The House of the Seven Gables Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 5

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Summary: The next morning, Hepzibah agrees to let Phoebe stay at the House, despite her initial intention to send her cousin away. Phoebe says she intends to "earn her bread," by tending to the House's garden and by working in Hepzibah's cent-shop. Hepzibah shows Phoebe the miniature, which readers now learn is a portrait of Clifford Pyncheon. We do not, however, gain any information other than the fact that Phoebe believes, from her family's reports, that Clifford has died. To this belief Hepzibah cryptically replies, "[I]n old houses like this. dead people are very apt to come back again!"
Hepzibah cannot help but admire the efficiency and good spirits with which Phoebe manages the cent-shop, even though she also cannot help but regret that Phoebe is not "a lady." Hepzibah asks Uncle Venner if Phoebe reminds him of any other Pyncheon he has known; Uncle Venner says she does not, and adds, "I never knew a human creature do her work so much like one of God's angels as this child Phoebe does!"
After business is done for the day, Hepzibah talks with Phoebe about Alice Pyncheon, an ancestor lovely in appearance and in personality "who met with some great and mysterious calamity. [and] was supposed to haunt the House of the Seven Gables." She shows Phoebe the harpsichord that used to be Alice's (see Summary, Chapter 1). Hepzibah was not allowed to play it as a girl. Hepzibah also tells Phoebe about Mr. Holgrave's "strange companions"-free-thinking young men, ambitious and idealistic reformers of society who, in Hepzibah's judgment, have "a law of [their] own."
Analysis: The narrator spends much of this chapter contrasting Phoebe and Hepzibah. As Hepzibah herself says, for instance, "You are a nice girl. [T]his house of mine is but a melancholy place for a young person to be in. As for myself, you see what I am-a dismal and lonesome old woman." Further, Phoebe proves herself to be a far superior shopkeeper than Hepzibah. Hepzibah recognizes and acknowledges this fact, but cannot help lamenting to herself, "If she could only be a lady, too!"-a reflection of Hepzibah's continued connection to (in the narrator's mind) outmoded ideas of nobility and aristocracy. Phoebe functions in the narrative as a living, breathing argument against such "old-fashioned" thinking. Finally, note how the narrator discerns a different strain of Puritanism in Phoebe as she sings while going about her chores: "It betokened the cheeriness of an active temperament, finding joy in its activity, and therefore rendering it beautiful; it was a New England trait-the stern old stuff of Puritanism with a gold thread in the web" (a gold thread which Hepzibah lacks). The narrator has, in other words, identified the vaunted "Protestant work ethic" (a modern term, not Hawthorne's) in Phoebe's character, but tempered by a cheer not normally associated with the Puritans. Phoebe, therefore, helps Hawthorne continue to explore the religious and social legacy of New England (and present in his own past, as well). Uncle Venner's comment about Phoebe as an "angel" only serves to reinforce this sense of Phoebe as a representative of some new, unearthly quality, an impression created from the beginning of the chapter as Phoebe's mere presence in her bed-chamber brings freshness to the room, cleansing it from all past sorrow or evil.
The narrator's remark that Alice Pyncheon "had been exceedingly beautiful and accomplished in her lifetime" cannot help but make readers think of Phoebe, and wonder if the two characters will somehow be connected as the narrative continues (and so they will; see Chapter 13). The introduction of Alice in this chapter also reinforces Hawthorne's insistence in his preface that this work is a "romance." It not only reinforces the hints of supernatural activity given in Chapter 1, but also further develops the theme of the past's continuing influence upon the present-an influence which could hardly be better symbolized than by a ghost haunting a house!


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