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Hepzibah and <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i>: When the Other Continues the Cycle of Othering

Hepzibah and The House of the Seven Gables: When the Other Continues the Cycle of Othering

By Caitlyn Goodpasture
Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX.

In 1852, the year The House of the Seven Gables was published, Hawthorne and his family lived in Lenox; the family now consisted of himself, Sophia, pregnant with their third child, and children Una and Julian. According to Mellow, Hawthorne began writing The House of the Seven Gables in August 1851, completing the work in January 1852. He had been working under a strenuous time schedule. James Fields’ publishing firm had advertised “a new Romance by the author of ‘The Scarlet Letter’” (351), and had begun taking orders for the book in January although Hawthorne had not yet produced the manuscript. With a growing family, Hawthorne was focused on producing his novel so that his family would have money to survive (Mellow 351-52). With economic concerns weighing on his mind, it is no wonder that economic themes are prevalent in the novel. Mellow comments, “Interestingly, where Hawthorne’s contemporaries and later scholars viewed the witchcraft trials as an example of seventeenth-century religious hysteria, Hawthorne, with a modern’s foresight, suggested that there was a probable economic motive behind the persecution of Matthew Maule” (352). Economy and the way people and goods are commodified affect more characters in the novel than just Matthew Maule; Hepzibah Pyncheon is also Othered, objectified, and commodified. Hepzibah is portrayed as severe and wearing a turban--demarcating her as different, Other, or exotic. Also, when Hepzibah is first introduced, she is in financial straits; she is economically reduced to opening a penny shop out of her ancestral home, which is a mortifying degradation that pains her acutely: “Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, has caught up with her at last” (CE 2:38). She sells several goods out of the penny shop, including Jim Crow cookies. Thus, we have the irony that readers are given a character (Hepzibah) who is of the gender that is commodified in Hawthorne’s previous novel, and she commodifies another character—the dark-skinned Other, represented in the novel by the Jim Crow cookies.

Hepzibah must first be Othered in order to be objectified and commodified. What is anomalous about the characteristics that mark Hepzibah as Other is that at least one is self-imposed. Unlike Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, who had the Othering apparel forced upon her as punishment, Hepzibah seems willingly to wear the turban that separates and marks her. The first time Hepzibah and the turban are described, words such as “young,” “lovely,” and “stately remains of beauty” are juxtaposed against such words as “strange” and “horror,” which are specifically used to describe Hepzibah’s nonexistent beauty and her turban (CE 2:40-41). Hawthorne writes, “How can we elevate our history of retribution for the sin of long ago, when as one of our most prominent figures, we are compelled to introduce . . . a gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk-gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head!” (CE 2:40-41). This juxtaposition of positive words (young, lovely) against negative ones (horror, strange) causes the words describing the turban to stand out even more. Expounding upon the turban’s impact in his study of Hawthorne and the Orient, Luther Luedtke writes, “Hepzibah’s dry, sexless figure is intended as a droll parody of Oriental splendor and fecundity is suggested by the repeated references to her turban. Hawthorne establishes an identity through this symbol no less sharply than through Hester’s scarlet letter or Zenobia’s flower . . .” (190). Luedtke adds: “Turban (or turbans, turbaned) appears eight times in The House of the Seven Gables, always with direct reference to Hepzibah, and nowhere else in Hawthorne’s five completed romances” (190). Luedtke explains that the disconnect between Hepzibah’s appearance and personality is most evident in the chapter titled “The Scowl and the Smile”; Hepzibah is described as “the East-Wind itself, grim and disconsolate, in a rusty black silk-gown, and with a turban of cloud-wreath on its head!” (CE 2:223). As Luedtke points out, Hepzibah’s turban acts much like Hester’s scarlet letter. It is a physical piece of clothing that is highly visible and differentiates Hepzibah from other members of her community.

