The House of the Seven Gables
How we cite our quotes:
The rank, wealth, and eminent character of the deceased must have insured the strictest scrutiny into every ambiguous circumstance. As none such is on record, it is safe to assume that none existed. Tradition, – which sometimes brings down truth that history has let slip, but is oftener the wild babble of the time, such as was formerly spoken at the fireside and now congeals in newspapers, – tradition is responsible for all contrary averments. [...] The pious clergyman surely would not have uttered words like these had he in the least suspected that the Colonel had been thrust into the other world with the clutch of violence upon his throat. (1.23)
There is some pretty heavy irony going on in this passage as Hawthorne describes the public records surrounding this incident. All the official documents say there was nothing strange about Colonel Pyncheon's death, so surely "it is safe to assume that none existed." A clergyman writes a really nice eulogy about Colonel Pyncheon. The narrator comments sarcastically that he wouldn't do this if he thought Colonel Pyncheon had been strangled to death. Yet there is still the niggling voice of "tradition" that "sometimes brings down the truth that history has let slip," which is that Colonel Pyncheon was found with fingerprints on his neck. There is no evidence that this possibility was ever investigated or even mentioned in the public record. Why would the religious and political authorities of the day try to smooth over the circumstances of this death? What would they have to lose if Colonel Pyncheon had been murdered?
"For what end," thought [Hepzibah], giving vent to that feeling of hostility which is the only real abasement of the poor in presence of the rich, – "for what good end, in the wisdom of Providence, does that woman live? Must the whole world toil, that the palms of her hands may be kept white and delicate?"
Then, ashamed and penitent, she hid her face.
"May God forgive me!" said she.
Doubtless, God did forgive her. But, taking the inward and outward history of the first half-day into consideration, Hepzibah began to fear that the shop would prove her ruin in a moral and religious point of view, without contributing very essentially towards even her temporal welfare. (3.49-52)
As Hepzibah starts working in her shop, she asks God why he put aristocrats on this earth to profit off the work of everyone else. Then she begs forgiveness for asking. But we want to know the answer! Also, we find it interesting that Hawthorne comments wryly, "Doubtless, God did forgive her." What is Hepzibah's sin in this scene? What does she want forgiveness for, exactly? What kind of "ruin in a moral and religious point of view" does Hepzibah fear from her shop?
Uncle Venner's eulogium, if it appear rather too high-strained for the person and occasion, had, nevertheless, a sense in which it was both subtile and true. There was a spiritual quality in Phoebe's activity. The life of the long and busy day—spent in occupations that might so easily have taken a squalid and ugly aspect—had been made pleasant, and even lovely, by the spontaneous grace with which these homely duties seemed to bloom out of her character; so that labor, while she dealt with it, had the easy and flexible charm of play. Angels do not toil, but let their good works grow out of them; and so did Phoebe. (5.50)
There is something a little hinky about Hawthorne's description of Phoebe's work. He wants her work to have "a spiritual quality," as her "good works grow out of" her. Phoebe sounds a little like Cinderella or Snow White, whistling while she works and enjoying every minute of it. But there's something a little creepy about her superhuman industriousness, and the idea that work should be a religion for her seems to us a little insulting. Shouldn't Phoebe ever be permitted to feel annoyed or tired or anything other than "spiritual" while sweating away in Hepzibah's dusty little store? Phoebe is Hawthorne's vision of what a perfect woman should be, so she doesn't always strike us as a relatable character. Hepzibah, for all of her faults and all of the condescension Hawthorne heaps on her, seems a little more believable as a character.