The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 4 : A Day Behind the Counter | Summary

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Summary

As the afternoon of her first day in the store approaches, Hepzibah Pyncheon sees an "elderly gentleman, large and portly, and of remarkably dignified demeanor." He looks in the window disapprovingly, yet when he sees Hepzibah, "the smile changed from acrid and disagreeable to the sunniest complacency and benevolence." The man, who has an air of influence and dignity, is her cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. When they make eye contact, she says to him regarding the shop, "Well!—what have you to say?—is not the Pyncheon House my own, while I'm alive?" After this encounter, Hepzibah goes and looks at the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and the Malbone miniature she previously viewed in Chapter 2.

Another customer, Uncle Venner, enters. He is a very elderly man and was thought of as "rather deficient ... in his wits," but Hepzibah "always felt kindly" toward him. Uncle Venner is happy to see Hepzibah working. Hepzibah says that rather than starting, she should now be giving up. While he appreciates what Hepzibah is doing by opening a store, Uncle Venner does not think she will have to do it for long, and Judge Pyncheon should help her. Finally, Uncle Venner offers "some sage counsel in her shop-keeping capacity." He urges her to "smile pleasantly." After he leaves, Hepzibah struggles even more as a shopkeeper.

Later, an omnibus comes and drops someone off at the house. A young woman arrives, whom Hepzibah recognizes as her country cousin, Phoebe Pyncheon. Hepzibah is surprised by the visit and decides Phoebe can stay for one night because if Hepzibah's brother Clifford were there, it would disturb him. A letter had been written announcing Phoebe's visit, but the postman had not delivered it.

Analysis

There is something mysterious and dark about Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. He is not genuine, as he is able to frown and smile in quick succession, suggesting a double nature. If he is truly happy to see Hepzibah Pyncheon, readers must ask, then why doesn't he come into the shop? The judge's true character is not reflected in his appearance, as is frequently the case in the story. Indeed, when Hepzibah returns to the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, Hawthorne is inviting the reader to think about another double-dealing patriarch and to contemplate the degree to which the colonel, true to the Gothic mold, still haunts the living heirs in the present, perhaps in the form of a new threat: the judge. "While gazing at the portrait," the narrator tells us, "Hepzibah trembled under its eye. Her hereditary reverence made her afraid to judge the character of the original so harshly as a perception of the truth compelled her to do. But still she gazed," the narrator adds, "because the face of the picture enabled her—at least, she fancied so—to read more accurately, and to a greater depth, the face which she had just seen in the street." The judge's appearance signals to the reader that a new Gothic villain will take the place of the old.

Uncle Venner is a character who could provide comic relief, as he is noted as someone who is weak in the head. However, his words and advice to Hepzibah are sound. He has her best interests at heart and is not afraid to disagree or say something that could be considered judgmental. He stands in stark contrast to Judge Pyncheon, who is respectable and kind on the surface but has no one's best interests at heart but his own. Similarly, readers can see a distinction between the grand but gloomy House of the Seven Gables, linked to the Pyncheon patriarchs, and the more modest but cheerful "farm-house" Uncle Venner frequently alludes to. But his last words to Hepzibah, "When do you expect him home?" are mysterious. Who is the he Venner is referring to? Readers understand that Hepzibah's life is about to undergo still more change.

Just as Hepzibah has made the dramatic change by reopening the store, she must also play host when Phoebe Pyncheon drops by to visit. While she is determined Phoebe will spend only one night in the house, it is clear this will not be the case. Phoebe's carefree and less formal ways, which may come from her rural upbringing, make her bound to clash with the formal Hepzibah. An appropriate follow-up to the domestically inclined Venner (a man Phoebe will eventually befriend), Phoebe represents a key component of Hawthorne's middle-class concerns: the cult of domesticity. References to her "sphere" and the appropriateness of her position "standing at the threshold" of a home foreshadow Phoebe's dominant role in transforming aristocratic gloom into sunny middle-class cheerfulness.

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