The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Chapter 2
Summary

The Little Shop-Window: Hepzibah Pyncheon was an old maid living alone in the old house, with the exception of a respectable and orderly young artist who had been a lodger in a remote gable. Miss Hepzibah had dwelt in strict seclusion for nearly twenty-five years. She opens a secret drawer, looking for a certain miniature that represents the face of a young man, and sheds tears at its sight, then goes into a room of the house with a map of the Pyncheon territory and a portrait of Colonel Pyncheon. Miss Hepzibah pauses at the picture, regarding it with a singular scowl; this scowl had established her as an ill-tempered old maid, contrary to her actual character: sensitive, tender and weak. Hepzibah then goes into the shop that had been closed off and was now adorned with cobwebs. She nervously busies herself with arranging some playthings and wares in the shop window, appearing alternately sympathetic and laughable. Poverty had forced her to open this shop up so that she may support herself.

Analysis

After tracing the family history of the Pyncheons in the previous chapter, Hawthorne details the present state of the Pyncheons. The author immediately establishes Hepzibah Pyncheon as a pitiful and pathetic character, reduced to abject poverty despite her familial legacy and possession of the House of the Seven Gables. That she must open a small store at her old age is a tragic loss of dignity, particularly for woman for whom dignity is the only thing that remains. Hepzibah is no longer a young nor a beautiful woman, although Hawthorne indicates that she was once attractive. She now looks upon the world with a great scowl that mars her appearance. This scowl, the result of poor vision, marks her as a mean and bitter old maid, yet does not capture the actual state of this frail and delicate woman.

Hepzibah thus becomes a character easy to misrepresent in the course of a story filled with representations of characters. Hawthorne includes a number of instances of portraiture: he makes great note of the painting of Colonel Pyncheon that still remains in the House, while Hepzibah gazes upon the picture of a young man before opening the shop. These examples of portraiture contribute to the idea of recurring events; even more than a century after his death, Colonel Pyncheon is still a fixture who dominates the House of the Seven Gables.

The indignity that Hepzibah must face is compounded by her position as a member of the Pyncheon family, for this status marks her as a lady "two hundred years old, on this side of the water, and thrice as many on the other" with a pedigree and tradition. As a member of this elite family, she is a direct representation of her ancestors, relating to the idea established in the previous chapter that the sins of Colonel Pyncheon have been passed to his descendants. This phenomena, however, seems to be contrary to the democratic tradition. Hawthorne writes that in a republican nation, family fortunes fluctuate, indicating that it is difficult to establish such a concrete and perpetual legacy. The Pyncheons therefore stand out as representing an elite, monarchical tradition contrary to the democracy in which they live.

It is the democratic character of Hepzibah’s action that is the one redeeming quality of her new job. When Hepzibah opens the store, she emerges as an individual separate from an anonymous and impenetrable family tradition. When she opens the shop she stands "revealed in her proper individuality," however sensitive and fragile. Hepzibah may no longer be a lady in the Pyncheon tradition, yet for the first time she becomes a separate and distinguishable person.

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