The House of the Seven Gables

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The House of the Seven Gables: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Shivering and feeling adrift, Hepzibah follows Clifford toward the center of town. Clifford, she sees, is excited, almost drunkenly so, and he moves with purpose. They attract little notice as they walk through the wet, muddy, almost deserted town. Yet the sense of unreality doesn’t change for Hepzibah, who keeps asking herself, “Am I awake?”
Outside of the House of the Seven Gables for the first time in the novel, the Pyncheons wander in a world that, up till now, has had no clear place for them. But such unaccustomed freedom feels threatening and unreal to Hepzibah.
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Finally, Clifford leads them through the arched entrance of a large gray building. A train is puffing on the track, almost ready for departure. Clifford guides Hepzibah into one of the cars, and moments later, the train pulls away, drawing the two of them “into the great current of human life,” from which they’ve been separated for so long. Hepzibah asks Clifford if all that has happened is a dream. He replies, “On the contrary, I have never been awake before!”
Clifford has a plan. He believes that the train—a symbol of technological progress that didn’t exist in his youth, and which frightened him before—will be the means of their liberation. Abruptly, he and Hepzibah are thrust into the very center of human society and progress. Hepzibah feels disoriented, but Clifford feels newly alive.
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The train contains about 50 other passengers, which in and of itself is a novelty for the two. The passengers’ quiet occupations, many of them reading novels or papers, contrast with the noise of the train. Children toss a ball back and forth across the aisle. People get on and off the train at brief stops. Some sleep. The atmosphere is, in short, “life itself.” Clifford sees that Hepzibah is feeling bemused by her surroundings and urges her to set aside the past and be happy.
The Pyncheon siblings have been isolated from society for such a long time that the activity on the train is like a microcosm of life itself. It’s too much for Hepzibah, but for Clifford, it feels like an escape from what has entrapped him for most of his life.
Themes
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Hepzibah, for her part, cannot focus on her changing surroundings. In her mind, the House of the Seven Gables looms everywhere, seeming to set itself down wherever she looks. Her mind, unlike Clifford’s, is “unmalleable.” Because of that, in this environment, she no longer feels like Clifford’s guardian. Clifford, by contrast, seems to have been “startled into manhood,” or at least something resembling it.
The House of the Seven Gables isn’t just a dwelling; it’s a state of mind that haunts Hepzibah wherever she happens to be. Within the House’s confines, Hepzibah knows her role. On the train, she doesn’t know how to relate to Clifford, who has transformed into someone different.
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After the conductor passes through, Clifford gets into a conversation with an old man across the aisle, who says that Clifford has chosen a strange day for a pleasure-trip; surely their own hearth would be more comfortable. Clifford disagrees. He thinks that the railroad will eventually do away with “those stale ideas of home and fireside.” A nomadic existence is better. Human progress, he claims, runs in a circle, or a spiral. When humanity thinks they have arrived at something new, they have, in fact, returned to something old and abandoned, yet spiritualized and perfected.
Clifford articulates a novel form of human progress—one that’s even more radical than Holgrave’s. He argues that the railroad is a sort of spiritualized form of travel which makes houses obsolete. It’s a sort of reincarnation of an older, nomadic form of existence. Unlike Holgrave, who sees the past as irredeemable, Clifford sees it as a basis for progress, but one that will be transcended.
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The “spiral” of progress, Clifford explains, transcends the ancient style of nomadic life. The railroads eliminate the weary effort of travel, making travel spiritual and eliminating the need to linger anywhere. There’s longer any need to build homes. Clifford glows youthfully at the prospect. He adds that houses actually hinder human happiness. Souls need change; a stagnant old house becomes “unwholesome” to those within. He darkly recalls the House of the Seven Gables—it gives him a vision of a dead old man sitting in a chair and polluting the whole place. He could never be happy there, he continues. The old man begins to eye Clifford warily.
As Clifford expounds on his idea of progress, he begins to speak more literally about the House of the Seven Gables. He sees houses as symbolic of human stagnation; this, inevitably, leads him to think of the specific house from which he has fled. In Clifford’s ecstatic mood, it’s unclear whether he thinks that the scene with Judge Pyncheon was a dream or something that really just happened. Dream and reality are mixed in his mind.
Themes
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Clifford exults that the farther he gets from the House, the younger he becomes. But now, his external age “belies [him] strangely,” for he now feels youthful, as if his best days lie ahead. Ignoring Hepzibah’s attempts to hush him, he continues chatting to the old man about a future in which homes, and indeed real estate, have vanished, taking away the misery that haunts the posterity of those who built them. Perhaps mesmerism and electricity will have similarly transforming effects.
Clifford feels he is aging in reverse as he gains distance from the imprisoning, unwholesome effects of the House. He perceives that the problem with houses is that they allow greed and wealth to exert unhealthy power over the lives of their founders’ posterity. Thus, houses are a phenomenon that society should leave behind as outdated.
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The old man points out that telegraphs have the advantage of helping to catch murderers. Clifford says that murderers have their rights, too, and maybe even excusable motives. He returns to the scene of the dead man sitting in the House—if another man fled that scene by train, wouldn’t his rights be infringed if he arrived in a distant town and found everyone talking about the murder? At this point, the old man is eyeing Clifford with great suspicion. Clifford tells Hepzibah they have gone far enough and should exit at the next station.
The conversation continues to become a bit too literal, as the man’s reference to catching murderers using telegraphs reminds Clifford that he is on the run. He observes that technology can have ambivalent effects, too—like making rapid communication possible, to the detriment of people who are justified in fleeing. The exchange brings his ecstatic mood to an end.
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The train stops at a remote station, and Hepzibah and Clifford get off. They take in their surroundings: a decaying church, an abandoned farmhouse, and a chilly rain. Clifford’s mood begins to sink. He tells Hepzibah that she must take over. Hepzibah drops to her knees and prays for God’s mercy upon them both.
Outside the atmosphere of the train and its temporary respite from reality, Clifford once again feels lost and helpless. He realizes they cannot outrun the fate of the House of the Seven Gables.
Themes
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Time, Change, and Progress Theme Icon