The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
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Chapter 3
Summary

The First Customer: While sitting in her shop, a bell alarms Hepzibah. Her first customer arrives, a slender young man in his early twenties with a grave expression but a physical vigor. This customer, Mr. Holgrave, is the daguerreotype artist who is a boarder in the house. He wishes her well on her shop, but she cries, thinking that she can never go through with running a shop. He comforts her, telling her that she now has a purpose in life that is joined with the rest of mankind. He tells her that titles of ?gentleman’ and ?lady’ now mean little, implying restriction rather than privilege. He tells her that her action is the most heroic in the history of her house. She claims that, if the ghost of Matthew Maule saw what she is doing, he would consider it fulfillment of his worst wishes. He buys biscuits from her, but she refuses to accept payment from her only friend. Later, Hepzibah listens to men outside her shop, who talk about how she scowls dreadfully and dismiss the idea of a cent-shop. Her next customer is a young urchin on his way to school who buys a bit of stale gingerbread. When she refuses to charge him, he stares at her with amazement at her kindness. When he buys a second one, he pays Hepzibah her first copper coin, a single cent that, to Hepzibah, demolishes the structure of her ancient aristocracy. Customers gradually come to Hepzibah’s shop, often criticizing her for lacking certain wares. This led her to disagreeable conclusions about the temper and manners of the lower classes, but also to a bitter emotion toward the idle aristocracy.

Analysis

The introduction of Mr. Holgrave places Hepzibah’s actions in the firm democratic tradition that Hawthorne indicated in the previous chapter. Although Hepzibah views the shop as an indignity and an embarrassment considering her self-determined status as a lady, Mr. Holgrave views the shop as a victory for Hepzibah, for she will be part of the "united struggle of mankind." Holgrave enthusiastically espouses liberal values that clash with Hepzibah’s reliance on heredity. He finds heroism in Hepzibah and restriction in her status as a Pyncheon.

Hepzibah, in contrast, cannot share the view of Holgrave and Hawthorne that her actions place her as a commendable member of a democratic tradition. She only sees the indignity of finding a career at such an old age and attempts to grasp and whatever nobility she has left. She refuses to let Holgrave pay for biscuits, for a Pyncheon must not receive money from her only friend, and equally refuses payment from the little boy who bought gingerbread. When she does finally make the boy pay, his copper coin demolishes Hepzibah’s view of herself as a member of the aristocracy. However, although Hepzibah views this as a tragedy, she soon begins to grudgingly accept the view espoused by Holgrave (and Hawthorne). The sale invigorates Hepzibah, giving her "a thrill of almost youthful enjoyment," and her work even threatens to prove the ruin of her elitist moral system. By the end of her first day, she develops an animosity not for the lower order with whom she now consorts, but for the idle rich to whom she once belonged. Hepzibah thus makes an implicit repudiation of her own past, realizing the absurdity of her status. In a story that depends upon the recurrence of past events, this repudiation is a subtle yet significant change.

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