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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

Three Women in the House of Seven Gables

The Three Female Characters in The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Material prepared by:

Cathy Eaton, Department of English
New Hampshire Technical, Institute, Concord, NH

Melissa Pennell, Department of English
University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA

 

The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables"
The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables" (photography by Dan Popp)
 

In his romance The House of the Seven GablesNathaniel Hawthorne created three distinct female characters who exemplify types of women throughout his fiction. Hepzibah Pyncheon, the timid lady aristocrat of another era, bravely but often ineffectually attempts to run a Cent Shoppe as she protects and nurtures her brother Clifford who has been wrongly imprisoned for thirty years. Phoebe Pyncheon, the lovely, practical country lass, manages the Cent Shoppe easily as she brings cheer and energy into the dismal lives of her cousins Hepzibah and Clifford; Phoebe also brings tender love to the daguerreotypist Holgrave. Alice Pyncheon, a bold, independent and sharp-witted ancestor of Hepzibah and Phoebe, becomes enslaved to the wizard/carpenter Maule.

Literature Related to Three Women in The House of the Seven Gables

The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables"
The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables" (photography by Dan Popp)
 

Hepzibah Pyncheon 
of The House of the Seven Gables is "an old maid" caught between the world of gentility and the world of practicality. She hopes to remain a "lady," but this status depends upon wealth (which she no longer has) as well as being a descendent of a leading family in Salem. Her sojourn into the world of practicality involves becoming a shopkeeper and earning her own way. Because she is proud and because she despises her cousin Judge Pyncheon, she refuses his charity and determines to earn the money she and her brother (soon to be released from prison) will need for basic necessities. To outsiders Hepzibah's scowl makes her seem haughty and bitter, although she proves to be shy and kind-hearted. At crucial points in the novel, she calls upon reserves of inner strength to protect her brother, but relies upon Phoebe for emotional support.

Phoebe, 
Hepzibah's young cousin from the country, offers contrasts to Hepzibah. Hepzibah is timid, reclusive, uncomfortable with shoppers at the cent-shop, and fixed with a perpetually sour expression. Phoebe, on the other hand, is curious, socially at ease, charmed by the shoppers, and in the bloom of youth. However, the two form a close relationship as Hepzibah provides a home for Phoebe and Phoebe provides companionship to Hepzibah and cheerfully takes over the shop-keeping duties. Together they care for the tired, much maligned Clifford Pyncheon who has spent 30 years in jail falsely accused for the murder of his uncle. Phoebe's presence transforms Seven Gables as she exercises the domestic artistry associated with a "true woman." Her redemptive powers also transform the lives of Clifford, Hepzibah and Holgrave, who are drawn out of their shadowy existences by the light of Phoebe's character. 

Alice Pyncheon, 
an ancestor of Hepzibah and Phoebe who lived for a time in Seven Gables, is described in Holgrave's story to Phoebe. He presents a proud, disdainful woman who is hypnotized, becoming enslaved to the carpenter Maule's will. Hepzibah offers a more sympathetic view of Alice and makes reference to her ghostly presence in the Seven Gables. Alice's self-confidence and independent thinking link her to other Hawthorne characters, such as Hester Prynne and Zenobia, but her fate at the hands of the carpenter Maule also links her to Beatrice Rappaccini and Lady Eleanor.

Full text of The House of the Seven Gables

Images Related to Female Characters in The House of the Seven Gables

\"Can it have been an early lover?\" (p. 48) from volume 1 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
"Can it have been an early lover?" (p. 48) from volume 1 of The House of the Seven Gables by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"'You odd little chicken'\" (p. 148) in volume 1 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
"'You odd little chicken'" (p. 148) in volume 1 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"'This has done me good'\" (p. 184) in volume 1 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
"'This has done me good'" (p. 184) in volume 1 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"'I am your kinsman, my dear.'\" (p. 196)in volume 1 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
"'I am your kinsman, my dear.'" (p. 196)in volume 1 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"Faces looked upward to him there\" (p. 258) in volume 1 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
"Faces looked upward to him there" (p. 258) in volume 1 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Edith and Mildred Cowles (Houghton Mifflin, 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"In keeping with the dismal and bitter weather\" (from p. 165) <p>Frontispiece of volume 2 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)</p>
"In keeping with the dismal and bitter weather" (from p. 165)

