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Hepzibah is an old woman who has never married. She has a life tenancy in the House of the Seven Gables, which originally belonged to Colonel Pyncheon. The house now belongs to the Colonel's descendant, the Judge; but Hepzibah is, at the first of the book, the only Pyncheon who inhabits the old mansion. She has clung to the house tenaciously, even though she cannot afford to maintain it, for it symbolizes for her the aristocracy to which she feels she belongs. She also wants to wait there for her brother Clifford to return home from his long stay in prison.
Hawthorne portrays the fading aristocracy in the character of Hepzibah. She clings to the Old World manners and morals, a task that was difficult for her in the midst of her democratic world. In order to be faithful to her past, Hepzibah imprisons herself in the dark house with its gloomy atmosphere. For a long time, she is alone in the house except for an orderly young man who resides in one of the gables.
Hepzibah is described as woman who never married with "creaking joints of her stiffened knees." She has also lived a creaking existence, without taking any interest in "the business of life" or its pleasures. In appearance, she is tall, has a shrunken waist, and normally dresses in black. She is also near sighted, which causes her to have a singular scowl that people mistake for "bitter anger and ill will." In her efforts to get a definite outline of an object, Hepzibah puckers her eyebrows and eyes. Her look is deceptive because her heart is kind. Though her face looks stern and hard, she herself is very timid.
Because of her poverty, Hepzibah must open a little cent shop within the House of the Seven Gables. Since she sees herself as a member of the aristocratic gentility, she is ashamed of having to stoop to such commonality. She genuinely believes the store is beneath her. The only thing that makes it tolerable to her is the fact that one of her aristocratic ancestors had also opened a similar shop in the gables; therefore, she was not breaking any social conventions. But she still dreads mingling again with the outside world, who she feels would come and gawk at her; she also sees herself as "a lady who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was, that a lady's hand soils itself irremdiably by doing aught for bread."
When Phoebe comes to live with Hepzibah in the house, they are also contrasted. Phoebe is like a breath of fresh air with a genial, pretty face especially when compared to Hepzibah's gaunt looks and permanent scowl. Like Holgrave, she represents the new democratic order and has little in common with Hepzibah except through ancestry. Hepzibah notes their differences when she acknowledges that Phoebe is an excellent housekeeper but not a "lady," because her mother was not from an aristocratic family. Hawthorne depicts Hepzibah as a "lady", but also as a "forlorn old maid in her rustling and rusty silks."
Hepzibah is isolated from humanity through her pride in tradition and her attempts to cling to an aristocratic way of life. Her contact with Holgrave, Phoebe, and--because of the shop--with the rest of the populace makes her aware of how imprisoned she has been in the House of the Seven Gables. With the arrival of her brother Clifford, she realizes how much both of them have lost in life. She also realizes that Clifford does not love her as much as she loves him, and yet she cannot help but take care of him. But there is no resentment in her caring. When she realizes that Phoebe's presence seems to please Clifford, she encourages her to pay him attention. She is wise enough to understand that Clifford's long imprisonment for a crime he did not commit has driven him to the edge of sanity.
Hepzibah and Clifford make two attempts to escape the House of the Seven Gables. The first time they try to go to church together. They leave the house and approach the town, but when they see the church and the people, they cannot go forward. Instead, they choose to return to the dark and gloomy house that imprisons them. Their second attempt to escape occurs after the death of Judge Pyncheon in the house. They travel by train, a symbol of the modern world. On the trip Hepzibah notices a change in Clifford; it seems that breathing the free air improves his being. She herself, however, is "too unmalleable to new impressions." When Clifford becomes tired and asks her to take charge on the journey, Hepzibah can only kneel down and pray to God for mercy. In the end, they return to their security--the House of the Seven Gables--that they have now inherited from Judge Pyncheon.
Fortunately, Phoebe has returned to brighten the house and becomes engaged to Holgrave. The two of them, representatives of the new order, convince Hepzibah and Clifford, representatives of the old aristocracy, to leave the gloomy house and their past behind; they wisely decide to settle down in a country house that belonged to Judge Pyncheon.
