The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 17

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Chapter 17

Summary: Hepzibah and Clifford board a train and begin their journey. The most mundane sights of the world passing by outside only increase Clifford's excitement, while Hepzibah wonders if she is truly awake or if this whole experience is a dream. Clifford engages the train's conductor in conversation. When the conductor suggests that people would rather stay at home than constantly travel, Clifford argues the opposite proposition, using his own situation as an example of one from which a person would very much want to escape. The manner in which he describes the situation, however, leaves some (although perhaps not much) ambiguity as to whether he speaks of the old Colonel Pyncheon's death in the House, or Judge Jaffrey's. When the train reaches "a solitary way-station," Clifford and Hepzibah disembark. Clifford then seems to revert to his sluggish self, insisting that Hepzibah must lead him on. Hepzibah cries out to God for mercy.
 
Analysis: Clifford is uncharacteristically articulate in this chapter, as though the further away from the House of the Seven Gables he travels, the more he becomes his old, alert, sensitive self. For example, he argues that the world is becoming "too ethereal and spiritual to bear these enormities [of sins committed for real estate] a great while longer." He is making an argument about the inevitable progress of humanity-an argument, incidentally, at odds with Hawthorne's received Puritan faith as well as, it would seem, his narrative. Nevertheless, some of his statements seem prescient from a 21st century perspective: for example, his belief that electricity will unite the world as an "all-pervading intelligence." He and the conductor even have, it could be said, an argument about the best uses of rapid information technology: Clifford wants to see the telegraph (an invention slightly under one decade old when Hawthorne published the novel) used to transmit messages of love and good news such as children's births, while the conductor considers it an admirable way to apprehend "bank-robbers and murderers"! Clifford's justification of these misdeeds and those who commit them as "unfortunate individuals" is noteworthy, if not entirely persuasive, and tends to support readers' suspicions that Clifford has, in fact, killed Jaffrey in the previous chapter. (Of course, whether these suspicions prove to be well-founded is a different matter!) Hawthorne skillfully reveals to readers just enough information to keep them believing they know the truth of the situation, when, in fact, they may not.

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