Frontispiece of volume 2 of The House of the Seven Gablesillustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)


According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"Like the flowers...beautiful and delicate\" (p. 58) in volume 2 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
"Like the flowers...beautiful and delicate" (p. 58) in volume 2 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"'Look me in the face'\" (p. 106) in volume 2 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
"'Look me in the face'" (p. 106) in volume 2 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
\"'Tell me, tell me!'\" (p. 246) in volume 2 of <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i> illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
"'Tell me, tell me!'" (p. 246) in volume 2 of The House of the Seven Gables illustrated by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (Houghton Mifflin 1899)
According to John L. Idol, Jr., "...the Cowles sisters present characters that seem to breathe, have blood in their veins, thoughts in their minds, and feelings in their hearts. ... I'm suggesting that the Cowles sisters understood an illustrator's role, which is being a collaborative artist capable of helping a reader visualize the words of an author. In an age where the visual receives far more attention than the verbal, the Cowles sisters' illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables should be far better known than they are." (See http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10174 for a fuller discussion of this topic by Professor Idol.) (courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne Collection, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine)
Hepzibah, Phoebe, and Judge Pyncheon depicted on cover of 1977 illustrated edition by Now Age/Pendulum Press of <I>The House of the Seven Gables</I>
Hepzibah, Phoebe, and Judge Pyncheon depicted on cover of 1977 illustrated edition by Now Age/Pendulum Press of The House of the Seven Gables
 (courtesy of Pendulum Press)
Portrait of Abigail Gerrish by John Greenwood c. 1750 which resembles Hepzibah Pyncheon
Portrait of Abigail Gerrish by John Greenwood c. 1750 which resembles Hepzibah Pyncheon
The young woman in the painting is Abigail Gerrish's granddaughter. (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
The Shop Bell at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site
The Shop Bell at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site
 (courtesy of Shakespeare and Company)
Illustrator's Depiction of Hepzibah's Shop
Illustrator's Depiction of Hepzibah's Shop 
From Literary Houses - Ten Famous Houses in Fiction  (courtesy of Facts On File, Inc)
Illustration by Helen Mason Grose of Phoebe in <I>The House of the Seven Gables</I> from the 1924 edition published by Houghton Mifflin
Illustration by Helen Mason Grose of Phoebe in The House of the Seven Gables from the 1924 edition published by Houghton Mifflin
John Idol says, "To Helen Mason Grose goes the honor of having provided the greatest number of full-page illustrations for the romance in an edition appearing in 1924.... As of 1952 this edition had gone through 19 printings, serving readers from the Roaring 'Twenties up to the Baby Boomers. In minutely detailed paintings in color and in woodcuts done in black and white, she presented a prettified, sentimental, and energized set of illustrations. Her characters interact, especially in the paintings, and she showed a knack for choosing dramatic scenes where reader interest in most intense...." (with special thanks to Dr. John L. Idol Jr.)
Picture of chicken yard from <I>House of the Seven Gables</I>
Picture of chicken yard from House of the Seven Gables
 (courtesy of Dr. John L. Idol, Jr.)
Kitchen fireplace
Kitchen fireplace
Fireplace in kitchen in House of Seven Gables. Hepzibah and Phoebe would have prepared meals using such a fireplace. (courtesy of The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site)

Criticism Related to Female Characters in The House of the Seven Gables

The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables"
The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables" (photography by Dan Popp)
 

Many scholars and critics have commented upon the significant role of women in Nathaniel Hawthorne's life and work. Some have discussed the formative role that women played in Hawthorne's emergence as a writer and how this influences his treatment of female characters. Others explore the sympathetic view that Hawthorne often has toward female characters, the ways that he aligns them with arts and domesticity, and the ways that women in Hawthorne's fiction are often restricted by the values of the social world they inhabit.

