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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

"Old Esther Dudley"

Introduction to "Old Esther Dudley"

Materials prepared by:

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

Melissa Pennell, Department of English
U. of MA Lowell; Lowell, MA

 

Mirror like Esther Dudley’s
Mirror like Esther Dudley’s (courtesy of The Beverly Historical Society)
 

Old Esther Dudley, the title character of Hawthorne's story "Old Esther Dudley," represents one type of female character that Hawthorne developed, an older woman who serves as a legacy and relic of the past. She is proud of her once aristocratic connections, eccentric in her behavior, and gifted with what seem magical abilities to call forth the "presence" of those long gone. She has great affection for children, who do not mind her eccentricities, and often treats them to gingerbread. Old Esther refuses to leave the Province House when the British retreat during the American Revolution, sure that a Royal Governor will return. She sees maintaining the Province House intact and ready for use as her sacred charge. She remains faithful to this charge until her dying day, the day that Governor John Hancock arrives to open the building for the new republic.

In her manner, appearance, and view of the past, Esther anticipates the character of Hepzibah Pyncheon, who plays a major role in Hawthorne's novel The House of the Seven Gables. Both women draw their sense of self in part from their relationship to a house in which they have resided for years. Their ability to preserve the house as they anticipate the return of its rightful resident gives each woman a feeling of pride and of obligation. For Esther Dudley, the figure who arrives at the house is not the man she expects, and she dies believing she has welcomed a traitor. Esther becomes a symbol of a displaced past. Hepzibah is more fortunate, in that her long imprisoned brother Clifford does return to House of the Seven Gables, but his arrival initially does not bring the happiness that Hepzibah anticipated.

Related Literature: "Old Esther Dudley"

Mirror like Esther Dudley’s
Mirror like Esther Dudley’s (courtesy of The Beverly Historical Society)
 
  • Excerpts are from the story "Old Esther Dudley" (from Twice Told Tales, Volume 2, 1851) (courtesy of Eric Eldred)

  • This excerpt provides details of Esther's appearance and her relationship to the Province House.

  • In this passage, Hawthorne outlines Esther's guardianship of the abandoned structure."

  • This excerpt contains the charge made to Esther Dudley by Sir William Howe, commanding her to guard and preserve the Province House This excerpt also describes her as "representative of a decayed past," similar to Hepzibah Pyncheon from The House of the Seven Gables.

 

  • As does House of the Seven Gables, Province House contains a mirror that seems to link together past and present.

 

  • Though she tends to be distant from adults, Esther Dudley enjoys the company of children, as this excerpt reveals. She also becomes a means for them to learn about the past.

 

 

  • Having waited for years for the return of the royal governor, Esther Dudley prepares to greet the man she mistakes for him. In this excerpt Hawthorne presents her feeling of triumph and fulfillment that turns to failure; Hawthorne also shows the republican John Hancock paying her respect.

Full text of "Old Esther Dudley"

Images Related to "Old Esther Dudley"

Mirror like Esther Dudley’s
Mirror like Esther Dudley’s
Mirror such as Esther Dudley may have looked into. (courtesy of The Beverly Historical Society)
\"Old Esther Dudley\"
"Old Esther Dudley"
Title page drawing by Frank T. Merrill from In Colonial Days,published by L.C. Page & Co. in 1906 (83) 
\"Take This Key and keep it safe\"
"Take This Key and keep it safe"
Illustration by Frank T. Merrill for "Old Esther Dudley" from In Colonial Days,published by L.C. Page & Co. in 1906 (92) 
\"A Few of the Stanch, though Crestfallen Old Tories\"
"A Few of the Stanch, though Crestfallen Old Tories"
Illustration by Frank T. Merrill for "Old Esther Dudley" from In Colonial Days,published by L.C. Page & Co. in 1906 (95) 
\"The King of England's Birthday\"
"The King of England's Birthday"
Illustration by Frank T. Merrill for "Old Esther Dudley" from In Colonial Days,published by L.C. Page & Co. in 1906 (99)

Critical Commentary Related to "Old Esther Dudley"

Mirror like Esther Dudley’s
Mirror like Esther Dudley’s (courtesy of The Beverly Historical Society)
 

 

  • In his book The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales, Michael Colacurcio suggests the real office to be fulfilled by Old Esther Dudley as a historian of the colonial past. (courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Colacurcio)

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?