There Is a Bicycle Named Hepzibah

I had to finish reading The House of The Seven Gables (1851) by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) so I could tell you about my neighbor who named his bicycle Hepzibah.  He’s an older gentleman, a little stout, and extremely smart.  (His wife once told me that he had been a national merit scholar at Stanford, and later earned a doctoral degree from MIT.)  He rides Hepzibah, named after Hawthorne’s character in the novel, through the city during the summer months, earning quite the farmer’s tan.  He’s a comical character, one people find either endearing or annoying, but he’s a fixture of our neighborhood and whenever I think of Hepzibah, the old woman in The House of Seven Gables, I can’t help but think of this neighbor and his beloved bicycle.

As to the novel, it’s pure Hawthorne.  The characters who live worthy lives ultimately end up triumphing, while the sinful man who has hidden his true character meets a satisfying end.  The prose is dense, meaningful, and ultimately romantic.  Amazing, other worldly things can and do happen in romantic novels.  This novel focuses much of its romantic efforts on witchcraft, which is fitting since the story is set in Salem, Massachusetts.

The title character, The House, (yes, I consider it to be a character, much like Thomas Hardy’s landscape in Return of the Native) is an actual house in that city.  I visited the house in August 2008 while staying with my sister, who lived in New Hampshire at the time.  We went sightseeing, and this house was one of our many stops.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

We also got to see the old Custom House, the place where Hawthorne claims in his frame narrative of The Scarlet Letter to have found Hester’s actual cloak and belongings.)

The Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts

The real-life house with seven gables is obviously old.  It is strangely designed, as parts of it were added on as the people who lived there needed more room.  The store Hepzibah runs from the side of the house is there, too, along with Clifford’s attic room, staged for curious visitors like my sister and I.  Through the gardens is a gift shop, where I purchased my copy of the book and a miniature replica of the house.

We posed for pictures, and wandered further, discovering that Hawthorne’s childhood house stood a few hundred feet away, moved there as part of the display for tourists.  He was born in that city and lived there all his life, modeling much of his work on the town and its inhabitants.

Hawthorne’s childhood home

The chickens in the novel are characters too, and their fate is announced at the end of the novel along with Hepzibah’s, Clifford’s, and Alice’s.  The rooster is name Chanticleer, after Chaucer’s rooster in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales, and one of his wives represents inner beauty.  Of her, Hawthorne writes, “[I]t was made evident that this identical hen, much as mankind undervalued her, carried something about her person, the worth of which was not to be estimated either in gold or precious stones” (132).  I like this passage because I know some people who can be described similarly.  Their worth is not outward or readily apparent by materialistic standards, but they are nevertheless worth much, and often more, than those who focus only on what can be bought with gold and jewels.

The prideful sort of person who only cares about gain and appearances is represented by Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, a cousin to Clifford and Hepzibah.  We come to find out at the end of the novel that he had stolen Clifford’s inheritance, but his sudden death changes the wrongs and restores money and happiness to Clifford, Hepzibah, and Alice.  As Judge Pyncheon spend an entire night keep watching in a chair, only to die, Hawthorne addresses him.  I appreciated his desire, as an author, to want to speak to his characters, and in a way he seems to have wanted to shake the tar out of the judge in order to make him see and do right.  As a foreshadowing of the judge’s downfall, Hawthorne writes, “A hard, cold man, thus unfortunately situated, seldom or never looking inward, and resolutely taking his idea of himself from what purports to be his image as reflected in the mirror of public opinion, can scarcely arrive at true self-knowledge, except through loss of property and reputation” (199).

The weight of one’s ancestry is also central to this novel.  The past Pyncheons seem to reproach Judge Pyncheon from their frames on the walls.  And although he was caught stealing as a youth, the uncle who saw him fell and cracked his head open, allowing Judge Pyncheon to get away with his crime.  He assuages his own guilt by telling himself that the uncle died accidentally, yet it happened in the course of his bad actions.  The weight of this ancestor knowing his sins, although he is dead, is too much for Pyncheon to bear.  This scene again reaches that other-worldly level of romanticism in which ghosts can play a part in the plot.

For Clifford and Hepzibah, this weight of ancestry is something they can leave behind with clean conscience.  Once Judge Pyncheon is dead and they have inherited, they “bade a final farewell to the abode of their forefathers, with hardly more emotion than if they had made it their arrangement to return thither at tea-time” (274).  They have nothing to feel guilty about, unlike the judge, and can therefore move past the expectations of family.

Some of my favorite quotes from the novel follow:

“For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart!  What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!” (146).

“There is no greater bugbear than a strong-willed relative in the circle of his own connections” (149).

“Our first youth is of no value; for we are never conscious of it until after it is gone.  But sometimes―always, I suspect, unless one is exceedingly unfortunate―there comes a sense of second youth, gushing out of the heart’s joy at being in love; or, possibly, it may come to crown some other grand festival in life, if any other such there be” (185).

“The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits” (264).

“It may be remarked, however, that, of all the events which constitute a person’s biography, there is scarcely one―none, certainly, of anything like a similar importance―to which the world so easily reconciles itself as to his death” (266).

Hawthorne died on May 19, 1894, and was buried on May 23 (my birthday) in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.  He lived in and represents a time of pure New England tradition and of romantic literature that captures some of the superstitious times of America’s past.  He is responsible for creating an American literature that America could call her own.  Although it took me a few years to read this novel, I salute all of Hawthorne’s mythmaking, for it is some of America’s finest.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  The House of the Seven Gables.  New York: Modern Library, 2001.

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