The House of the Seven Gables By Nathaniel Hawthorne Summary and Analysis Chapters 5-6

Summary

The next morning Phoebe awakens, says her prayers, and visits the rose garden where she picks some of the prettiest blossoms. Returning to the house, she meets Hepzibah, who tells her that she has no financial means to keep her and that Phoebe must return home. As they talk, Phoebe enthusiastically maintains that she can earn her own way, and her youthful honesty impresses Hepzibah who then agrees to keep her on. After breakfast, which Phoebe prepares, the shop bell rings, and Phoebe volunteers to tend the shop for the day. Phoebe proves to have an excellent relationship with the customers, and Hepzibah is greatly impressed with the girl's honest and pleasing manner. Hepzibah thinks that Phoebe's practicality must come from her mother's side of the family because it is certainly not a Pyncheon trait. Hepzibah then shows the girl Alice Pyncheon's harpsichord, and she describes their roomer, Mr. Holgrave, the artist and a practitioner of mesmerism. She expresses her concern over some of his bearded companions but she still likes him well enough to keep him as a renter.

Phoebe enters the Pyncheon garden, with its rich old soil and its many plants, all apparently well-tended, its bees and birds, and its diminutive rooster with his two hens and a lone chick. Suddenly Holgrave, who has tended the garden, enters and compliments Phoebe's ability to feed the chickens. He introduces himself as a photographer and shows her a picture of Judge Pyncheon which Phoebe, with a shudder, mistakes for a photograph of Colonel Pyncheon's portrait. Holgrave bitterly criticizes the Judge and comments that a photograph does not lie. He offers to make a portrait of her, then he "yields control of the garden" to her; he will manage the vegetables. Before he leaves, he warns her against the "bewitched water" of Maule's well. When Phoebe goes into Hepzibah's parlor, she senses the presence of another person in a shadowy, withdrawn chair. She goes to the kitchen for matches, and when she returns, Hepzibah kisses her gently and suggests that she retire early. The girl's sleep is troubled.

Analysis

When Phoebe awakens next morning, she discovers that her room faces the east, where a glow of crimson light comes flooding through the window; above her is a dark, antique canopy, hanging like a dark cloud. At first glance, Phoebe seems like sunlight itself; her presence seems to transform the darkness of the house like the light of dawn. But she, like Holgrave, cannot wholly redeem the house nor its inhabitants. Whereas Holgrave is given an unused garret and is refused admittance to the rest of the house, Phoebe is given a room on the east, the direction from which has come the fierce wind which has blackened the structure of the house over the years.

Phoebe seems to be an innocent girl, exuding energy and prettiness, as well as domestic competence. Her Pyncheon blood will eventually endow her marriage to Holgrave-Maule, because Phoebe is antithetical to most of the Pyncheon traits. (Symbolically, in the Pyncheon garden, as we discover in Chapter 7, there is one perfect rose, with not a spot of blight or mildew on it, and Phoebe discovers it.) This nice girl with her cheerful ways aligns herself with all the symbols of persisting purity amid the general Pyncheon collapse — with the singing birds and, above all, with the unpolluted fountain in the garden. She is even able to neutralize the suggestive implications of her very bedroom where "the joy of bridal nights had throbbed itself away".

Hepzibah and Clifford, also, are sexually innocent enough; but Phoebe's purity has added thematic weight because she is seen at the brink of womanhood. The "May" and "December" of the chapter's title may point to opposites but may also point to the fact that Phoebe may be closer to Hepzibah than she seems at first glance. Hawthorne deliberately places Phoebe within a sexual perspective and makes her exempt from erotic inclinations. She dreams, but only innocently and cheerfully; she has "brisk impulses," but they urge her to hike in the countryside; her "ordinary little toils" do not register unfulfilled desire but merely "perfect health." She is even observed by Clifford at a moment of emergent sexual appeal, yet she pays for this recognition with nothing more than a maidenly blush and a slight modification of her forthrightness.

Phoebe's role is epitomized at one point by the striking oxymoron "homely witchcraft" — that is, a spiritual power combined with a tidy domesticity. In Hawthorne's usual world, this is unthinkable; one can be either a conventional nobody or a moral outlaw with a special potency of spirit. In contrast, Phoebe derives her power of almost unnatural innocence precisely from her ignorant conventionality — indeed, from her unwillingness to face unpleasant truths. This is especially apparent in her relations with Clifford. She also innocently evades the lecherous Jaffrey's kiss and fails to confirm Hepzibah's original fears that she will be a rival for Clifford's love. She finally confesses that her sentiments toward both Clifford and Hepzibah are maternal. And even though Phoebe is to become the bride of Holgrave at the end of the novel, she is, in fact, a tissue of symbolic contradictions: motherly child, sisterly bride, and an innocent but tempting virgin. Her marriage, then, will seem therapeutic in a world that is a scene of guilt and retribution more dreadful than the guilt."

Phoebe's mixture of character is not unusual, however, in a story which abounds in ambiguous innuendo about both incest and impotence. Thus, for example, Holgrave uses the Pyncheons to illustrate a caution against too prolonged a family dynasty — even though his own "dynasty" is just as long: "In their brief New England pedigree, there has been time enough to infect them all with one kind of lunacy or another!" And what cannot be uttered about human inbreeding can be said of the family chickens, who are explicit emblems of their owners.

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