The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 5 : May and November | Summary

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Summary

Phoebe Pyncheon awakens the next morning and prays. She then begins rearranging the room, making it more cheerful and pleasant. She adds roses from the garden that were planted by her great-great-grand-aunt years before. While on her way back to the garden, Phoebe meets Hepzibah Pyncheon who tells her, "Cousin Phoebe ... I really can't see my way clear to keep you with me." These words are not said harshly and come from a practical perspective. Hepzibah cannot afford to feed Phoebe and does not want her cousin to be in the house, which she describes as a melancholy place.

Phoebe is not put off and says she thinks Hepzibah will find that they are compatible and pleasant. She also says, "I mean to earn my bread ... I have not been brought up a Pyncheon." Hepzibah says it is not her decision but Clifford Pyncheon's, the master of the house. She shares some more family history with Phoebe. Ultimately, Phoebe's pleasant nature and usefulness (she makes breakfast for the two of them) convinces Hepzibah to let her cousin stay. When the bell rings signaling there are customers in the shop, Phoebe suggests she handle it rather than Hepzibah. Phoebe shows herself to be excellent at dealing with customers, and many items sell out during her first day there. At the end of the day, she suggests changes to the stock.

Hepzibah is drawn to Phoebe's positive energy. The cousins find "time before nightfall ... to make rapid advances towards affection and confidence." To strengthen their bond, Hepzibah shares some of their family's history. They look at the map of the disputed territory, which has a hidden silver mine, and Hepzibah mentions a treasure hidden somewhere in or around the house. She says that if they find it, "we will tie up the shop-bell for good and all!" Hepzibah wants to restore the family name to once again be a lady and rejoin the aristocracy.

Hepzibah is impressed by Phoebe's skills, though she wishes she could be a lady. However, Hepzibah notes that Phoebe has a number of good traits. Uncle Venner agrees and calls her "one of God's angels." He says, in response to Hepzibah, he has never seen a Pyncheon like Phoebe. Later, Hepzibah tells Phoebe more family history and stories about particular ancestors, including Colonel Pyncheon and Alice Pyncheon. They also speak of Holgrave, whom Hepzibah says has some odd friends and ideas but is pleasant and charming.

Analysis

When Phoebe—whose name from the Greek means "bright, pure" and is also the name of a songbird—first awakens, she is a positive burst of light in a gloomy place, an angelic presence in a ghostly environment. As a key representative of the Victorian angel of the house, she immediately begins transforming the House of the Seven Gables. She is a natural, and possesses a positive spark that lights up everything she touches. There is a "cheerfulness glimmering through its dusky windows as Phoebe passe[s] to and fro."

In contrast to the aristocratic-minded Hepzibah Pyncheon, Phoebe Pyncheon is practical and seems content with her lot. She is unlike the other Pyncheons, as both Uncle Venner and Hepzibah remark. Her grace, charm, and penchant for hard work distinguish her, making her one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's most important middle-class protagonists. Indeed, her ability to make an almost instant impact on the home represents one of the key ways Hawthorne's Gothic differs from his 18th-century models: Phoebe is implicitly rejecting the stagnant role of "lady" in favor of a more industrious, middle-class domesticity.

There is one Pyncheon with whom Phoebe shares some qualities—Alice. Alice Pyncheon was a beautiful and accomplished woman whose "fragrance ... still linger[s] about the place," but who died young. All in all, Phoebe offers a positive divergence from other family members.

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