The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The House of the Seven Gables Morality and Ethics Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
It is essential to say a few words respecting the victim of this now almost forgotten murder. He was an old bachelor, and possessed of great wealth, in addition to the house and real estate which constituted what remained of the ancient Pyncheon property. Being of an eccentric and melancholy turn of mind, and greatly given to rummaging old records and hearkening to old traditions, he had brought himself, it is averred, to the conclusion that Matthew Maule, the wizard, had been foully wronged out of his homestead, if not out of his life. Such being the case, and he, the old bachelor, in possession of the ill-gotten spoil, – with the black stain of blood sunken deep into it, and still to be scented by conscientious nostrils, – the question occurred, whether it were not imperative upon him, even at this late hour, to make restitution to Maule's posterity. (1.29)
This "murder" – actually a natural death made to look like murder – takes place in living memory of the novel, 30 years before the events of the book. Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon feels so guilty about Colonel Pyncheon's treatment of Matthew Maule that he wants to give the House of the Seven Gables back to the Maule family. He dies before he can do this, though. We admire Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon's moral fiber, but let's think for a second about the timing of his research. Matthew Maule is murdered in the late 1600s. This guy dies in the 1820s. So over 100 years have passed between Matthew Maule's hanging and Uncle Jaffrey Pyncheon's research. Should there be a statute of limitations on this case? Why does the Pyncheon family continue to keep the case of Matthew Maule alive? And how do you think it would be appropriate for the Pyncheon family to make amends to the Maule family?
Our miserable old Hepzibah! It is a heavy annoyance to a writer, who endeavors to represent nature, its various attitudes and circumstances, in a reasonably correct outline and true coloring, that so much of the mean and ludicrous should be hopelessly mixed up with the purest pathos which life anywhere supplies to him. What tragic dignity, for example, can be wrought into a scene like this! How can we elevate our history of retribution for the sin of long ago, when, as one of our most prominent figures, we are compelled to introduce—not a young and lovely woman, nor even the stately remains of beauty, storm-shattered by affliction—but a gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head! Her visage is not even ugly. It is redeemed from insignificance only by the contraction of her eyebrows into a near-sighted scowl. And, finally, her great life-trial seems to be, that, after sixty years of idleness, she finds it convenient to earn comfortable bread by setting up a shop in a small way. Nevertheless, if we look through all the heroic fortunes of mankind, we shall find this same entanglement of something mean and trivial with whatever is noblest in joy or sorrow. Life is made up of marble and mud. (2.18)
You would think, given the grand themes of this novel (as Hawthorne puts it, "retribution for the sin of long ago"), that the heroes would be similarly grand. But no, Hawthorne "endeavors to represent nature," and that means ordinary folk. Because Hawthorne is making the claim that he is writing fiction that reflects the truth of the world, he can't choose to focus only on tragic or awe-inspiring characters. The proud, miserable Hepzibah Pyncheon is a realistic character for Hawthorne's time – indeed, as he points out, hers is only one of "several little shops," each run by a "decayed gentlewoman" (2.15) much like her. Of course, figures like Hepzibah may have been common in 1851, but how much sympathy do you feel for her character now? Do you recognize the "nature" Hawthorne is trying to represent in this chapter?
"Why, sometimes," answered Hepzibah, "I have seriously made it a question, whether I ought not to send [Mr. Holgrave] away. But, with all his oddities, he is a quiet kind of a person, and has such a way of taking hold of one's mind, that, without exactly liking him (for I don't know enough of the young man), I should be sorry to lose sight of him entirely. A woman clings to slight acquaintances when she lives so much alone as I do."
"But if Mr. Holgrave is a lawless person!" remonstrated Phoebe, a part of whose essence it was to keep within the limits of law.
"Oh!" said Hepzibah carelessly, – for, formal as she was, still, in her life's experience, she had gnashed her teeth against human law, – "I suppose he has a law of his own!" (5.60-2)
At first we found it a little surprising that Phoebe, for all her youth and energy, is more attached to the importance of law than Hepzibah. When Phoebe hears that Mr. Holgrave has a lot of activist friends, she starts to freak out. Meanwhile, Hepzibah, who is so "formal" and old-fashioned, seems not to care at all about human law. But if you think about it, it makes sense. First, obviously, there is a plot-level reason for Hepzibah's resentment of human law, which unjustly imprisoned her brother. But it also seems somewhat in keeping with her aristocratic ways: after all, the idea that laws should apply inflexibly and equally to everybody is a relatively democratic one. Having a "law of [one's] own" is a pretty aristocratic attitude, really.