Summary and Analysis
Since Clifford dislikes Hepzibah's ugliness, rustiness, and scowl, she soon quits reading to him and playing the harpsichord for him, and she sadly and reluctantly (but without jealousy) resigns to Phoebe the task of pleasing him. This pretty young girl, therefore, who is really without true intellectual depth, sings appropriately sad songs to him, yet she also feeds his hunger for beauty. Phoebe is like a daughter to Clifford, and yet he is keenly aware of her virginal bloom. Gradually, she grows pensive and curious, as she naturally would about the cause of his melancholy. Soon a routine is established: While Clifford naps after breakfast, Hepzibah watches him and Phoebe tends the shop; later, the girl entertains him while his sister turns to business. Time passes. In the garden is an old summer house, which Holgrave and Uncle Venner are repairing. In it, Phoebe reads to Clifford, who prefers poetry to romantic fiction. There are also murmuring bees there, red-blossomed beans, and hummingbirds to delight Clifford. Hepzibah watches him with tears in her nearsighted eyes. When a hen produces a diminutive egg, she seizes it for his breakfast; their rooster and the hens make up a little rivulet of life for them.
Clifford is forever frightened by a "dark face" which he seems to see amid the mosaic-work of pebbles at the bottom of the well. Then the omen disappears. After church on Sunday, the family group often gathers in the old arbor. Clifford enjoys the company of philosophical old Venner, and he hints that he has some mysterious plans for the old man. Holgrave, looking sinister but still admired by Hepzibah for his pleasant manner, smilingly accuses Venner of believing that a community Utopia is possible. Clifford seems happy in the sunlight, yet at twilight, he weeps for a lost happiness. Very simply, he enjoys, most of all, watching the sweeping tide of humanity passing beneath a favorite arched window and balcony of the house. Children, vehicles, peddlers, scissors-grinders, and parades — he is attracted by the sounds of them all. Once he seems so entranced that he seems about to jump from the balcony into the midst of a noisy political procession, but he restrains himself. He says that he wants to attend church. Phoebe has gone on ahead, so he and Hepzibah dress and emerge from their dark door — only to stop, realizing, that it is too late, that they are "ghosts." Once, some time ago, Clifford remembers blowing soap-bubbles into the street below the arched window; Judge Pyncheon came by, frowned when a little bubble burst on his nose, looked up at his cringing cousin and said sarcastically: "What? Still blowing soap-bubbles?" Clifford was panic-stricken.
Hepzibah, overwhelmed by misfortune and by the literal and symbolic shadow of the house, cannot restore to happiness her gloomy, depressed brother, Clifford. She tries to entertain him by reading aloud to him, but her voice is a kind of croak. Thus it falls upon the bright-natured Phoebe to try and rekindle his spirits. She sings to Clifford with sweet naturalness, but her song is tempered with pathos, and thus the situation becomes even more fitting for the situation of Clifford and Hepzibah and "dark misfortune."
Here, we should recall that Clifford has been depicted as being almost like a shadow, having an almost inaudible voice. Symptomatically, he dozes every morning, and unless he is accidentally disturbed, he does not emerge from his dense cloud of sleep until noon. It is old Hepzibah's task to watch over his slumbers, but when he wakes, it is young Phoebe's turn to oversee his "brighter hours."
In Chapter 10, Clifford is roused by Phoebe and accompanies her to the garden, where Uncle Venner and Holgrave had made such extensive repairs on the roof of the summer-house that it is now a pleasant shelter from sunshine and casual showers, a "green play-piece of flickering light." In this garden retreat — a significant part of the house — as Phoebe reads to Clifford, she is often conscious that his face glows with a more delicate intelligence than even her own. "One glow of this kind," however, is too often (according to Hawthorne) "the precursor of gloom, for many hours afterwards." Clifford seems to be enjoying both a kind of Indian summer with its dividend of sunshine, and at the same time, decay and death.
