Summary and Analysis Chapter 17



Hepzibah and Clifford dash out through the summer rain and soon find themselves at a railroad station; they board a train and Clifford seems to be almost bubbling; Hepzibah, however, views the passengers about them as though they were figures in a dream. Clifford then strikes up a wild conversation with a gimlet-eyed old man across the aisle and speaks of the railroads' role in creating a new order of nomads; then he declares a need to tear down all houses — particularly those with blood-stained corpses in them — and goes on to rave further about the value of mesmerism, spiritualism, electricity, and the telegraph — except when it is used to apprehend bank robbers and murderers. Repeatedly, Clifford describes a seven-gabled house "presided over" by a corpse. Suddenly Clifford wants off the train, and he and his prayerful sister alight at a way-station under gloomy clouds.


When Clifford and Hepzibah flee the house in Chapter 17, they merge with their dark surroundings. "Had it been a sunny and cheerful day," Hawthorne notes, they would have been noticed. As it is, however, they seem to be in keeping with the dismal and bitter weather; they "melt into the gray gloom."

Correspondingly, Hepzibah's feeling of indistinctness and unreality keeps dimly hovering about her. When she boards the train with Clifford, the motion adds to this sense of the unreal: the "spires of meetinghouses" seem "set adrift from their foundation"; the "broad-based hills" glide away. Everything seems "unfixed."

For the moment, Clifford is highly exhilarated. As he converses, his countenance glows. A "youthful character" seems to shine out from within him, "converting the wrinkles and pallid duskiness of age into an almost transparent mask." Yet the House of the Seven Gables and the figure of the dead Judge Pyncheon run obsessively through all he says. Wildly theorizing, he says that it is "as clear as sunshine" that houses should be abolished: "The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it." He speaks repeatedly of "a certain house . . . a rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, damp-rotted, dingy, dark, and miserable dungeon." This, of course, is the Pyncheon's dark and deadly House of the Seven Gables.

At the thought, Clifford's face darkens and seems to contract, shrivel itself up, and wither into age. Yet his conversation keeps coming back to the house, and he repeats key phrases: "a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion . . . a dark, low, cross-beamed, paneled room of an old house" in which a dead man sits in an armchair, "with a blood-stain on his shirt-bosom." Finally, he sees a "wooden church, black with age," and he realizes that no real flight from the old Pyncheon house is ever, really, attainable. Clifford and Hepzibah cannot redeem themselves.

This chapter, describing Clifford's and Hepzibah's temporary but invigorating escape from the house, is one of the high points of the novel. For a moment, however, Jaffrey's death seems to lift the whole burden of the past, for Clifford excitedly throws off his old damask dressing-gown, dons a cloak, and triumphantly guides Hepzibah out of the house and into the street. Almost instinctively, he guides her to a train, which is one of Hawthorne's symbolic representations of the contemporary scene. As the train gathers speed and the landscape with its emblems of the past melts away in the gloom of the stormy afternoon, Clifford immediately concocts a marvelous conversational hodgepodge of ideas. In an ironic parallel with Holgrave, he hysterically denounces the evils that accumulate around roof and hearthstone, and he urges their destruction by fire. (Of course, the House of the Seven Gables is made of stone and cannot burn; it must crumble away from the inside in order to fall.) With a kind of Emersonian optimism, Clifford describes an ever-ascending spiral of progress in which material crudities are gradually spiritualized. "These railroads," he says, "are positively the greatest blessing that the ages have wrought for us. They give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel!" He then cites the current fad phenomena of mesmerism and spiritualism, and his excitement grows to an even more feverish pitch when he exalts the vitalizing power of electricity. Electricity, he says, is an angel, a mighty physical power, an "all-pervading intelligence!" These speculations are climaxed by Clifford's praise of the telegraph, which, he, like Thoreau, considers to be "an almost spiritual medium."

Hepzibah is understandably bewildered by all this, and as the two confused wanderers prepare to alight from the train, Hawthorne reveals one of the ironies attendant upon Clifford's praise of civilization. The stranger to whom Clifford has been speaking says, "I can't see through you!" pointing up the fact that Clifford's excursion into the world has given him a transparency inconsistent with his former shadowy status in the house. Clifford's mood — as the flight itself — is only temporary, and at the lonely train station Clifford's tremulous exhilaration dribbles away, and he turns once again to Hepzibah for guidance. Their trip, their attempted escape from the house, has been a total failure.

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