The titular House of the Seven Gables seems to be stuck in the 17th century in which it was built. It is haunted by a centuries-old feud which seems to consign the very building—as well as is residents—to inescapable decay. A youthful newcomer like Phoebe can temporarily arrest this aging process, but the House takes its toll on her as well. This view of human aging is reflected in the novel’s perspective on societal progress, too. The old who have suffered can become more prophetically forward-looking than the young who haven’t experienced as much of the outside world, as seen particularly in Clifford Pyncheon’s ecstatic speech about the spiral of time and progress at the end of the book. By portraying the passage of time in these nonlinear ways, Hawthorne challenges the idea that age and change proceed in a straightforward, predictable fashion.
Aging isn’t strictly linear in the House of the Seven Gables: while the youthful age prematurely, the old become childlike again. Phoebe’s youthful presence transforms the decaying atmosphere: “The grime and sordidness […] seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry rot was stayed […] the dust had ceased to settle down so densely” since she arrived. Phoebe’s youth and industriousness actually seem to halt the House’s aging process, making it more habitable for its longtime residents. Her presence touches their aged minds and hearts, too. Phoebe’s effect is especially pronounced on cousin Clifford. Under Phoebe’s influence and that of time spent in the garden, “It was with indescribable interest, and even more than childish delight, that Clifford watched the hummingbirds. […] He had not merely grown young—he was a child again.” After three decades in prison, the depressed and mentally stagnant Clifford finds renewed interest and delight in nature and in human company, seemingly aging backward thanks to Phoebe’s nurturing presence. But the effects of aging aren’t unidirectional. Phoebe tells Holgrave, "I shall never be so merry as before I knew Cousin Hepzibah and poor Cousin Clifford. I have grown a great deal older […] not exactly sadder, but, certainly, with not half so much lightness in my spirit! I have given them my sunshine […] but, of course, I cannot both give and keep it.” After only a few weeks in the House of the Seven Gables, Phoebe’s spirit has prematurely aged from the effort of giving away her happiness; the atmosphere in the House cannot restore what she must give its inhabitants. Youth and age, in other words, aren’t fixed qualities in this atmosphere.
Progress isn’t linear, either. In fact, perceptions of “progress” can become more radical, not less, with age, depending on one’s experiences of life. Holgrave, Hepzibah’s young boarder, at first seems to be the novel’s primary example of a forward-looking attitude, in contrast to his elders: “ [Holgrave] was a young man still, and therefore looked upon the world […] as a tender stripling, capable of being improved into all that it ought to be […] He had that sense, or inward prophecy […] that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old bad way,” but that a “golden era” is dawning. It makes sense that a young man would see the world, too, as young, malleable, and capable of improvement. Yet Holgrave isn’t alone in his attitude. Clifford, liberated by the death of the tormenting Judge Pyncheon, assumes a youthful attitude while fleeing into the countryside on the train. He tells a fellow passenger, “You are aware, my dear sir […] that all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal.” In other words, Clifford doesn’t just adopt a progressive view of things—he sees even further than Holgrave does, perceiving a future in which “progress” constitutes the transformation and “spiritualization” of the old, rather than its abandonment. For example, Clifford sees railroad travel—quite a novelty in the mid-19th century—as a transformation of older modes of travel, and of habitation itself: “These railroads […] spiritualize travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man's inducement to tarry in one spot? […] Why should he make himself a prisoner […] when he may just as easily dwell, in one sense, nowhere[?]” Clifford sees this technological advancement as a revolution in the very idea of dwelling somewhere. Of course, this could be read as his liberation from prison and from the House of the Seven Gables taken to a giddy extreme; but it also suggests that one’s view of progress isn’t simply a function of one’s age, but of what one has suffered and endured in life.
Where Holgrave’s youthful, untried view of progress is vague and imprecise—a product of how relatively little he’s experienced—Clifford’s is really the more radical, as he puts it into concrete practice, using new technology to flee the ties that have tormented him. On the train, Clifford exults that the further he gets from the House of the Seven Gables, the more his youth returns to him: “[D]o I look old? If so, my aspect belies me strangely; for […] I feel in the very heyday of my youth, with the world and my best days before me!” In a certain way, then, Clifford ends up being the youngest character in the book, and the clearest example of how one’s environment shapes one’s development and one’s view of the surrounding world. Clifford’s liberating experience sums up Hawthorne’s argument that neither one’s perceived age nor one’s view of progress unfolds in the direction one might expect.
Time, Change, and Progress ThemeTracker
Time, Change, and Progress 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.
Instead of discussing her claim to rank among ladies, it would be preferable to regard Phoebe as the example of feminine grace and availability combined, in a state of society, if there were any such, where ladies did not exist. There it should be woman's office to move in the midst of practical affairs, and to gild them all, the very homeliest—were it even the scouring of pots and kettles—with an atmosphere of loveliness and joy. Such was the sphere of Phoebe.
To find the born and educated lady, on the other hand, we need look no farther than Hepzibah, our forlorn old maid, in her rustling and rusty silks, with her deeply cherished and ridiculous consciousness of long descent, her shadowy claims to princely territory, and, in the way of accomplishment, her recollections, it may be, of having formerly thrummed on a harpsichord, and walked a minuet, and worked an antique tapestry stitch on her sampler.
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.
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.
[Holgrave] could talk sagely about the world's old age, but never actually believed what he said; he was a young man still, and therefore looked upon the world—that gray-bearded and wrinkled profligate, decrepit without being venerable—as a tender stripling, capable of being improved into all that it ought to be, but scarcely yet had shown the remotest promise of becoming. […] It seemed to Holgrave—as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century since the epoch of Adam's grandchildren—that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.
[U]nder those seven gables, at which we now look up—and which old Colonel Pyncheon meant to be the house of his descendants, in prosperity and happiness, down to an epoch far beyond the present—under that roof, through a portion of three centuries, there has been perpetual remorse of conscience, a constantly defeated hope, strife amongst kindred, various misery, a strange form of death, dark suspicion, unspeakable disgrace—all or most of which calamity I have the means of tracing to the old Puritan's inordinate desire to plant and endow a family. To plant a family! This idea is at the bottom of most of the wrong and mischief which men do. The truth is, that, once in every half century, at longest, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget all about its ancestors.
"I shall never be so merry as before I knew Cousin Hepzibah and poor Cousin Clifford. I have grown a great deal older, in this little time. Older, and, I hope, wiser, and—not exactly sadder, but, certainly, with not half so much lightness in my spirits! I have given them my sunshine, and have been glad to give it; but, of course, I cannot both give and keep it. They are welcome, notwithstanding!"
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!"
You are aware, my dear sir […] that all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago hied and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. […] [Railroads] give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel! […] Why, therefore, should [man] build a more cumbrous habitation than can readily be carried off with him?