The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 6 : Maule's Well | Summary

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Summary

Phoebe Pyncheon enters the garden, which includes a run-down summer house. The rich soil had become so from the "leaves, the petals of flowers, and the stalks and seed—vessels of vagrant and lawless plants." All was not lost in the garden, as it is clear someone has been caring for it. Phoebe wonders who has been caring for the garden, certain it was not Hepzibah Pyncheon. There are animals in the garden—a rooster, two hens, and a chick. While they come from great stock, these animals are small and meek. Phoebe feeds the animals, and they come right up to her to take the food.

Holgrave enters and is surprised to see how the animals interact with Phoebe, as they avoid him even when he feeds them. He has been caring for the garden. He tells Phoebe he "make[s] pictures out of sunshine," and offers to show her one. After she says she does not care for daguerreotype, Holgrave shows her one anyway. He shows her the picture, and she believes it looks like a modern version of Colonel Pyncheon. Holgrave asks, "Could you not conceive the original to have been guilty of a great crime?" As Phoebe is ready to leave, he asks if she would take over tending to the garden, and she agrees to do so. Before he leaves, Holgrave warns her not to drink from Maule's well (located in the garden) because the water is bewitched.

Phoebe returns to the house where Hepzibah is sitting in the dark. In the room, Phoebe "seemed to hear the murmur of an unknown voice." The voice is distinct, but Phoebe decides it must be something other than a human voice. When Phoebe suggests there might be someone else in the room, Hepzibah suggests she go to sleep. Phoebe goes to her room but struggles to fall asleep.

Analysis

Phoebe Pyncheon is establishing herself as potential protagonist in the novel in place of Hepzibah Pyncheon, who has been reduced to the role of "mock heroine." As a true heroine, Phoebe is not discouraged by either the somber surroundings or the challenge of hard, domestic labor: as the narrator relays, "Phoebe and the fire that boiled the teakettle were equally bright, cheerful, and efficient, in their respective offices." For this reason, she stands in stark contrast to the fragile, fainting heroines of 18th-century Gothic.

Phoebe's practical skills and abilities—which contrast with Hepzibah Pyncheon and her aristocratic rejection of labor and industry—reveal themselves again as she enters the garden. While in the garden, she comes across some animals, including chickens. The chickens are "pure specimens" who, "while in their prime ... [attain] almost the size of turkeys." The chickens that were once "fit for a prince's table" are now "scarcely larger than pigeons." This fall from elite status is true of the Pyncheon family itself. Their current status is a far cry from where they once were. However, the chickens are attracted to Phoebe and approach without fear. As she seems to be reviving Hepzibah and the House of the Seven Gables, Phoebe is having the same positive effect on the chickens. Reflecting Hawthorne's middle-class transcendentalist ethic, her decency and kindness prop up the family and everything related to it.

Holgrave's character continues to grow more complex. Phoebe is uncertain how she feels about him. As Phoebe is portrayed in such a positive light, her uncertainty about Holgrave makes the reader question him as well. He tells Phoebe that he makes "pictures out of sunshine," linking him to the light, just as Phoebe's name links her to brightness. He insists on showing her the daguerreotype with a picture of a man whom he describes as "sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice." He goes on to say other harsh things about the man but does not state his identity. Holgrave warns Phoebe that she will meet this person, though, and readers are left to puzzle over more mysteries, including Holgrave himself.

Adding to his complexity, the narrator says Holgrave speaks with "an odd kind of authority ... as if the garden were his own" and not Hepzibah's. Though he appears more worldly and intellectual than Phoebe, Holgrave has his own "domestic" tendencies as well, hinting at this pair's eventual courtship. He is very comfortable in the house and with the people, and acts as he pleases. His final words to Phoebe—when he warns her about drinking from Maule's apparently bewitched well—add further mystery to his character and weave back in the Gothic themes from previous chapters. How would Holgrave know about the well? Holgrave is hiding something and withholding information from Phoebe, so, as with other male characters, readers may still be dubious about his intentions. All of this—including his familiarity with the garden—hints at Holgrave's link to the original heirs of the land.

There is further ominousness in the murmurings Phoebe hears when she reenters the house, promising a possible Gothic encounter with a ghostly presence of the sort found in The Castle of Otranto. Hepzibah seems unable to hear the voices, as she does not acknowledge anything when Phoebe asks about them. She merely sends Phoebe off to bed. While in her room, Phoebe thinks she hears footsteps and Hepzibah's voice. It seems as if the house is haunted, and the Pyncheons of past generations live on.

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