The House of the Seven Gables By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapter 18

Summary

Meanwhile, back in the old Pyncheon house, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon remains seated in the foreboding house, heedless of time. This is odd, because he is burdened with engagements — he should see Clifford, and then he should see his broker, attend an auction to add a parcel of land to the Pyncheon holdings, buy a house, check on his wife's fallen tombstone, give generously to his political party and a trifle to a needy widow, and consult with his doctor about his throbbing heart. He also has a private political dinner to attend, with all manner of luxurious foods and wines. Will he be nominated for governor? This is indeed a keen matter, for there is blood on the Judge's shirt front. Darkness falls and covers the Judge's figure, and, meanwhile, the Judge's watch continues to tick on. The wind rises. One might easily imagine at this point that the seated figure might well be viewing a procession of Pyncheon ghosts — including those of the Judge himself and his son. The moon rises, and a mouse approaches the seated figure. Is that a cat outside or the devil watching for a soul? By dawn, the Judge's watch has stopped ticking. A fly crawls toward the open, lifeless, staring eyes of the Judge.

Analysis

In Chapter 18, the story moves "like an owl, bewildered in the daylight" to the house where the dead Judge is. This chapter is an ironic meditation on time and the eternity into which the dead man has entered. Time passes, minute by minute, and with it the Judge's carefully organized commitments, including the political dinner which would have made him the next governor of Massachusetts.

Figuratively, however, the influence of the Judge still seems to brood over the chamber. Hawthorne notes the shadows of the tall furniture becoming deeper, losing their distinctiveness of outline in the "dark, gray tide of oblivion." The gloom, he says, has brooded here all day, and now, "will possess itself of everything." But the Judge's white face, curiously, does not become dark; instead, it turns into a kind of swarthy whiteness. The features all seem to be gone; there is only the paleness left.

While the two fugitives are embarked on their wild flight through the streets and aboard the train, and as Clifford is temporarily assuming the outside world's veneer, the corpse of Judge Pyncheon is gradually fading into the shadows of the house. Throughout his life he has clutched at the solid "realities" of the past — real estate, in particular — while shrugging off the intangible heredity that contains his ultimate doom. On the surface, his motives are clear. Through his political influence, the Judge has had Clifford released from prison for one reason only: Clifford will either divulge the whereabouts of the map and the deed "to the large tracts of land to the east" — or else Jaffrey will have him declared insane.

Yet, the matter is not all that simple: From the beginning, when Hepzibah first opened her shop, and the Judge scrutinized the old house from "the opposite side" of the street, one felt that his efforts to get inside the house unconsciously stemmed from something even deeper than greed. Hawthorne makes us feel that the Judge believed that he could "exorcise" the black evil which infested the ancestral home; he seemed to feel the need to wrench out and analyze the secret of the dark old house's interior — its heart of darkness. Although that obsession is never made absolutely explicit, Hepzibah hints at it when she tells Jaffrey that he is "diseased in mind." The macabre chapter in which the narrator gloats almost to excess over the Judge's death may repel some modern readers, but the passages are critical and necessary because they climax the subtle interaction between the sense of space and time that permeates this book. In addition, one of the novel's key ironies lies here. Judge Jaffrey was a devotee of the mechanical system in which time is measured spatially; such a view of time assumes that our experience takes place at distinct, short instants. But the little card that falls out of Jaffrey's pocket on the doorstep forms "a prospective epitome of the day's history"; furthermore, his unerringly accurate watch measures the distance between his various engagements. One might say, indeed, that, in death, the Judge's watch replaces his pulse. In the darkening inner parlor of the house, both the Judge's watch and his pulse run down; the Judge is overwhelmed by real time, and despite the Judge's death, "the great world-clock of Time still keeps its beat." Hawthorne compresses the outcome in one sarcastic pun: "Time, all at once, appears to have become a matter of no moment with the Judge!" But the rhetoric of this chapter is not just a showpiece; it functions as part of the irony. The old Pyncheon house is a custodian: It holds the documents, books, and poetry from the past. In the Judge's material fashion, he tried to effect a synthesis between himself and his past — and the attempt killed him.

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