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Chapter 3: "The First Customer"
In this chapter we are introduced to another character that plays an important role in the novel. He is the daguerreotypist Holgrave, a descendant of old Matthew Maule. He occupies a part of the old house as a tenant. He is the first customer to greet Hepzibah and offers his good wishes. His kindness seems to have touched Hepzibah, for she reveals her feelings about having to start a store to make a living. She feels that it is demeaning for a lady to open a shop and that "The world is too chill and hard--and I am too old and too feeble and too helpless." Holgrave consoles her by saying that this was one of the fortunate days of her life, for otherwise her "life-blood had been gradually chilling" in her veins. She would now have a sense of purpose and would be able to contribute to the "united struggle" of humankind. He explains to her that the words "lady" and "gentleman" have a relevance in the past history of the world, but at present they imply "not privilege, but restriction." Once more the reader is reminded of old Matthew Maule's curse when Holgrave tells Hepzibah that if the Pyncheons had always acted nobly, then the curse would perhaps not have had any effect.
After some time, a little boy on his way to school comes to buy candy. Hepzibah does not take the cent that he offers her, but he returns again to demand some more candy, and this time Hepzibah takes the coin. All kinds of customers enter the shop; some are rude, some are kind, and some only come to see the fall of gentility. At the end of the day, Hepzibah, when she sees a lady on the street dressed in a delicate and costly gown, wonders: "Must the whole world toil that the palms of her hands may be kept white and delicate?" She immediately asks forgiveness from God for thinking like this.
Hawthorne comments that taking the whole day into consideration, Hepzibah "began to fear that the shop would prove her ruin in a moral and religious point of view without contributing very essentially to improve her finances."
Hepzibah has opened her cent shop, and Hawthorne uses the opportunity to display the various kinds of comments that are passed on about the Pyncheon family. The most important comment comes from the daguerreotypist, Holgrave, who represents the democratic ideal. He explains to Hepzibah that it is necessary to forget the old concepts of gentility. He encourages Hepzibah to enjoy new beginnings and to become one with humankind. It is ironic that this man is a descendant of Matthew Maule. Holgrave, however, does not throw curses at the Pyncheon family like his ancestor; instead, he blesses Hepzibah and her new venture.
Hepzibah's shop symbolizes how the old aristocracy has to give way to new times. The store emphasizes the fact that, in a democratic world, the dignity of labor should not be shunned as lowly and demeaning. Hepzibah should not be ashamed of being a shopkeeper; but she is. The only justification she can give to herself is that she was not the first Pyncheon to do so, for one of her ancestors had run this same shop and for the same reasons. But Hepzibah, by the end of the chapter, realizes that she no longer belongs to gentility. When she sees the lady in the street dressed in finery, she resents that she is not the same. She also seems to question the purpose and value of trying to keep herself secure and surrounded by the air of aristocracy.
Hawthorne wants the reader to realize that the air of aristocracy surrounding the Pyncheon family is a pitiful illusion. When faced with the reality of penury, the previously rich have to give up their aristocratic pretensions, step out into the world, and join humanity in its common purpose. The reference by Holgrave to Matthew Maule's curse is an indication that the curse may no longer affect the Pyncheon family because Hepzibah has made the effort to contribute to the "united struggle of humankind."