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Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbols and characters to portray the struggle between aristocratic and democratic ideas in his novel, The House of the Seven Gables. The democratic ideas which develop throughout the novel prevail against the aristocratic greed, injustice, and pride. Hawthorne begins his novel with the reign of aristocracy by depicting Colonel Pyncheon’s acquisition of the house through means of power and greed. The novel takes place during the lives of Hepzibah and Jaffery Pyncheon, descendants of the original Colonel, who built the house and laid the foundation for generations of resentment and hatred between the Pyncheon’s and Maule’s. The Judge eventually falls, bringing down with him the negative aspects of aristocracy while allowing the rest of the characters to live democratically and freely.
Hawthorne illustrates the lesson of false appearances by comparing the Judge, an aristocratic and deceptive member of society, to the rotten roses in the garden. When Phoebe looks out of her window from the house, she sees a rosebush “of luxuriant growth” that is “covered with a rare and very beautiful species of white rose” (59). Yet she later discovers that a “large portion of [the roses]…had blight or mildew at their hearts” (50). From afar, the rose bush looks “as if it had been brought from Eden that very summer”, but if looked at closely, the core is moldy and decayed. (59) This same notion of falsity and disguise is emphasized many times throughout the novel, particularly in reference to aristocratic characters such as the Colonel and the Judge. They both appear to be prominent figures of society, but their hearts are rotten with greed and arrogance. At the beginning of the novel, the Judge is described as “showing more of the Pyncheon quality…than any of his race since the time of the original Puritan” (17). The Judge is similar to the Colonel, not only in looks, but in personality and attitude. Both men epitomize aristocracy by being “exceedingly respectable” in society, but also deceitful in many ways. (17). Just like the rose, the Judge deceives those in society who respect him for “the purity of his judicial character; his remarkable zeal as President of Bible society; and the cleanliness of his moral deportment” (196). He hides behind the mask of being a religious Puritan and honest judge, but his downfall at the end exposes his true self.
Despite the Judge’s sudden and violent death, Hepzibah finds a way to escape this consequence by releasing herself from the family pride to which she has clung. She opens a cent-shop and makes a revolutionary change in her life by defying the greed of the Colonel and Judge. Despite the fact that society views Hepzibah “with little satisfaction”, Hepzibah still sees herself as a lady of high social status. (43) She proclaims: “I was born a lady, and have always lived one…always a lady!” (36). Brought up to abide by rules, manners, and pride, Hepzibah finds it difficult to let go of her past and start a new life. She continues to cling to her family’s aristocratic values, while her wealth rapidly decreases. Finally, Hepzibah opens the cent-shop and frees herself from everything that bounded her to her name by earning an honest living for herself. Hawthorne describes Hepzibah as not a lady, but “simply Hepzibah Pyncheon…keeper of a cent shop” (42). This quote signifies the independence she acquires by defying the characteristics of her greedy ancestors. Hepzibah, through opening her cent shop, frees herself from the limitations of her ancestral pride and moves her life towards a more democratic way of life.
As such democracy in the novel increases, Hawthorne illustrates the decline of aristocracy through the chickens. These “hens of aristocratic lineage”(76), consist of “Chanticleer, his two wives, and a solitary chicken” (74). They are pure breeds of a race of chickens which, “in their prime”, attained great size and prestige; yet as the generations passed, became scrawny, and “had a queer rusty, withered aspect” (74). By marrying within the same group for years, the chickens lost their once “delicate flesh” and prestigious size as a “consequence of too strict a watchfulness to keep it pure” (74). These chickens symbolize the degeneration of the Pyncheon family through the generations. Once described as “so admirable a breed of fowls”, the Pyncheon dynasty turned “lugubrious” as a result of their own greed and arrogance. (74)
The garden in back of the house, however, stands as a symbol of democracy and renewal throughout the novel. Hawthorne writes of the garden with great detail, describing it as a “sheltered and sunny” haven for Pheobe, Clifford, and Holgrave. (72) A refreshing change from the dark gloom of the house, the garden transcends the ancestral disputes between the Pyncheons and Maules. When Phoebe first goes into the garden, she observes a pair of robins “which had built their nest in the pear tree, and were making themselves exceedingly busy and happy” (73). In this quote the robins’ nest symbolizes a creation while their happiness and freedom are all examples of democratic traits found in the garden. Phoebe also finds “blossoms of the garden” which appear to be “as if they were endowed with sentiment and intelligence” (125). The rebirth and happiness found in the garden are all democratic features which contrast against the “melancholy” house that “never lets in the sun”. (61) The “dust” and “continual decay” prove that the house is no longer suitable for living. (62) Similarly, aristocracy, which the house embodies, is no longer accepted and valued in society. Instead, democracy, with its attitude toward happiness and freedom, triumphs in the end.
In addition, Holgrave is a character who represents the democratic views in the novel. On Hepzibah’s first day of work in the cent shop, she cries hysterically to Holgrave saying, “I wish I were dead, and in the old family tomb, with all my forefathers!” (35) Afterward, she adamantly states that she is a dignified lady and too old to participate in the world. However, Holgrave is not one to linger in the past. He comforts Hepzibah’s cries by criticizing the archaic titles of “gentleman and lady”, stating that they “imply not privilege, but restriction!” (36-37) The above quotes illustrate Holgrave’s belief in the evolution a society undergoes over time. To him, keeping pace with society’s development is crucial, and those who refuse to comply live only in the past like Hepzibah.
Earnest to “get rid of the past”, Holgrave says to Phoebe one day in the garden, “[the past] lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body!” (155) He continues to explain that “we are sick of dead men’s diseases, physical and moral” (156). These diseases could be interpreted to symbolize the ancestral disputes Hepzibah continually suffers by. If she would free herself from the colonel’s mistakes, Hepzibah would be a healthier, more independent woman rather than a slave to the past. In the end, Holgrave learns to be less radical in his ideas about democracy. Once saying that public edifices “should crumble to ruin once in twenty years” so that the citizens may have a chance to “examine” and “reform” them to the current times, he now develops his view and suggests building houses in “stone, rather than in wood”, thereby allowing “every generation of the family..to suit its own taste” upon the house. (269)
In conclusion, the characters and symbols representing democracy throughout the novel triumph over those representing aristocracy. The Judge, with his cunning charm and pride, dies as a result of his own greed, leaving Holgrave and Hepzibah to live peacefully and freely. Neither false appearances nor family pride can interfere with the democratic life the above characters have striven to achieve. The two families unite together through the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave, healing the generational wounds created by the original colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule. Free of aristocratic injustice and dishonesty, Holgrave, Hepzibah, Phoebe, and Clifford now have the independence to live in happiness.
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