hepzibah makes him pay. Other customers come in throughout the day, with some leaving satisfied and others complaining. Overall, the day leads Hepzibah to "disagreeable conclusions as to the temper and manners of what she termed the lower classes." She also feels angry when a lady passes by and briefly wonders if everyone has to work, so "that the palms of her hands may be kept white and delicate?"


Holgrave stands in contrast to Hepzibah Pyncheon, who is saddened by the need to open up the shop. Holgrave's mere presence in the shop "appeared to have brought some of its cheery influences." He believes Hepzibah's new venture is a great opportunity for her and will open her up to new ventures. She will no longer be entangled by terms/descriptions such as lady. Holgrave, voicing Nathaniel Hawthorne's transcendentalist beliefs, does not believe in distinguishing people by class. People need to make an effort that will bring them a sense of purpose and joy. Holgrave's notion of "healthy and natural effort" is the first of several allusions to the transcendentalist self-reliance espoused by Emerson, and to the more general figure of the self-made man of enterprise and action (who shows up in the stories and novels of another American author, Mark Twain).

Hepzibah, however, still appreciates the title of lady. Her wish to hold on to the title contrasts with the thought she has when a rich woman passes. Hepzibah feels hostility toward the woman and wonders, "Must the whole world toil, that the palms of her hands may be kept white and delicate?" Hepzibah quickly feels guilty for the thought, showing her old view of the world is still ingrained. And yet for all that, the narrator tells us, she acutely feels the "sordid stain of that copper coin" given to her by the boy with the sweet tooth. This seemingly innocent gesture—both the offering of money and its acceptance—has the capacity, Hawthorne suggests, to "demolish" the "structure of ancient aristocracy ... as if his childish gripe had torn down the seven-gabled mansion." More chinks in the Pyncheon aristocratic armor, and more signs that middle-class commerce is wearing away at the old system.

Hepzibah's self-imposed seclusion has not been good for her, but being among people and making an effort to work in trade are lifting the "fog" that has surrounded her. The fog is not only over Hepzibah but also over the House of the Seven Gables, which might "as well be buried in an eternal fog while all other houses had the sunshine on them."

While the decrepit state of the House of the Seven Gables might be a negative sign of its decadence and the decline of the Pyncheon family fortunes, in this chapter it also seems to represent potentially positive signs that the old might be replaced by something new—as Holgrave suggests (in transcendentalist manner), the day "ends an epoch and begins one."

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