The House of the Seven Gables By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapters 15-16

Summary

Several sunless, stormy days pass after Phoebe's departure. Then one morning, Judge Pyncheon ponderously enters the shop and responds to Hepzibah's scowl with his usual hypocritically genial smile. He wants to see Clifford, but Hepzibah refuses to permit this, accusing her dark visitor of hounding her nearly demented brother. The Judge, of course, protests. He is eminently respectable — in position, public service, church work, avocations, appearance, and manners. The Judge tells Hepzibah, furthermore, that it was he who managed to free Clifford; now, he is convinced that Clifford knows where their rich dead uncle's treasure can be located, and if Clifford does not reveal the facts, the Judge will have him locked up for life in an insane asylum. Terrified, Hepzibah agrees to call Clifford, but she warns the Judge that God is watching. The Judge then goes into the parlor and flings himself impatiently into the old ancestral chair. Going to find Clifford, Hepzibah looks uneasily out at the rainy street, wishing that Uncle Venner, limping along, would bring aid. Then she wonders if Clifford does know something about the location of the alleged family treasure; then she decides that he probably does not. With Phoebe gone, Hepzibah can now turn only to Holgrave; yet when she looks into Holgrave's chambers, she sees only a frowning daguerreotype of the hated Judge. Her attempt at a prayer from the arched window "falls back on her head like lead." Finally she knocks at Clifford's room; there is no answer. She opens the door and discovers that the room is empty. Screaming to Judge Pyncheon that Clifford has disappeared, she finds the ponderous old man still silently seated and Clifford beside him, bowing in mock obeisance and laughing. Saying that "the weight is lifted," her brother then orders her to get some money and a cloak, escape with him, and leave the house to the Judge. Hepzibah follows her brother's lead, and they leave the mansion with the Judge inside, like a dead nightmare.

Analysis

With Phoebe gone, an easterly storm sets in. Meanwhile, Hepzibah seems to be very much like the gray and sullen weather; the east wind itself, Hawthorne tells us, seemed to be wearing a rusty black silk gown and a turban of cloudwreaths on its head. Hepzibah tries to warm her life a bit by making a fire in the parlor, but a "stormdemon" seems to keep watch above and, whenever a flame is kindled, the smoke is driven back again, choking the chimney's "sooty throat with its own breath." The hearth, of course, has already been compared to the heart of the old house, and in this scene we find the chimney choking within its own throat in the same way that the Pyncheons have choked, both physically and psychologically. This is one of the best instances of Hawthorne's yoking together the parallel personifications of the Pyncheon house and its inhabitants.

Clifford, after a struggle, finally takes to his bed in despair, and not long afterward, the Judge arrives, trying to disguise himself with a kindly, fraudulent countenance. When he reveals the purpose for wanting to see Clifford, "the very frown of the old Puritan" darkens the room as he speaks. Hepzibah looks deeply into the soul of Judge Pyncheon "at this moment [sensing] some black purpose."

Few share Hepzibah's dark opinion of her kinsman, but the Judge's own conscience is at rest, Hawthorne tells us, for men of his kind often delude themselves. The "splendid [material] rubbish" of the Judge's life should be compared at this point to his "smile of broad benevolence"; on the surface, he seems to have no "darker traits." Yet when he is defied by Hepzibah, his true self is revealed, and he tries to enforce his demand to see Clifford with a "harsh frown," while his brow grows "almost a black purple in the shadow of the room."

At this particular moment, the house has never seemed so dismal to poor Hepzibah as when she goes to summon Clifford to come and speak with the Judge. The legends of the Pyncheons, "which had heretofore been kept warm in her remembrance by the chimney-corner glow," now recur to her, "somber and ghastly cold." Gazing from the arched window, Hepzibah lifts her eyes, scowling, trying valiantly to send up a prayer through the "dense, gray pavement of clouds." The clouds have gathered "as if to symbolize a great, brooding mass of human trouble, doubt, confusion, and chill indifference, between earth and the better regions."

Unable to find her brother, she wonders if he has strayed outside and perhaps taken refuge in the summer house. Finally, in desperation, she turns back to the waiting Judge. But because of the shade of the branches across the windows, the smoke-blackened ceiling, and the dark oak-paneling of the walls, Hepzibah's imperfect sight can barely distinguish the Judge's figure. Thus, ironically, he duplicates in his death the emptiness of Clifford when he first, shadow-like, appeared to Phoebe's eyes in the same room. Clifford himself now reappears, this time clearly visible and, in another irony, reproducing the pallor of the dead man. Clifford's face is "preternaturally pale; so deadly white, indeed, that through all the gleaming indistinctness of the passageway," Hepzibah can clearly discern his features, as though a light is falling directly on them.

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