Hepzibah's brother Clifford is the most melancholy and ineffectual of a long line of wasted and delicate Pyncheons. As the novel opens, Clifford has just emerged from thirty years in jail, but he remains in mental and emotional bondage, victimized by a past which he himself perpetuates.
Even before his literal imprisonment, Clifford was a prisoner of a dream world, and now, out of prison, he is locked into his own illusions, particularly his illusions about feminine beauty; therefore, Phoebe is given the task of bringing him out of his childlike behavior because Clifford cannot bear the sight of Hepzibah since she has grown old and ugly.
Clifford is a pure aesthete. He is tall, thin, and graying, and his long years in prison have alienated him from light. His basic image is that of a thin gray cloud, through which rays of sunshine sporadically break through. In keeping with his seemingly aimless life, Clifford is dim and indeterminate. When Phoebe first encounters him, she cannot actually see him; she has only a sense of some living presence and inquires of Hepzibah, "Is there someone in the room with us?" And the next morning as Clifford sits at the breakfast table, his facial expression "seemed to waver, and glimmer, and nearly to die away."