The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 7 : The Guest | Summary

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Summary

Phoebe Pyncheon awakens and goes to the kitchen where she finds Hepzibah Pyncheon studying a cookbook and readying breakfast. Hepzibah is more energetic than she has been, but Phoebe helps her anyway, as Hepzibah is awkward in the kitchen. Hepzibah's emotions sway greatly—one minute she is loving toward Phoebe and the next she is snapping at her. She is unable to control herself.

As they ready themselves to sit down for breakfast, Phoebe notices there is a third place setting and wonders who the guest is. Hepzibah tells Phoebe to be cheerful. The guest is Clifford Pyncheon, who enters the room with Hepzibah's assistance. He is confused and disoriented. Hepzibah introduces Phoebe, who recognizes him as the person in the miniature that Hepzibah showed her when she arrived at the House of the Seven Gables. Clifford appreciates Phoebe and avoids looking at his sister, as her scowl makes him think she is angry. However, Hepzibah has only love for her brother.

Clifford is ravenous and devours his food. After eating, he sees the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon and asks Hepzibah why she has not taken it down. Hepzibah says she will put a drape over the picture to cover it up. This comforts Clifford. He then asks, "Why should we live in this dismal house at all?" His emotions continue to waver.

The sound of the shop bell greatly disturbs Clifford. When Hepzibah explains the noise and their financial position, Clifford begins to cry. Soon after he stops crying, Clifford falls asleep. Hepzibah stares at Clifford's aged face but feels guilty for doing so, so she walks away.

Analysis

Clifford Pyncheon is described as a "Sybarite"—a person addicted to pleasures and luxury, and another Pyncheon affected (or infected) by classism. Clifford is a broken man who moves awkwardly and with confusion, making him a counterpart to the similarly broken Hepzibah Pyncheon. His "old-fashioned dressing-gown of faded damask" symbolizes the declining aristocracy, and is complemented by his long hair, which is "gray or almost white." Like a true Sybarite, he eats his food ravenously and demands more. When he is satiated he falls asleep. At this point, Clifford is closer to a swine than to a man in need of, or addicted to, luxury.

Clifford's presence is even more shocking, considering the buildup to his arrival. From the beginning, Hepzibah has looked at the miniature of him where he is handsome and impressive. She has also described him as the master of the house. Finally, Hepzibah goes out of her way to make grand preparations for Clifford's arrival. When Clifford enters—seemingly a shell of his old self—he is pathetic. Throughout the novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne pairs portraits and persons to invite comparison between the picture of aristocracy that the Pyncheons create for themselves in their minds and the flesh-and-blood realities, which turn out to be grotesque contrasts to the fantasy.

However, it is significant that Clifford gets worked up and shows disgust when he sees the picture of Colonel Pyncheon. His reaction not only alludes to the Gothic theme of the ancestral curse but suggests he is not exactly an ally of the aristocratic patriarch. The portrait and Colonel Pyncheon himself are representative of the past, in which Clifford was literally imprisoned, and still is figuratively imprisoned. Clifford is disgusted and mutters to himself, "Why should we live in this dismal house at all?" He wants to be free of the ancestral curse associated with the Pyncheon name and invites the reader's pity.

Hepzibah, for her part, is to be pitied. She strives to make Clifford feel welcomed upon his return home. She wants to make everything nice for her brother, starting with breakfast, but she was limited by "what skill she had, and such materials as were at hand," and it was a struggle. Phoebe's influence has yet to make a notable impact. To make matters worse, Hepzibah's face has its perpetual scowl, which makes Clifford think she is angry. While she tries to assure him, "There is nothing but love here, Clifford ... nothing but love! You are at home!" he would rather look at Phoebe—an admission that reinforces his Sybarite nature. But perhaps readers do see a sign of Phoebe's domestic powers: Hepzibah shows great patience and care toward Clifford. She is willing to cover up the portrait, apologizes for the shop bell and the current state of finances, and lets him sleep in the kitchen. Like a failed heroine hoping for another shot at the role, Hepzibah is ready to do anything she can to make her brother happy, but at the moment he is incapable of being satisfied.

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