The House of the Seven Gables is characterized by an interplay between what appears to be true versus what’s actually true. For example, Clifford, rumored to be hardened criminal, is actually a tender-hearted man who’s sensitive to beauty. Similarly, Hepzibah’s customary scowl (due to nearsightedness) gives a misleading view of her personality: “her heart never frowned.” Though inward goodness sometimes manifests outwardly—as in the example of Phoebe—more often, outward, public appearances mask inward defects of character. By contrasting Phoebe’s transparently good character with the more deceptive appearances of figures like Judge Pyncheon, Hawthorne argues that society tends to reinforce outward, public appearances while overlooking and suppressing inward realities.
Outward beauty is sometimes reflective of inner beauty. For instance, in addition to being physically beautiful, Phoebe Pyncheon has the gift of bringing out the best in the things and people around her: “Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess […] a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home.” Phoebe lights up the House of the Seven Gables with her “magic”—she’s able to make it a comfortable home because of her ability to see the inner potential of the worn façade and its drearier inhabitants. While Phoebe is oriented toward practical, outward things, in other words, this practicality stems from her spirit: “There was a spiritual quality in Phoebe's activity. [Her work] might so easily have taken a squalid and ugly aspect,” but it was rendered “lovely, by the spontaneous grace with which these homely duties seemed to bloom out of her character.” In other words, Phoebe’s practical bent originates in her interior loveliness, which in turn sheds new light and importance on the potentially “squalid” tasks of helping to run the house.
However, outward appearances can also be deceiving and indicative of spiritual decay and immorality. Formal status and public approval, for example, often mask more unsavory, privately-circulated truths. “It is often instructive to take the woman's, the private and domestic, view of a public man; nor can anything be more curious than the vast discrepancy” between public and private. For example, “tradition affirmed that [Colonel Pyncheon] had been greedy of wealth; [Judge Pyncheon], too, with all the show of liberal expenditure, was said to be as close-fisted as if his grip were of iron.” The public reputations of both Colonel and Judge Pyncheon, in other words, are more reflective of false outward appearances than the realities of their characters. Hawthorne suggests that those who have a lesser role in shaping public opinion are perhaps more attentive to these inner realities. Because of eminent men’s preoccupation with the external, reinforced by society’s approval, such men are liable to self-deception: “They are ordinarily men to whom forms are of paramount importance. Their field of action lies among the external phenomena of life.” Their public success “builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man's character, or the man himself.” People like Judge Pyncheon become so focused on maintaining the public “edifice” that they lose track of their own inner character, in contrast to Phoebe, whose inner beauty pervades everything around her.
Hawthorne suggests that those who are motivated by inner goodness have an especially hard time coming to terms with the discrepancy between appearance and reality—like Phoebe, who “perplexed herself […] with queries as to […] whether judges, clergymen, and other characters of that eminent stamp and respectability could really […] be otherwise than just and upright men.” Someone like Phoebe can serve, ironically, to reinforce false façades by her innocent assumption that the “respectable” are worthy of their reputation. If there’s any hope of resisting the false front maintained by figures like Judge Pyncheon, Hawthorne suggests that the less conspicuous goodness of people like Phoebe—and the private insights of those outside the public square—deserve more attention than public figures whose characters don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in The House of the Seven Gables
To all appearance, they were a quiet, honest, well-meaning race of people, cherishing no malice against individuals or the public for the wrong which had been done them; or if, at their own fireside, they transmitted, from father to child, any hostile recollection of the wizard’s fate and their lost patrimony, it was never acted upon, nor openly expressed. Nor would it have been singular had they ceased to remember that the House of the Seven Gables was resting its heavy framework on a foundation that was rightfully their own. There is something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist; at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right, that few poor and humble men have moral force enough to question it, even in their secret minds.
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their exclusive patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home.
"l can assure you that this is a modern face, and one which you will very probably meet. Now, the remarkable point is, that the original wears, to the world's eye—and, for aught I know, to his most intimate friends—an exceedingly pleasant countenance, indicative of benevolence, openness of heart, sunny good humor, and other praiseworthy qualities of that cast. The sun, as you see, tells quite another story, and will not be coaxed out of it, after half a dozen patient attempts on my part. Here we have the man, sly, subtle, hard, imperious, and, withal, cold as ice. […] And yet, if you could only see the benign smile of the original! It is so much the more unfortunate, as he is a public character of some eminence, and the likeness was intended to be engraved."
Then, all at once, it struck Phoebe that this very Judge Pyncheon was the original of the miniature which the daguerreotypist had shown her in the garden, and that the hard, stern, relentless look now on his face was the same that the sun had so inflexibly persisted in bringing out. Was it, therefore, no momentary mood, but, however skillfully concealed, the settled temper of his life? And not merely so, but was it hereditary in him, and transmitted down, as a precious heirloom, from that bearded ancestor […] as by a kind of prophecy? […] It implied that the weaknesses and defects […] and the moral diseases which lead to crime are handed down from one generation to another, by a far surer process of transmission than human law has been able to establish[.]