Clifford is Hepzibah's younger brother, who she loves dearly. Each morning she gazes at a miniature picture of his face and longs to see him in person. She has been waiting thirty long years for his return from prison. Judge Pyncheon falsely imprisoned Clifford for having killed his kinsman, an old bachelor, purportedly over the secret of a map that would indicate the extent of territory that belonged to the Pyncheon family. This unfair and unjust judgment combined with his long years in prison has made Clifford slightly insane. In addition, he has an artistic temperament and "can always be pricked more acutely through his sense of the beautiful and harmonious than through his heart." Holgrave calls him "an abortive lover of the beautiful."
Hepzibah, who has so idolized her brother through the years, loves him too much to institutionalize him even though the man who returns has no intellectual or moral qualities to control his sensibility. He makes a selfish demand for luxuries, expresses his disgust at Hepzibah's unattractive face, and demands that she look after him. Clifford has retrogressed until he is hardly more than a child who takes a childish pleasure in any passing attraction that can divert him from the confused memories of his terrible gloom and isolation.
Occasionally, however, some deeper forces stir within Clifford. One time when he is watching a parade passing by below the window, he has an irrepressible urge to jump down and join the surge of humanity below. Fortunately, Phoebe and Hepzibah are there to prevent the disaster. Shortly after this incident, he desires to go to church with Phoebe and Hepzibah and displays "a yearning to renew the broken links of brotherhood with his kind." Yet, he and Hepzibah are unable to take the step forward that would have taken them into church and united them with the people of the town. Instead, the two of them retreat once again into the gloom of the house.
After Judge Pyncheon's death, the "curse" seems to be broken, and both Hepzibah and Clifford flee from the House of the Seven Gables. As if by instinct, Clifford leads Hepzibah to a train, a symbol that Hawthorne often employed to express escape from sin or responsibility. On the train, Clifford engages in conversation with a stranger, a fellow traveler, and expresses a confused jumble of theories; sometimes he echoes the thoughts of Judge Pyncheon and sometimes those of Holgrave. The fellow traveler who has listened to him is forced to comment, "I can't see through you." At this moment, however the train reaches a station and while leaving the coach, Clifford impulsively responds "No I'll be bound you can't. And yet, my dear sir, I am transparent as the water of Maule's well." Eventually, Clifford and Hepzibah return to their prison, the House of the Seven Gables. Nevertheless, the trip cannot be regarded as a failure. Like his contact with Phoebe and Holgrave, this was one way for Clifford to keep the path to humanity open.
At the end of the novel, Clifford and Hepzibah, accompanied by Holgrave and Phoebe, leave the old Pyncheon house forever. Clifford is still trying to connect with humanity. He extends a welcoming gesture to Uncle Venner by inviting him to come with them because "I want you to always to be within five minutes saunter of my chair. You are the only philosopher I ever knew of whose wisdom has not a drop of bitter essence at the bottom." It would seem, therefore, that Clifford might continue to break his isolation and live with humanity outside the walls of the House of the Seven Gables.
The innocence and naturalness of Phoebe operate together as a force for good in the novel. Like the heroines of nineteenth- century sentimental fiction, Phoebe symbolizes purity and goodness and is thus able to reverse the fortunes of the Pyncheons.
When she arrives on the scene, Phoebe, who is regularly described in terms of sunshine, lightens the gloomy, dark atmosphere of the house. By contrasting her sunny and willing disposition with that of the scowling Hepzibah, Hawthorne is showing the difference between the old world inhabited by the Pyncheons and the happy world that exists outside. Although a Pyncheon herself, Phoebe appropriately knows nothing about the family's past and possesses none of the aristocratic pretenses of their world.
Phoebe, a lover of nature, is the country cousin who brings life back to the decaying and weather-beaten House of the Seven Gables. She may not be a "lady" like Hepzibah, but her domestic virtues and genial nature certainly transform the inhabitants of the house, as well as the house itself. She makes Indian cakes for Clifford, and they are yellower than those cooked by Hepzibah. She presides over the weekly gathering in the garden, which occurs on Sundays. In every way, she "dissipates the shadows of gloomy events. Uncle Venner's praise of her captures the essence of Phoebe's being. "I never knew a human creature do her work so much like one of God's angels as this child Phoebe does." For Clifford in particular, Phoebe is God-sent, and he seems to grow "youthful" in her company. She made a home for the "outcast, the wretch beneath humankind."
When Phoebe returns to the House of the Seven Gables, she agrees to marry Holgrave. Many critics feel this ending for her is disappointing, unrealistic, and too contrived. But the marriage is consistent with Hawthorne's plot and structure in the novel. Since the main theme is one of sin and retribution, the marriage of the descendants of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule helps to reinforce the theme of regeneration.
