Hepzibah Pyncheon wakes before sunrise. She is alone in the House of the Seven Gables, except for a young man, a daguerreotypist, who has been lodging in one of the gables for the past three months. Hepzibah has lived as a recluse for the past quarter-century, but today will be different. With heavy sighs, the “old maid” says her prayers and readies herself for the day.
The novel shifts from the largely expository nature of the first chapter to a more conventional narrative with the story of Hepzibah, the House’s current occupant. Hepzibah’s reclusive existence as an “old maid” is in keeping with a family that’s dying out even while clinging to its upper-class ideals.
Before leaving her chamber, Hepzibah unlocks a drawer in her desk and withdraws a small miniature portrait. It’s a likeness of a delicate-looking young man in old-fashioned dress. Hepzibah’s devotion to this figure has been her sole passion in life.
The identity of the young man isn’t revealed for the time being; but, like other artworks in the story, his portrait accurately reveals his inner character.
At last, dressed in rustling black silks and a turban, Hepzibah leaves her chamber and feels her way nearsightedly toward the stairs. She enters a dark-paneled parlor, which, among other furnishings, contains a high-backed oaken chair, a rather fantastical illustrated map of the old Pyncheon territory, and a forbidding portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, complete with Bible and sword. Hepzibah scowls toward the portrait, but the scowl is a result of her poor eyesight; she actually reveres the pictured ancestor. Hepzibah’s scowl has given her a reputation for being ill-tempered, but “her heart never frowned.” She is actually tender-hearted and sensitive.
Hepzibah’s life remains surrounded by the trappings of the Pyncheon history and alleged fortune, even 200 years after the fact. Hepzibah is an example of a character whose exterior contradicts her interior—she is much more capable of love and tenderness than her frowning, dowdy exterior suggests.
In the adjacent shop, a transformation has occurred: cobwebs have been swept away, and the interior has been scrubbed. Barrels of flour, apples, and other goods have appeared, as well as soap, candles, and dry goods like sugar, beans, and peas. There’s even a variety of candy and gingerbread cookies. Sighing but purposeful, Hepzibah enters the shop and begins rearranging some of the toys and treats, looking ludicrous as she does so—and yet there’s a lingering trace of gentility at the same time. There is an undeniable melancholy about the Pyncheon heiress—prompted by a newly emergent circumstance—reduced to being “the hucksteress of a cent shop.” As the town stirs to life, Hepzibah can delay no longer, and she unbars the shop door—then immediately withdraws into the parlor to weep.
Hepzibah is portrayed as both a sympathetic and a rather pitiable character, at once clinging to the world of her upbringing and trying, with varying success, to embrace an entirely new one. The term “huckster” simply refers to a seller of small items and, in this instance, doesn’t necessarily have the modern connotation of a dishonest peddler. Nevertheless, the circumstances feel shameful to Hepzibah, who has spent her entire life believing that she is above such things.