The second physical trait that marks and Others Hepzibah is her scowl, the “innocent result of her near-sightedness” (CE 2:34). The scowl is described at length:

We must linger, a moment, on this unfortunate expression of poor Hepzibah’s brow. Her scowl—as the world, or such part of it as sometimes caught a transitory glimpse of her at the window, wickedly persisted in calling it—her scowl had done Miss Hepzibah a very ill-office, in establishing her character as an ill-tempered old maid; nor does it appear improbable, that, by often gazing at herself in a dim looking-glass, and perpetually encountering her own frown within its ghostly sphere, she had been led to interpret the expression almost as unjustly as the world did. (CE 2:34)
Hepzibah’s unapproachability is largely due to this scowl and the appearance of a cross demeanor, which contributes to her being an outsider in the community. Even though her ill-tempered scowl makes her appear to be perpetually angry, the reality is that she is neither cross nor angry. Curiously, the narrator suggests that Hepzibah has seen herself scowl so much over the years, due to her near-sightedness, that she has internalized the idea that she is an angry old maid, even though there is “nothing fierce in Hepzibah’s poor old heart; nor had she, at the moment, a single bitter thought against the world at large, or one individual man or woman” (CE 2:43). Her inadvertent misinterpretation of herself, her sequestration in the Pyncheon house, and the community’s misunderstanding of her personality and their continual use of inaccurate labels such as “cross old maid,” perpetuate the idea that Hepzibah is mean and unapproachable.

Another distinguishing trait that Others Hepzibah, though subtle and more minor than either her scowl or her turban, is her lack of sexual activity or experience. Luedtke writes that Hepzibah is a “sexless” figure (Luedtke 190). When stopping to look at a portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, Hepzibah is described as feeling “a reverence for the pictured visage, of which only a far-descended and time-stricken virgin could be susceptible” (CE 2:34). Being an unmarried older woman and lacking sexual experience within the confines of marriage Others Hepzibah from the female portion of the community in particular. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester is ostracized because she has illicit sex, as is evident when her daughter is born. In The House of the Seven Gables, readers are shown how one can be Othered for not being sexually active. Hepzibah has presumably never partaken in any sexual activity, thus, she has not fulfilled the societal expectations of producing and raising children. Instead of marrying and reproducing, as it can be inferred that Phoebe will do with Holgrave, Hepzibah has lived a life of isolation and seclusion. While a life without marriage and children may have been an acceptable alternative for men during this time period, women did not have this same luxury. Regarding spinsterhood in the nineteenth century, Zsuzsa Berend writes, “Spinsterhood has usually been viewed either as individual misfortune or as a manifestation of protofeminist assertion of autonomy” (935). Given Hepzibah’s mild and meek manner, it does not seem likely that she is single as the result of an assertion of her own independence. To be assertive, especially in a protofeminist manner, would mean that Hepzibah would have been intentionally or proactively insuring that she remain single. Hepzibah has not been in or around society for so long that when she and Clifford want to attend church, after getting ready to step out the door, both stop on the threshold and then retreat back into the house, into the familiar. Hepzibah, who has occupied the house even while Clifford has been away in jail, “could not flee; their jailor had but left the door ajar, in mockery, and stood behind it, to watch them stealing out. At the threshold, they felt his pitiless grip upon them. For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailor so inexorable as one’s self!” (CE 2:169). Hepzibah is her own jailer and her prison is her house.

Hepzibah’s predominately self-imposed Othering qualities combined with her family’s history allow the members of the community to treat Hepzibah’s identity, which is tied to her family history, as something to be commodified. The community also treats Hepzibah’s familial space as an object to be commodified. Within the community’s earliest roots, before Hepzibah is even born, her family’s history is the subject of gossip and scandal. The members of the community are aware that “the house of the Seven Gables, antique as it now looks, was not the first habitation erected by civilized man, on precisely the same spot of ground. Pyncheon-street formerly bore the humbler appellation of Maule’s Lane, from the name of the original occupant of the soil” (CE 2:6). A dispute arose between Colonel Pyncheon, a prominent political figure within the town, and Matthew Maule, a poorer town member, over a particular parcel of land on which Maule had already built his house. “Matthew Maule, on the other hand, though an obscure man, was stubborn in the defence of what he considered his right; and, for several years, he succeeded in protecting the acre or two of earth which, with his own toil, he had hewn out of the primeval forest, to be his garden-ground and homestead” (CE 2:7). This was highly sought after land; it is described as having “[a] natural spring of soft and pleasant water—a rare treasure on the sea-girt peninsula, where the Puritan settlement was made” (CE 2:6). This land is more fertile and lush than the area surrounding it, making it a prime area in which to establish a household. In order to take the land from Maule, Colonel Pyncheon exercises his influence as a town leader to have Maule tried as a witch and sentenced to death. Before being hanged, Maule issues a prophecy for Colonel Pyncheon: “God will give him blood to drink!” (CE 2:8).

