The House of the Seven Gables Questions and Answers
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is generally more concerned about the inner workings of his characters' minds, and the conflicts they have are internal much more often than they are external. Please identify some examples in The House of Seven Gables to illustrate his distinctive writing style.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mid-19th Century gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables is populated by characters for whom the outer expression is not always an accurate representation of the inner thought.  As with many novels in which deception and manipulation are central to the story, much of Hawthorne’s work reflects the internal conflicts that rage within his characters.  In The House of the Seven Gables, the character that best exemplifies this phenomenon is perhaps that of Clifford Pyncheon, the severely depressed older brother of Hepzibah Pyncheon who has recently been released from prison after serving 30 years for a murder it will turn out he did not commit.  Clifford’s depression is so severe, in fact, that he has essentially emerged from prison an invalid, unable to function with any vestige of normalcy.  Well into the story, in an exchange between Hepzibah and Clifford’s cousin Phoebe and Holgrave, whose ancestor was wrongfully hanged following allegations of witchcraft on the basis of testimony by Hepzibah and Clifford’s ancestor, Colonel Jaffrey Pyncheon, Holgrave inquires of Phoebe regarding Clifford’s health.  This exchange illustrates well the internal conflict experienced by Clifford:

“Does he still seem happy?” he asked one day.

“As happy as a child,” answered Phoebe; “but—like a child, too —very easily disturbed.”

“How disturbed?” inquired Holgrave. “By things without, or by thoughts within?”

“I cannot see his thoughts! How should I?” replied Phoebe with simple piquancy. . .When he is cheerful--when the sun shines into his mind--then I venture to peep in, just as far as the light reaches, but no further. It is holy ground where the shadow falls!” 

Clifford is a torn individual, but the real internal conflicts in Hawthorne’s novel occur among those more interested in romance, land deeds and, possibly, vengeance than in the mental anguish experienced by Clifford.  In describing the character of Holgrave, who has concealed his identity while posing as writer and daguerreotypist researching the estate at which he is a boarder, Hawthorne presents the picture of an individual deeply conflicted about his identity and role in life:

“He could talk sagely about the world’s old age, but never actually believed what he said; he was a young man still, and therefore looked upon the world—that graybearded and wrinkled profligate, decrepit, without being venerable—as a tender stripling, capable of being improved into all that it ought to be, but scarcely yet had shown the remotest promise of becoming. He had that sense, or inward prophecy, —which a young man had better never have been born than not to have, and a mature man had better die at once than utterly to relinquish,—that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime.” 

Holgrave is, initially, something of a mystery.  That it is revealed that he is a descendant of Colonel Pyncheon’s victim, and a practicing hypnotist who might prey on the young, beautiful Phoebe, lends an air of danger to his presence in the home.  His inner conflicts, however, conceal less threatening motivations than initially suggested.  He is simply a young man whose beliefs about the wealthy eventually give way to more materialistic if relatively benign ambitions.  The real threats emanate from the inner thoughts of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, whose motivations are clearly the least admirable.

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