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The House of the Seven Gables | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables | Chapter 9 : Clifford and Phoebe | Summary



Hepzibah Pyncheon is devoted to her brother and ready to do anything to make him happy and comfortable. Her efforts toward him are described as "pitiful, yet magnanimous." Hepzibah reads to Clifford Pyncheon from his favorite books, but her harsh voice had "contracted a kind of croak, which, when it once gets into the human throat, is as ineradicable as sin." Clifford is bored by the books. The mere site of Hepzibah's face with its harsh features upsets him. He recognizes her love, but "close[s] his eyes ... as to be constrained to look no longer on her face." Hepzibah realizes she is bringing grief to Clifford, so she turns to Phoebe Pyncheon.

Phoebe's positive and pleasant nature brings Clifford peace. She "soon grew to be absolutely essential to the daily comfort." He sees her as beautiful, but his feelings are as pure, as if "she had been his daughter." Phoebe represents womanhood to Clifford. She felt affection toward him as she feels "he needed so much love, and seemed to have received so little." She is curious, and tries "to inquire what had been his life." The three housemates develop a routine. After breakfast, Phoebe minds the shop while Hepzibah cares for Clifford, and the two women switch positions in the afternoon.


After standing up to Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, Hepzibah Pyncheon becomes even more depressed and useless, suggesting her diminished powers as a Gothic heroine. She has been waiting for years to take care of her brother, whom she loves. With him home, Hepzibah is ready to show her devotion. However, he does not accept her devotion. Clifford Pyncheon recognizes Hepzibah's love but cannot truly appreciate it. He is the "instinctive lover of the Beautiful," and because Hepzibah is not beautiful in voice or appearance, she cannot please him. Clifford's need for all things beautiful is shallow—at once a declaration of his residual aristocratic tastes and his rejection of Hepzibah's failed attempt at domesticity. Nevertheless, Hepzibah shows grace and dignity by recognizing that Clifford does not respond to her and turning the task over to Phoebe Pyncheon, the burgeoning middle-class Gothic heroine. Hepzibah gives over easily—"no grovelling jealousy was in her heart." Her willingness to do anything to make her brother happy, even if it means pulling away from him, makes Hepzibah a tragic hero.

Resuming his theme of domesticity, Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates how Phoebe has become essential to the household and part of "the routine of life." When it comes to Clifford, she had a "ready tact" and "discerned what was good for him, and did it." Clifford appreciates her goodness and feminine qualities. Hepzibah has come to rely on Phoebe to help her run the household. They take turns minding the shop and caring for Clifford. Whichever duty Phoebe is overseeing thrives. As for the house itself, Phoebe seems to be mastering its Gothic gloom and doom: "The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there." This description of Phoebe's ministrations relates to the motif of women as ministering angels. The Victorian concept of the angel of the house reflected the ideal of a perfect female who is self-sacrificing, pure, and devoted to house and home.

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