This precedence of contention between the two families is well known throughout the town and comprises part of the town’s history. The strife between the two families, and the pretentious attitude of the Pyncheons, causes the Pyncheons to be the subject of ridicule and mockery. The narrator describes the community’s regard for the Pyncheons and their attitude:

These last [referring to new settlers], if they ever heard of the Pyncheon title, would have laughed at the idea of any man’s asserting a right—on the strength of mouldy parchments, signed with the faded autographs of governors and legislators, long dead and forgotten—to the lands which they or their fathers had wrested from the wild hand of Nature, by their own sturdy toil. This impalpable claim, therefore, resulted in nothing more solid than to cherish, from generation to generation, an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it. (CE 2:18-19)
The third-person omniscient narrator gives insight into the town’s feelings towards the Pyncheons. The Pyncheon clan is treated with a degree of mockery, especially with regard to their “absurd delusion of family importance” (CE 2:19). This sentiment is apparent in the narrator’s tone when he uses words such as “absurd delusion” and “impalpable.” Because the Pyncheons at one time held a notable land title and a certain degree of influence, this familial sense of self-importance has been passed down from generation to generation, despite the fact that most are no longer influential or held in high regard. The community, in treating the Pyncheon’s familial history as something to share amongst themselves as gossip, commodifies the Pycheon’s past and, by extension, commodifies Hepzibah because of her bloodline. The community treats the Pyncheon past as a communal past—something everyone knows about and can partake in through gossip, conjecture, and ridicule. The Oxford English Dictionary lists one meaning for “commodity” as something that is an “advantage, benefit, profit, interest: often in the sense of private or selfish interest” (“commodity” www.oed.com)1. Using Hepzibah’s and Clifford’s past for the community’s benefit, for ridicule and mockery, falls directly in line with this understanding of something or someone being commodified. The selfish interest is the townspeople using the history of the Pyncheons to satisfy their curiosity and to validate their prejudices against Hepzibah and her lineage—whether justified or not.

The importance of the home containing the cent shop should not be overlooked; Hepzibah is being commodified whenever the townspeople enter the penny shop. Charles Campbell argues that the Pyncheon house can, and should, be read as a metaphor that focuses on “the human body” (1). The Pyncheon house itself represents Hepzibah and her familial heritage. With the reluctant opening of the shop, Hepzibah’s family history is, too, being opened to the community. The following exchange between two men from the town, passing by Hepzibah’s house, illustrates the point:

“See here!” cried he. “What do you think of this? Trade seems to be looking up, in Pyncheon-street!” “Well, well, this is a sight, to be sure!” exclaimed the other. “In the old Pyncheon-house, and underneath the Pyncheon-elm! Who would have thought it! Old Maid Pyncheon is setting up a cent-shop!” [. . .] “Make it go!” Cried Dixey, with a most contemptuous expression, as if the very idea were impossible to be conceived. “Not a bit of it! Why, her face—I’ve seen it; for I dug her garden for her, one year—her face is enough to frighten the Old Nick himself, if he had ever so great a mind to trade with her. People can’t stand it, I tell you! She scowls dreadfully, reason or none, out of pure ugliness of temper!” (CE 2:47)
As the dialogue indicates, Hepzibah’s family’s history has been opened up to the community whenever community members are around or in the penny shop to buy goods. Hepzibah and her family are so closely associated with the house that the two have become inseparable, thus resulting in a symbolic co-mingling of wood and flesh, timber and familial history. Campbell notes, “The body is a frame and a figure; it defines our perception and confines our identity, framing us in others’ eyes; and it is the means by which we are figured, assigned various meanings by others” (3-4). Campbell refers also to scholar Edgar Dryden: “Dryden has shown that a central problem for Hawthorne is the fact that man ‘has a body that is at once his point of view upon the world, and, at the same time, the object that makes him visible to other people’” (Dryden qtd. in Campbell 3). Hepzibah is “framed” by the community as an old maid living in the Pyncheon household, forever inhabiting the seven gables, along with the ghosts of her ancestors. Hepzibah’s visibility, or identification with the Pyncheons, further serves to combine her identity with the seven gables. To the members of the community, the Pyncheons are nothing if not their house.