  • General Commentary
    • Criticism Related to Women in Hawthorne's Life and Hawthorne's View of Women
      In her lecture "Hawthorne and 'the sphere of ordinary womanhood'," Melinda Ponder addresses Hawthorne's youth and the important roles that women had in his development. This excerpt highlights that role.
    • Excerpt from his lecture "The Meaning of Hawthorne's Women" in which Richard Millington highlights Hawthorne's sympathetic views toward his female characters.
  • Criticism Related to Hepzibah
    • Excerpts Related to Family Themes and Hawthorne's Fiction: The Tenacious Web by Gloria C. Erlich that points to models based on himself and his mother, Elizabeth Hathorne, who both chose to isolate themselves from the world. Thus, he had real models to help capture Hepzibah's self-imposed isolation from society. (courtesy of Rutgers University Press)
    • Excerpts from essay by John L. Idol, Jr. in Hawthorne and Women edited by Idol and Melinda Ponder on Mary Russell Mitford's sympathetic response to Hepzibah (courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press)
    • 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.
    • Excerpts from essay by Melissa Pennell in Hawthorne and Women edited by John L. Idol, Jr. and Melinda Ponder that compares Mary Wilkins Freeman's character to Hepzibah. Like Hepzibah, Freeman's female characters are genteel women struggling to achieve self-worth in a changing society. (courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press)
  • Criticism related to Phoebe
    • Excerpts from an essay "The Chief Employ of Her Life ", from Hawthorne and Women edited by John L. Idol and Melinda Ponder in which Luanne Jenkins Hurst cites some of Sophia Hawthorne's responses to The House of the Seven Gables, especially to Phoebe's character. (courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press)
    • Excerpt from his lecture "Illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables: A Help or Hindrance?" (video) in which Dr. John L. Idol, Jr. comments that illustrators' interpretations of Phoebe's character tend to emphasize the "sunny" aspects of her character.
    • Excerpt from his lecture "The Meaning of Hawthorne's Women" in which Richard Millington considers the parallel between Hawthorne's experiences and the gender relations he depicts between Phoebe and Holgrave.
    • An excerpt from the biography Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Times in which James Mellow comments on both Phoebe's connection to Sophia Hawthorne and on her influence over the character Holgrave.
    • Excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell in which she suggests that Hawthorne anticipated the criticism leveled against Phoebe's character. (courtesy of Greenwood Press)
  • Criticism related to Alice
    • Excerpt from The Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell in which she outlines Alice's role within the novel. (courtesy of Greenwood Press)

Learning Activities Related to Hawthorne and Women

Illustration by George Henry Boughton in 1881 for <I>The Scarlet Letter</I>
Illustration by George Henry Boughton in 1881 for The Scarlet Letter (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
 

1. In Hawthorne's fiction he frequently uses older female characters to examine connections to the past and the relationship between the past and present. Both Hepzibah Pyncheon from The House of the Seven Gables  and Old Esther Dudley from "Old Esther Dudley" are characters who reflect this approach by Hawthorne. To explore this theme more fully, you may consider the following:

a. Look at the excerpts about and images related to Hepzibah Pyncheon and Esther Dudley listed below and consider the questions that follow:

 

How do Hawthorne's descriptions of Hepzibah and Esther underscore their connections to the past? What words does he use to describe their appearance, attire, and environments to suggest the close ties they feel to the past? How do the illustrations and images reinforce Hawthorne's ideas?

b. Both Seven Gables and the Province House contain mirrors that seem to reflect the presence of figures from the past. Examine the passages in which Hawthorne describes the mirrors. What appears in each? How does Esther feel about the images she sees? What does the narrative suggest about the images that appear in Seven Gables?

c. Hepzibah and Esther share certain qualities, but are also different from each other. What differences do you see? How does each woman feel about the past and its legacy? Is this an important difference?

d. The endings of "Old Esther Dudley" and The House of the Seven Gables  present different outcomes for these two women. Look closely at the excerpts from the endings. How does each work offer a comment on the relationship between past and present? Which outcome do you prefer and why?

Lectures and Articles Related to Three Women in The House of the Seven Gables

The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables"
The Turner-Ingersoll House, 54 Turner St., Salem, aka "The House of the Seven Gables" (photography by Dan Popp)
 


Dr. Dominique Régis Claisse, Université de Valenciennes, France , "The Missing Mother in The House of the Seven Gables - A study in Feminine Nature," paper delivered at the conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, celebrating the Hawthorne bicentennial in Salem, MA, July 1-4.

Dr. John L. Idol, Jr., Professor emeritus, Clemson University: "Illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables: A Help Or a Hindrance?," lecture delivered at The House of the Seven Gables Site on September 15, 2000. 

Goodpasture, Caitlyn. Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX. "Hepzibah and The House of the Seven Gables: When the Other Continues the Cycle of Othering." Paper delivered at the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society Conference, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, MA, June 13, 2014.