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Excerpt from her lecture "Hawthorne and 'the sphere of ordinary womanhood'," in which Melinda Ponder notes that Hawthorne comments on the changing roles for women in his time through the contrasts between Hepzibah and Phoebe, particularly through Hepzibah's aristocratic pretensions.

Hawthorne himself perceived this change taking place in women's lives so that a woman of an older generation could hardly grasp the new identity, outlook, and freedom of a younger woman. He shows this contrast between Hepzibah and Phoebe throughout The House of the Seven Gables, particularly in the chapter, "May and November."

Hepzibah muses, "with a grim smile, and a half-natural sigh, and a sentiment of mixed wonder, pity, and growing affection,--

"'What a nice little body she is! If she could only be a lady, too!--but that's impossible! Phoebe is no Pyncheon. She takes everything from her mother.'

"As to Phoebe's not being a lady, or whether she were a lady or no, it was a point, perhaps, difficult to decide…. Instead of discussing her claim to rank among ladies, it would be preferable to regard Phoebe as the example of feminine grace and availability combined, in a state of society, if there were any such, where ladies did not exist. There it should be woman's office to move in the midst of practical affairs, and to gild them all…with an atmosphere of loveliness and joy."

[This comparison between Phoebe and Hepzibah] "was a fair parallel between new Plebianism and old Gentility....".

As we can see from the number of the narrator's qualifying phrases and apparent conundrums, he is groping towards a solution to the vexing question himself of categories for defining women that seem to have vanished with the arrival of confident Phoebe's self-definition of new womanhood oblivious to "lady-hood."

Although this example speaks to the issues of class, the problem for society is clear: women's lives are changing and the old ways of understanding them have become obsolete. I agree with Margaret Moore that "Hawthorne was certainly aware of and sympathetic to the restrictions on women" (250). At the same time, as Nina Baym notes, "Cautiously, Hawthorne advances the notion that if society is to be changed for the better, such change will be initiated by women. . . ."(Women's Fiction 73).




Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11567/


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