[B]esides these cold, formal, and empty words of the chisel that inscribes, the voice that speaks, and the pen that writes, for the public eye […] there were traditions about the ancestor, and private diurnal gossip about the Judge, remarkably accordant in their testimony. It is often instructive to take the woman's, the private and domestic, view of a public man; nor can anything be more curious than the vast discrepancy between portraits intended for engraving and the pencil sketches that pass from hand to hand behind the original's back.
Phoebe […] perplexed herself, meanwhile, with queries as to […] whether judges, clergymen, and other characters of that eminent stamp and respectability could really, in any single instance, be otherwise than just and upright men. A doubt of this nature has a most disturbing influence, and, if shown to be a fact, comes with fearful and startling effect on minds of the trim, orderly, and limit-loving class, in which we find our little country girl. […] A wider scope of view, and a deeper insight, may see rank, dignity, and station all proved illusory so far as regards their claim to human reverence, and yet not feel as if the universe were thereby tumbled headlong into chaos. But Phoebe, in order to keep the universe in its old place, was fain to smother, in some degree, her own intuitions as to Judge Pyncheon's character.
By the involuntarily effect of a genial temperament, Phoebe soon grew to be absolutely essential to the daily comfort, if not the daily life, of her two forlorn companions. The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry rot was stayed among the old timbers of its skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below—or, at any rate, there was a little housewife, as light-footed as the breeze that sweeps a garden walk, gliding hither and thither to brush it all away.
Now, Phoebe's presence made a home about her—that very sphere which the outcast, the prisoner […] instinctively pines after—a home! She was real! Holding her hand, you felt something; a tender something; a substance, and a warm one—and so long as you should feel its grasp, soft as it was, you might be certain that your place was good in the whole sympathetic chain of human nature. The world was no longer a delusion.
Coming so late as it did, it was a kind of Indian summer, with a mist in its balmiest sunshine, and decay and death in its gaudiest delight. The more Clifford seemed to taste the happiness of a child, the sadder was the difference to be recognized. With a mysterious and terrible Past, which had annihilated his memory, and a blank Future before him, he had only this visionary and impalpable Now, which, if you once look closely at it, is nothing.
Clifford would, doubtless, have been glad to share their sports. One afternoon, he was seized with an irresistible desire to blow soap bubbles; an amusement, as Hepzibah told Phoebe apart, that had been a favorite one with her brother when they were both children. Behold him, therefore, at the arched window, with an earthen pipe in his mouth! Behold him, with his gray hair, and a wan, unreal smile over his countenance, […] Behold him, scattering airy spheres abroad, from the window into the street! Little impalpable worlds were those soap bubbles, with the big world depicted, in hues bright as imagination, on the nothing of their surface.
[The legend] here gives an account of some very strange behavior on the part of Colonel Pyncheon's portrait. This picture, it must be understood, was supposed to be so intimately connected with the fate of the house, and so magically built into its walls, that, if once it should be removed, that very instant the whole edifice would come thundering down in a heap of dusty ruin. All through the foregoing conversation between Mr. Pyncheon and the carpenter, the portrait had been frowning, clenching its fist, and giving many such proofs of excessive discomposure, but without attracting the notice of either of the two colloquists. And finally, at Matthew Maule's audacious suggestion of a transfer of the seven-gabled structure, the ghostly portrait is averred to have lost all patience, and to have shown itself on the point of descending bodily from its frame. But such incredible incidents are merely to be mentioned aside.
The Judge, beyond all question, was a man of eminent respectability. The church acknowledged it; the state acknowledged it. It was denied by nobody. […] Nor […] did Judge Pyncheon himself, probably, entertain many or very frequent doubts that his enviable reputation accorded with his deserts. His conscience, therefore […] bore an accordant testimony with the world's laudatory voice.
Men of strong minds, great force of character, and a hard texture of the sensibilities are very capable of falling into mistakes of this kind. They are ordinarily men to whom forms are of paramount importance. Their field of action lies among the external phenomena of life. They possess vast ability in grasping, and arranging, and appropriating to themselves the big, heavy, solid unrealities, such as gold, landed estate, offices of trust and emolument, and public honors. With these materials, and with deeds of goodly aspect, done in the public eye, an individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man's character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!
At last, therefore, and after so long estrangement from everything that the world acted or enjoyed, they had been drawn into the great current of human life, and were swept away with it, as by the suction of fate itself.
Still haunted with the idea that not one of the past incidents, inclusive of Judge Pyncheon’s visit, could be real, the recluse of the Seven Gables murmured in her brother's ear: "Clifford! Clifford! Is not this a dream?"
"A dream, Hepzibah!" repeated he, almost laughing in her face. "On the contrary, I have never been awake before!"
“My dearest Phoebe,” said Holgrave, "how will it please you to assume the name of Maule? As for the secret, it is the only inheritance that has come down to me from my ancestors. You should have known sooner (only that I was afraid of frightening you away) that, in this long drama of wrong and retribution, I represent the old wizard, and am probably as much a wizard as ever he was. The son of the executed Matthew Maule, while building this house, took the opportunity to construct that recess, and hide away the Indian deed, on which depended the immense land claim of the Pyncheons. Thus they bartered their Eastern territory for Maule's garden ground.