The House of the Seven Gables
Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning-point. The tragedy is enacted with as continual a repetition as that of a popular drama on a holiday, and, nevertheless, is felt as deeply, perhaps, as when an hereditary noble sinks below his order. More deeply; since, with us, rank is the grosser substance of wealth and a splendid establishment, and has no spiritual existence after the death of these, but dies hopelessly along with them. (2.14)
When Hawthorne talks about "this republican country," he doesn't mean republican as in the Republican Party. He means republican as in a form of government without a king. Because Hawthorne sees social class in the United States as a matter of money rather than inherited rank, he thinks it's almost worse when a once-wealthy American family loses its cash than when a European aristocratic family falls on hard times. After all, you can be an aristocrat without a dime (in fact, it's pretty common), but you can't be rich and important in America without money. Do you agree with Hawthorne's assessment of American social classes? Is it all based on money? Are there any other factors that contribute to a family's social status in the States?
I speak frankly, my dear Miss Pyncheon!—for are we not friends? I look upon this as one of the fortunate days of your life. It ends an epoch and begins one. Hitherto, the life-blood has been gradually chilling in your veins as you sat aloof, within your circle of gentility, while the rest of the world was fighting out its battle with one kind of necessity or another. Henceforth, you will at least have the sense of healthy and natural effort for a purpose, and of lending your strength be it great or small—to the united struggle of mankind. This is success, – all the success that anybody meets with! (3.10)
Mr. Holgrave preaches the democratic ideal of "lending your strength [...] to the united struggle of mankind" to Hepzibah, who is still caught up in an aristocratic mode of imagining society. Mr. Holgrave wants Hepzibah to give up her old, foolish dreams of being a lady to begin a new life as a productive member of society. We can't help but notice that his speech strongly resembles the narrator's words about Hepzibah's ladyhood in Chapter 2. How closely do you think Hawthorne identifies with Mr. Holgrave? How does the narrator portray Mr. Holgrave? Is his representation neutral, positive, or negative?
"Those old gentlemen that grew up before the Revolution used to put on grand airs. In my young days, the great man of the town was commonly called King; and his wife, not Queen to be sure, but Lady. Nowadays, a man would not dare to be called King; and if he feels himself a little above common folks, he only stoops so much the lower to them. I met your cousin, the Judge, ten minutes ago; and, in my old tow-cloth trousers, as you see, the Judge raised his hat to me, I do believe! At any rate, the Judge bowed and smiled!"
"Yes," said Hepzibah, with something bitter stealing unawares into her tone; "my cousin Jaffrey is thought to have a very pleasant smile!"
"And so he has" replied Uncle Venner. "And that's rather remarkable in a Pyncheon; for, begging your pardon, Miss Hepzibah, they never had the name of being an easy and agreeable set of folks. There was no getting close to them. But Now, Miss Hepzibah, if an old man may be bold to ask, why don't Judge Pyncheon, with his great means, step forward, and tell his cousin to shut up her little shop at once? It's for your credit to be doing something, but it's not for the Judge's credit to let you!" (4.18-20)
This exchange between Uncle Venner and Hepzibah is quite fascinating. Uncle Venner observes that before the Revolution, the big guys in the neighborhood were called "King." Now, that's not allowed. Even the men who think they are "a little above the common folks" will bow even lower so as not to seem stuck up. Judge Pyncheon is willing to take off his hat to Uncle Venner, but does that really show that he's a humble and respectful man? We think not – especially since Hepzibah is so guarded and resentful about her cousin's character. The fact that she would rather open her hated shop than accept money from Jaffrey is a definite sign that something's rotten about Judge Pyncheon. One of Hawthorne's most notable characteristics is that he's heavy on the foreshadowing. While we may not be sure yet quite how Judge Pyncheon is going to turn out hypocritical and evil, Hawthorne has given us plenty of hints that it will happen.