The House of the Seven Gables
How we cite our quotes:
For some reason or other, not very easy to analyze, there had hardly been so bitter a pang in all her previous misery about the matter as what thrilled Hepzibah's heart on overhearing the above conversation. The testimony in regard to her scowl was frightfully important; it seemed to hold up her image wholly relieved from the false light of her self-partialities, and so hideous that she dared not look at it. She was absurdly hurt, moreover, by the slight and idle effect that her setting up shop—an event of such breathless interest to herself—appeared to have upon the public, of which these two men were the nearest representatives. A glance; a passing word or two; a coarse laugh; and she was doubtless forgotten before they turned the corner. They cared nothing for her dignity, and just as little for her degradation. Then, also, the augury of ill-success, uttered from the sure wisdom of experience, fell upon her half-dead hope like a clod into a grave. (3.26)
In the first several chapters, we get plenty of descriptions of Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, and they all seem to emphasize the fact that she is an elderly unmarried woman. As a result of her status as an "old maid," she is timid, shy, and unwilling to join in the rest of society. But the flip side of her timidity is that Hepzibah is extremely vain. When she opens her shop, she expects the rest of the world to understand how terrible this is for her.
Now and then, there came a thrill of almost youthful enjoyment. It was the invigorating breath of a fresh outward atmosphere, after the long torpor and monotonous seclusion of her life. So wholesome is effort! So miraculous the strength that we do not know of! The healthiest glow that Hepzibah had known for years had come now in the dreaded crisis, when, for the first time, she had put forth her hand to help herself. (3.40)
All of the terms that Hawthorne uses to describe what it means to be a lady ("torpor" and "monotonous seclusion") suggest inactivity, boredom, isolation, staleness – nothing good, in other words. Now that Hepzibah is trying to do something productive, suddenly she is "wholesome" and filled with "miraculous" strength. This transformation isn't immediate or permanent, of course, but Hawthorne is still creating a strong contrast between "ladies," who are inactive, and women who are busy and productive. He shows a strong preference for the latter.
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their exclusive patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home. [...] What was precisely Phoebe's process we find it impossible to say. She appeared to have no preliminary design, but gave a touch here and another there; brought some articles of furniture to light and dragged others into the shadow; looped up or let down a window-curtain; and, in the course of half an hour, had fully succeeded in throwing a kindly and hospitable smile over the apartment. No longer ago than the night before, it had resembled nothing so much as the old maid's heart; for there was neither sunshine nor household fire in one nor the other, and, save for ghosts and ghostly reminiscences, not a guest, for many years gone by, had entered the heart or the chamber. (5.4)
Two things strike us about this passage, but we'll start with Phoebe. Hawthorne is assigning her a gender-specific talent. He says that she has a great gift for arranging things so that even the most desolate, disused rooms become "kindly and hospitable." Phoebe's talent for interior design shows that she fulfills the popular 19th-century ideal of the Angel in the House. According to this ideal, it is the social role of women to make all interior spaces pleasant, pretty, and welcoming. Phoebe's talent in this area shows that she is a good woman in a much less ambiguous way than vain, awkward Hepzibah Pyncheon.
The second thing that strikes us about this passage is Hawthorne's little jab at "the old maid's heart." The dusty, unused state of the room before Phoebe gets to it becomes yet another symbol of Hepzibah, who is caught up in "ghosts and ghostly reminiscences." The contrast Hawthorne builds between the two women could not be more stark: Phoebe is fresh and young while Hepzibah is dried-up and old. We think this is a bit cruel toward Hepzibah, frankly. How do you feel about Hawthorne's depiction of her? What can her character tell us about his views on womanhood and the role of women in society?