If the house’s existence and Hepzibah’s existence have become so intermingled that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other, then customers entering the penny shop intending to make purchases are further commodifying Hepzibah. Community members are now literally entering the familial space, and this physical intrusion means that they now have access to the history of the Pyncheons. The customers who shop at Hepzibah’s cent shop also have full access to Hepzibah’s identity as a Pyncheon. Opening the cent shop in the seven gables allows not only for symbolic commodification of Hepzibah to take place but also for literal monetary transactions to happen. Hepzibah must open the penny shop because she needs a way to survive economically. She is no longer able to live by being a genteel lady; she is now only “Hepzibah Pyncheon, a forlorn old maid, and keeper of a cent-shop!” (CE 2:51). Hepzibah is commodified when the townspeople enter the cent shop, and Hawthorne himself is literally commodifying Hepzibah. To support himself and his growing family, Hawthorne is capitalizing on his romance, which is Hepzibah’s story and familial history.

Some of the most notable goods that Hepzibah sells out of the cent shop are Jim Crow cookies. These gingerbread cookies are described as the “impish figure of [a] negro dancer” (CE 2:51). In “Haunted by Jim Crow: Gothic Fictions by Hawthorne and Faulkner,” Robert Martin explores race and the role it plays in Hawthorne’s writing. Regarding The House of the Seven Gables specifically, Martin writes, “Hawthorne locates the commercial exchange at the heart of American history. Hepzibah’s first customer . . . is Ned Higgins, of the new Irish lower middle class, whose shabby dress is ‘owing to his mother’s carelessness’. . . . And the first transaction is the sale of a gingerbread Jim Crow” (133-134, emphasis added). Despite the fact that Hepzibah has arranged and rearranged other items within the shop and the front shop window, the first sale is not an apple or some other knick-knack but a cookie that represents a group that has historically been treated as property to be bought and sold: African American slaves. Martin continues:

Slavery, we know, was the mainstay of the Salem economy and the bartering of human bodies the origin of most New England wealth. Hepzibah’s own appearance signals her place in the economics of sex and race. Her turbaned head is not merely a “droll parody of Oriental splendor” (Luedtke 190) but an indication of her status as slave woman, for which the turban was the accepted sign. (134)
This interpretation of Hepzibah as a slave woman is interesting, although too heavy-handed, for Hepzibah is the one, despite being objectified and commodified by the community herself, who is now objectifying and commodifying another group of people. By selling Jim Crow cookies to Ned Higgins and other potential customers, Hepzibah has, in a sense, gone from symbolic victim to victimizer, all in an effort to survive. “Hepzibah’s sale of Jim Crow to the voracious boy, who will move on to other exotic animals, repeats the economics of America and reveals the hidden sources of northern wealth. That it is the body of the black that is commodified is made clear by the references to Ned as ‘cannibal’” (Martin 134).

Not only do race relations play a part in who is objectified and commodified in the novel, so, too, do gender relations. Commenting on groups commodifying and possessing others groups, Martin writes, “what Hawthorne’s text reveals, as its own secret, is the story of race in America and of the power of the phallus” (Martin 131). Commenting on property and its ties to economic status, Martin continues: “Hawthorne’s text was written in the midst of a national—even international—debate over the right to property; private property as opposed to communal property, the right to hold and sell slaves, and the connections between the enslavement of women and that of black Americans” (131). Martin concludes with the argument, “Gables offers a view of property that suggests the need for better management rather than any radical change, indeed, for a management that can forestall revolution. Holgrave, the Fourierist, will become a wealthy man inheriting, or marrying, property and possessing the woman by a now domesticated phallic power” (131). Hepzibah, being a woman, is not only part of a group that is traditionally objectified and commodified by the dominant social group, but she is also objectifying and commodifying African Americans.