Holgrave is a tenant in the House of the Seven Gables and a descendant of old Matthew Maule, the original owner of the plot of land on which the Pyncheon house is built. He is an artist by nature and a daguerreotypist by profession. He also possesses quasi-magical power and has indulged in mesmerism. His function in the novel is to forget the past and salvage from it only what is beneficial to the present. In contrast to Clifford, Holgrave is an extreme representative of the outside world, a rebel, who ultimately gets "transformed" by the love and affection which Phoebe bestows on him.
Many critics see Holgrave as the representation of Hawthorne's ideal artist. Indeed, he can "see through" a picture and, like a prophet, reveal its essence. He seems to be able to work the highest miracle of which art is capable.
Holgrave has experienced much in life, and despite all his misfortunes, he has never lost his identity. He tells Phoebe somewhat proudly that he "could not boast of his origin, unless as being exceedingly humble, nor of his education, except that it had been the scantiest possible. He had begun to be self dependent while yet a boy." By the age of twenty-two he had been a country schoolmaster, a salesperson, and the political editor of a country newspaper. He had studied and practiced dentistry, and as a supernumerary official he had traveled through New England and the middle States as a peddler. He had traveled abroad on a packet ship and visited Italy, France, and Germany, and he had given public lectures on Mesmerism. His present profession as a daguerreotypist is also likely to be as temporary as his previous ones.
Since he is homeless and continually on the move, Holgrave is not subject to public opinion or social conventions; but he never isolates his inner integrity of conscience. He hates the dead burden of the past, and though he has read little, he considers himself to be a thinker with his own path to discover. But he has no arrogance "in his crude, wild and misty philosophy." He has only learned enough of the world to be perplexed by it and to begin to suspect "that a man's bewilderment is a measure of his wisdom." It is Holgrave, with his experience and penetrating, analytical mind, which realizes that Judge Pyncheon died of apoplexy, like his relatives before him. He also realizes that the Judge must have killed the old bachelor, of whose murder, Clifford was charged.
At first Phoebe is afraid of Holgrave and his wild ideas. When he asks her hand in marriage, she feels that she will be made to follow him "here it is pathless." But Holgrave promises her that he now wants to settle down, build fences, and "conform myself to laws and the peaceful practice of society." And so like Adam and Eve, Phoebe and Holgrave "transfigured the earth and made it Eden again, and themselves the first dwellers it."
Holgrave's transformation symbolizes the early American spirit: the spirit of freedom, of integrity, and of adventure. It is a democratic spirit where individualism, even though given its due, is subject to the laws of society. So Holgrave too must conform to social conventions, not by force, but because he believes in them and wants to be part of society. It is only then, that the true spirit of democracy can be revived. At the end of the novel, the marriage of a woman from an aristocratic family who is considered a country cousin rather than a "lady," to a common man who "has no origin" signifies the triumph of democracy over aristocracy.
Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is the old Colonel's counterpart. He is described as a "weighty citizen," a solid specimen, a man driven by "hard relentless will," and one made offensively massive by the "animal substance" in his face. In his clothing of "wide and rich gravity that must have been characteristic of the wearer," Hawthorne portrays the materialism of the Judge. Hawthorne introduces the Judge to the reader as a respectable man, concerned with the welfare of the community. It is much later in the novel that the Judge's true character is unfolded.
One morning the Judge walks into the shop expecting to meet Hepzibah; upon meeting Phoebe, he is pleasantly surprised to see a fresh young face. On learning that she is his kinswoman from the country, he bends down to kiss her, but at "that critical moment" she "drew back." The judge in his "cold, hard, immitigable look" at Phoebe reveals his true inner nature to her.
Later in the novel, his cold relentlessness is seen when he insists on meeting Clifford despite Hepzibah's warnings against it. He is certain that Clifford knows the location of the old map, which gives the right of property for a large tract of land. Ironically, before Clifford appears to him, the Judge dies in Clifford's favorite chair that faces the portrait of his ancestor, the old Colonel.
The death of the Judge brings to a full cycle the curse of the Maules on the Pyncheon family. The curse has been lifted and the blighted spirit that seemed to have overcome the old house seems to have vanished. Hawthorne, in the character of the Judge, attempts to show how human greed for wealth destroys humanity.