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Excerpts from essay by Melissa Pennell

Excerpts from essay by Melissa Pennell

Excerpts from essay by Melissa Pennell in Hawthorne and Women edited by John Idol and Melinda Ponder which compares Mary Wilkins Freemanís characters to Hepzibah . Like Hepzibah, Freemanís female characters are genteel women struggling to achieve self-worth in a changing society.

In Pennell's essay "The Unfortunate Fall" she compares Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Hawthorne. "Each experienced the vulnerability that also shapes the lives of some of their characters. Both authors confront in their fiction what Hawthorne identifies in The House of the Seven Gables as the 'inherent instability of human affairs.' Hawthorne's more extended treatment of the decline of the world into which Mary Wilkins Freeman was born and in which her characters struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth and independence. In his treatment of Hepzibah Pyncheon, Hawthorne creates a prototype for some of the women who later appear in Freeman's work. Aspect of Hepzibah's character important to Freeman's genteel women include: her intense valuing of the familial past, especially in light of the reduced circumstances of the present; her use of form and decorum to create emotional distance and self-protective barriers; and most significantly, her acceptance of economic poverty to preserve a sense of integrity and independence" (191-192).

"Keenly aware, in light of his own emotional poverty and isolation, Hawthorne sympathetically portrays the struggles of Hepzibah Pyncheon, whose fantasies of miraculous rescue through the arrival of a mysterious fortune sustain her. Hepzibah's New England heritage, which Hawthorne sketches in this fiction, allows him to consider her character within the context of both a personal and historical past, to invest her with a sense of place and purpose" (192).

"In addition to the burden of responsibility for preserving the family history, Hepzibah also bears the burden of maintaining some sign of the family's status. This is difficult, however, given her situation: she is 'wretchedly poor' and though she has 'fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences... [she] must [now] earn her own food, or starve!' To explore Hepzibah's plight, Hawthorne examines her concepts of gentility, for she has been socialized to believe that 'a lady's hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for its bread'" (193).

"The values that have shaped her life allow Hepzibah to see herself as guardian of the house and repository of Pyncheon family lore and tradition, but such a role is unimportant to a world preoccupied with technological progress and change. Hepzibah exists at the margins of Salem's social world, her life circumscribed by a code of gentility and decorum, even though her [CATHY: SOMETHING SEEMS TO BE LEFT OUT HERE] stands not far from the center of town. ... Hepzibah, the first living Pyncheon to appear, is 'the old maid' alone is the house. Hawthorne's repeated use of this pejorative is important, for it conveys the presumed stasis of Hepzibah's life and indicates how the community defines a woman of Hepzibah's age, marital status, and prospects. Even though Hepzibah has tried to remain invisible, accepting her marginality as part of her self-sacrifice, the community still exercises influence over her identity. The first scene in which she appears is filled with references to 'restraint' and to an avoidance of 'indecorum,' indications that Hepzibah is governed by the expectations she internalized years earlier. That she has 'dwelt in strict seclusion; taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures' reveals that Hepzibah (or any woman alone) has no role according to the conventions of her day. She cannot be part of the masculine world of competition and production nor can she fulfill the expectations of the cult of domesticity, for she has no family present and no social life" (193-194).

"Hepzibah's distance from the world and her lack of interaction have created a false impression of her. Her black silk gown of outdated line and 'the strange horror of a turban on her head' (chapter two) are almost comical, while 'her scowl had done Miss Hepzibah a very ill-office, in establishing her character as an ill-tempered old maid.' The narrative reveals, however, that 'her heart never frowned. It was naturally tender, sensitive, and full of little tremors and palpitations.' Such tenderness of heart engenders vulnerability, and Hepzibah's strict adherence to the rules of decorum, that she was 'born a lady, and [has] always lived one - no matter in what narrowness of means (chapter three), has served as a form of self-protection" (194).

Pennell gives examples with her behavior with Holgrave and Phoebe.

"Were this the extent of Hepzibah's character, she would fade into the background and take her place on the shelf as society expect. However, Hawthorne reveals another side to Hepzibah's character that anticipates the inner strength of the women in Freeman's fiction. Hepzibah has subsisted for a period of time, relying in part on a meager garden and the few eggs her chickens provide, but she has barely sustained herself and needs income to support herself and her brother. Even in this situation, she is bound by the expectations that have governed her life. Since she is not suited to sewing or teaching, 'the business of setting up a petty shop is almost the only resource of women, in circumstances at all similar to those of our unfortunate recluse (chapter two). In spite of the desperate situation, in which she finds herself, Hepzibah does not wish to be a charity case, even within her family" (195)

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She accepts her poverty, rejects Jaffrey's help, and opens a small store.




Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11576/


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