The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 8 : The Pyncheon of To-Day | Summary

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Summary

As Phoebe Pyncheon enters the shop, Ned Higgins, the little boy who has been buying sweets in the past, is there again. On behalf of his mother he asks about Clifford Pyncheon and identifies him as Hepzibah Pyncheon's brother. Prior to this, Phoebe did not realize Clifford was Hepzibah's brother.

As the boy leaves, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon enters. When Phoebe says she is not an employee but a cousin of Hepzibah, the judge says they are family. He motions to kiss her, but Phoebe pulls away from him. Phoebe notices a change in Judge Pyncheon's face. He becomes "cold, hard, immitigable, like a day-long brooding cloud," and it startles her. A moment later, the judge's face is smiling and benevolent, and the two of them laugh off the incident. However, things remain awkward.

Phoebe is struck by the strong resemblance between Judge Pyncheon and Colonel Pyncheon and realizes it is Judge Pyncheon whom she saw in Holgrave's miniature. Phoebe runs through a number of differences she sees in the two men. The two are alike in more than appearance, "the similarity, intellectual and moral ... appears to have been at least as strong." When Judge Pyncheon clears his throat, Phoebe thinks of the curse on Colonel Pyncheon and "the popular notion, that this miraculous blood might now and then be heard gurgling in their throats." She is uncomfortable, and Judge Pyncheon notices this.

Judge Pyncheon and Phoebe discuss Clifford. Judge Pyncheon assumes it is Clifford who is making her nervous, but she says he is "only a poor, gentle, childlike man ... not quite in his sound senses." Judge Pyncheon says Clifford must repent of his past sins, and realizes Phoebe does not know this history.

As Judge Pyncheon moves past Phoebe, Hepzibah appears and blocks his way. While Judge Pyncheon acts kindly and generous toward Hepzibah, she is cold and stern in return. She refuses to let the judge see Clifford. Judge Pyncheon ultimately leaves, saying he will visit and hopes to receive a different reception. As soon as Judge Pyncheon leaves, Hepzibah becomes very pale and tells Phoebe, "that man has been the horror of my life! ... he has a heart of iron!" Phoebe is confused by the exchange and decides there must be a family feud.

Analysis

Phoebe Pyncheon is the embodiment of goodness and decency. When Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon attempts to kiss Phoebe—in a friendly and genuine way—she automatically backs away. This instinctive action is a clear indication there is something evil or wrong about Judge Pyncheon—again, the story's Gothic elements loom large, with the judge as the odious villain making the heroine's skin crawl. Nathaniel Hawthorne would not have needed to look further for Gothic models of creepy older men than Walpole's odious Manfred who, in his obsessive attempt to gain a new male heir, preys upon his dead son's fiancée, Isabella. (And 18th-century Gothic contains many episodes where older aristocratic men make presumptuous advances on younger women.) While later in the chapter Phoebe sees Judge Pyncheon as kind due to his generous offerings to Hepzibah and Clifford, she recognizes she does not know the whole story. Her initial feelings toward the judge remain damning, and she is not to be fooled like her older Gothic female predecessors.

Judge Pyncheon is literally two-faced. His smile "could much sooner turn grapes purple, or pumpkins yellow, than melt the iron-branded impression of the beholder's memory," and it made his face "not the less, but more frightful." His smile (which, in this case, is genuine) makes him appear even more stern. At one point, Judge Pyncheon is compared to the serpent. Like the serpent or snake, he could be kindly and smile but his ultimate intentions are evil and cause harm. Outwardly, he smiles and appears generous but he is close-fisted. When Judge Pyncheon hears Clifford's voice, "a red fire kindled in his eyes." This demonic quality reveals Judge Pyncheon's true nature. While he seems decent, he is hard, mean, and cruel. He has two faces, and the angry one is his true nature.

Judge Pyncheon inherited his negative traits from his ancestor, Colonel Pyncheon, with whom he bears a striking resemblance. His temperament was "hereditary in him, and transmitted down"—another Gothic theme. His tainted character is reinforced by his throat-gurgling, reminding Phoebe—and readers—of the colonel and old Matthew Maule's curse. While Judge Pyncheon is less sturdy than his ancestor, he shares his greed and hunger for wealth. Their need for power extends to their closest relations, as both men lost wives (the colonel lost three). They were not generous in their behavior with those around them.

Hepzibah's reaction toward Judge Pyncheon is out of character. Though inwardly she is nervous, Hepzibah becomes fierce, suggesting she has some purpose yet in the narrative, though she's perhaps overshadowed by her younger, brighter cousin. Hepzibah takes on the look of the dragon—intentionally so. She stares Judge Pyncheon down, which confounds him, and she makes "a repelling gesture with her hand, and stood a perfect picture of prohibition." Hepzibah is the protector and feels proud. She refuses to give Judge Pyncheon an inch or consider any of his offers of assistance. As soon as Judge Pyncheon leaves, Hepzibah becomes "deadly white, and, staggering towards Phoebe, let her head fall on the young girl's shoulder." She cannot keep up the fierceness. The reader, like Phoebe, is left wondering why Hepzibah becomes so angry and what Judge Pyncheon has done to make him so reviled.

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