Here, in this mixture of paradoxical influences upon Clifford, we see the mingling of images which mark the antithetical conditions of the Pyncheons. The light of the sun is filtered by the arbor (through flickering light); the garden is a retreat from harsh outside intrusion, yet it is lush with vegetation; Phoebe's readings are poetic rather than revealing the fictional adventures of people in the outside world; the cycles of nature are around the summer-house which Holgrave (a Maule) and Uncle Venner have reconstructed; the influence of summer-house and garden is that of an Indian summer, but it is an atmosphere not only of happy brightness but also one of deadly decadence as well. Clifford's escape from the Pyncheon curse is thus qualified and transient.
Clifford likes to contemplate Maule's well; he enjoys looking down at the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of figures, produced by the "flowing water over the mosaic-work of colored pebbles at the bottom." There, he sees faces with bewitching smiles; each face seems so fair and rosy, and every smile so sunny that he feels sad when it disappears, until the flitting light and water make a new one.
Sometimes he suddenly cries out: "The dark face gazes at me!" and then he is miserable the whole day afterwards. It is explained that his imagination, reviving faster than his will and judgment, creates "shapes of loveliness" that are "symbolic of his character," and now and then a stern and dreadful shape appears that typifies his fate. During one particularly peaceful Sunday afternoon party in the garden, in the yellow richness of the last rays of sunshine, Clifford seems to be in high spirits. But as the sunshine leaves the peaks of the seven gables, the excitement fades out of Clifford's eyes: "I want my happiness!" he cries out, hoarsely and indistinctly, hardly shaping the words.
What Clifford sees, literally, is the shadow of the branch of the old elm tree. His imagination, like the old Pyncheon house, is haunted by an ominous face. It is also significant that when Phoebe, who lacks imagination, looks into the well she sees only colored pebbles and the tree's shadow. We were told in Chapter 1 that the outward appearance of the house reminds one of a human face, and we were told this fact immediately following the sentences which set up the house in opposition to the tree. So now, in the garden scene, we have all of the major images of the novel: the house opposed to the street, and the dark opposed to the light. Later, we will see that the tree is the source of whatever beauty the house possesses, and, further, that it will make the house "a part of nature." Then, significantly, at the end of the novel, the few leaves left on the elm by an autumn gale will "whisper unintelligible prophecies" as the last of the Pyncheons leave the house forever. Clifford's fear of the branch — his seeing it as a "face" — is clearly a foreshadowing, a portent of the end of the Pyncheons.
The joy which Clifford finds in the garden is transient, like the family itself, but he is more comfortable there than he is looking out upon the world in Chapter 11, "The Arched Window." There, he gazes out from the vantage point of the window, while he himself is concealed and "peering from behind the faded crimson of the curtain." Note here that there are things which Clifford's mind will not retain; for example, he never becomes accustomed to the water cart that goes by the house two or three times "during the sunny hours of the day . . . leaving a broad wake of moistened earth, instead of the white dust." It is "like a summer-shower." The scene, trivial and matter-of-fact as it appears to be, fits a pattern in The House of the Seven Gables. Commonplace reality should, and must, be faced. But the forgetful Clifford loses "the recollection of this preambulatory shower, before its next reappearance, as completely" as does the street itself, along which the heat so quickly strews "white dust again."
Clifford looks out at life in an instinctive attempt to rejoin it. His deepest and most dangerous commitment comes from the sight of a political procession. Clifford sees the procession as a moving mass of living humanity, and he wants to leap into it. He is restrained just in time. Hepzibah and Phoebe keep him from plunging into "the black river" that flows beneath him, an ambiguous river of life. When this happens, Phoebe, to whom all extravagance is an horror, bursts into sobs and tears.
In a similar yearning to renew "the broken links of brotherhood," Clifford thinks of going to church. But when Clifford and Hepzibah seek to follow Phoebe from the house, they can barely cross the threshold of the house, feeling as if they are "standing in the presence of the whole world, and with mankind's great and terrible eye on them alone." Defeated, they shrink back into the dark passageway and close the door.
Clifford is not ready to face the broad sunshine of reality, of the street. Escape from the house is impossible, so he takes refuge in blowing soap-bubbles, "little, impalpable worlds . . . in hues bright as imagination."