In light of Martin’s observation of phallic power possession, it would be prudent to explore how Annette Kolodny’s theory, delineated in The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters, fits in the scope of The House of the Seven Gables. Her theory explores the idea of commodifying that which normally would not be commodified: in the case of The House of the Seven Gables in particular, along with women and African Americans, the land and nature. Kolodny equates land and nature with women. She writes, “from accounts of the earliest explorers onward, then, a uniquely American pastoral vocabulary began to show itself, releasing and emphasizing some facets of the traditional European mode and all but ignoring others. At its core lay a yearning to know and to respond to the landscape as feminine. . .” (8). She observes that “such an impulse must at some very basic level stem from desires and tensions that arise when patterns from within the human mind confront an external reality of physical phenomena” (8). Kolodny gives readers a very brief history of equating inanimate objects with a certain gender. She explains that “gendering the land as feminine was nothing new in the sixteenth century; Indo-European languages, among others, have long maintained the habit of gendering the physical world and imbuing it with human capacities” (8). She also explains that with the discovery of America, linguistically, new phenomenon began to happen, and a new fantasy began to emerge; that fantasy is “a daily reality of harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine—that is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification—enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose, and painless and integral satisfaction” (4). She argues that this subconscious struggle to maintain symbolic harmony is present in nineteenth-century writing. “A conscious and determined struggle to formulate for themselves the meaning of their [authors] landscape characterizes the writing of nineteenth-century Americans” (71).

This notion of trying to objectify and commodify something that does not, by nature or right, belong to any person, is first exhibited in the dispute between Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule. The dispute is over a parcel of land. “Matthew Maule . . .though an obscure man, was stubborn in the defence of what he considered his right; and, for several year, he succeeded in protecting the acre or two of earth which, with his own toil, he had hewn out of the primeval forest, to be his garden-ground and homestead” (CE 2:7). Trying to objectify or commodify something that should not be objectified and commodified continues with Hepzibah and her familial history and culminates in the objectification and commodification of African Americans, symbolically represented by the sale of Jim Crow cookies in Hepzibah’s cent shop.

Hepzibah’s situation is unique among Hawthorne’s major female characters. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter was objectified and commodified by her own community, but she developed her own talents to produce clothing that could be sold for profit, which helped her and her daughter to survive. Hepzibah, although objectified and commodified during what appears to be an attempt to monopolize her shop-keeping and management abilities, is actually objectifying and commodifying another group of people: African Americans. The commodification does not stop there; Hepzibah and her ancestors are all guilty of trying to own the land and nature, which is another objectification and commodification.


1 The OED lists an example of this use of commodity in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay: “Under the general name of commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature.” Given Emerson and Hawthorne’s friendship, this makes it highly likely that Hawthorne was familiar with and had seen “commodity” used in this manner before.

Works Cited

  • Berend, Zsuzsa. “‘The Best or None!’ Spinsterhood in Nineteenth-Century New England." Journal of Social History 33.4 (2000): 935-957. Social Sciences Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 02 February 2014.

  • Campbell, Charles. “Representing Representation; Body as Figure, Frame, and Text in The House of the Seven Gables.” The Arizona Quarterly 47.4 (1991): 1-26. Web. 22 August 2013.

  • "commodity, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 24 January 2014. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/37205?redirectedFrom=commodity#eid>.

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. II. Ed. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude M. Simpson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1965. Print.

  • Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975. Print.

  • Luedtke, Luther S. Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Romance of the Orient. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.

  • Martin, Robert K. “Haunted by Jim Crow: Gothic Fictions by Hawthorne and Faulkner.” American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative. Eds. Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy. Iowa: U of Iowa P, 1998. 129-142. Print.

  • Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. Print.

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