Use of Environment to Emphasize Psychological States
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is the author of several books. In this essay, Hart explores Hawthorne’s use of environment to emphasize the psychological state of his characters. The settings, or environments, that surround Hawthorne’s characters in his novel The House of the Seven Gables are not only as fully detailed as the people in the novel are, but they make up an integral part of the story itself. For example, Hawthorne uses the rooms in which his characters sleep, the houses in which they live, as well as the light and darkness that surround them as a way to further describe and define the people he has created in this story. By exploring these environments, readers gain a deeper understanding of his characters and appreciate more fully how Hawthorne uses this technique to fully develop and enrich his story.
Beginning with the maiden lady, Hepzibah Pyncheon, Hawthorne introduces this main character and then describes an old dresser whose drawers Hepzibah has to struggle to open. Like this antiquated piece of furniture, Hepzibah creaks and groans, her joints cracking and her loud sighs filling the room with noise. Also like her furniture, or more specifically like the drawers of the dresser, Hepzibah has a hard time opening her heart and soul. She has closed herself off to the outside world and only with difficulty will she open up, even to her soon-to-arrive relative, Phoebe. Hepzibah is a rigid old woman, set in her ways, which Hawthorne describes by mentioning the stiffness of her silk skirt. She is like an old dress, stored in a suitcase filled with mothballs. When she finally opens the door to her room to go downstairs, she releases a deep sigh, which Hawthorne likens to “a gust of chill, damp wind out of a long-closed vault.”
Almost everywhere this old woman walks, lives, and breathes, darkness, stiffness, and a sense of being boxed in follow her. She wears blackcolored clothes and passes through hallways and rooms that are bleak and darkened by time. Where there once was color in the rugs, there are now only thin and worn-out shades of gray. Doors to rooms around her are locked and bolted. In one room through which Hepzibah passes, Hawthorne purposefully describes a set of chairs that are “straight and stiff, and so ingeniously contrived for the discomfort of the human person that they were irksome even to sight.” Hawthorne uses the description of these chairs to further depict the discomfort of Hepzibah’s physical and psychological essence. Neither she nor the people who come into her presence are at ease.
Hepzibah is not a worldly woman. She has lived a sheltered life and has seldom left her home. She is like her house, whose front door has not provided entry to stranger or kin for a long time. But necessity forces Hepzibah to make concessions. Although she does not go out into the world, facing it head on, she does admit the public through a side room, the small discarded shop that she has renovated. Because she is desperate for money, Hepzibah will force herself to face the public. But, she does so reluctantly. As she has done with most of her emotions, hiding them in the dark recesses of her psyche, she also will do with her physical self. While Hepzibah has placed herself in a vulnerable position by inviting the public into her shop, she is not without escape. The shop is connected to her house, allowing her to quickly dart into the confines and the darkness of its privacy whenever her emotions overwhelm her; whenever the public comes too close.
Furthering the relationship between Hepzibah and the shop, Hawthorne informs his readers that a change is taking place. The shop, which had been heavily curtained to keep its interior out of sight, has been recently transformed. The cobwebs and rust have been cleared away. The shelves and bins have been filled with “merchantable goods.” Likewise, Hepzibah is experiencing a transformation. She is, in Hawthorne’s words, stepping “down from her pedestal of imaginary rank.” Hepzibah’s life is changing in more ways than she can imagine. One of those major adjustments will come to her in the person of Phoebe Pyncheon, a character who is as bright as Hepzibah is dull. To emphasize this contrast, Hawthorne portrays Hepzibah’s first encounter with Phoebe by having Hepzibah stand in a darkened hallway, staring through a “dusty” window to see Phoebe, who is standing outside in the light.
Phoebe, in contrast to Hepzibah, is described as “fresh” and “unconventional” and far too beautiful to have come to this house with its “sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of the house, and the heavy projection [of the door frame] that overshadowed her.” Phoebe brings to this dark and dank home of Hepzibah the exuberance of spring and country air. At first, this throws Hepzibah back into the deep shadows as she considers not only not opening the door but also locking it so Phoebe cannot come in. It is as if Hepzibah realizes in advance that Phoebe’s light will affect her, and this idea frightens her. The thought of locking...
(The entire section is 2092 words.)