The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 12

Chapter 12Summary: When she is not tending to Clifford, Phoebe takes time for herself , and one person in whose company she spends time is Holgrave. Holgrave tells her at length about his life, indicating that his current work as a Daguerreotype artist is “of no more importance” than any proceeding “phase.” Phoebe is made uneasy by her clear sense that the adventurous and free-thinking Holgrave answers to different standards than her own. She is also surprised at Holgraves interest in Clifford and the Pyncheon family. And while he dismisses the House of the Seven Gables as an unwanted, burdensome remnant of the past that “lies upon the Present like a giants dead body,” he has also written a story for a magazine about the House and its former occupants-a story that forms the next chapter.
Analysis: The narrator takes pains to assure us that, for as many times as Holgrave has moved and has switched occupations, he has “never lost his identity.” In many ways, Holgrave exemplifies the American dream-or perhaps, at least, Hawthornes conception of that dream-of reinventing oneself in a new place, in new circumstances. A free-thinker himself, as illustrated by his participation in Brook Farm, Hawthorne understandably attempts to present Holgrave in a sympathetic manner. Nonetheless, he is also able to regard Holgrave with a wiser and more experienced eye than the character has himself: for example, the narrators comment that Holgrave “could talk sagely about the worlds old age, but never actually believed in what he said.” From the narrators comments, readers might infer that Hawthorne approves of Holgraves youthful enthusiasm to reshape the world, but allows “inevitable experience” and wisdom learned later to temper that enthusiasm in himself. The chapter could be seen, in many respects, as Hawthornes sober reflection upon himself in his youth. (Note that Holgrave has even written stories for magazines to which Hawthorne himself also contributed!) Holgrave wishes to be rid of everything old; Hawthorne, in contrast, can sympathize with those desires, but seems to occupy the other extreme, suggesting, through his narrative persona, that those desires can never be fully realized. Interestingly, the fact that Holgraves short story (found in Chapter 13) is about the House and the Pyncheons of the past indicates that not even this forward-looking young man can escape what has gone before. Readers may well ask why the artist has chosen that history for his theme. He tells Phoebe he dwells in the past (literally, by residing in the House) “for a while, that I may know the better how to hate it,” that his story is meant simply to prove his theory about the pernicious influence of the past-yet readers may wonder if Holgrave thinks, feels, and knows more than he admits to her; after all, the narrator has already told us that Phoebe regards Holgrave as a somewhat distant observer rather than a full participant in the domestic life of the House.
Holgrave seems to embody the American experiment of putting the past aside (for example, “the artist might fitly enough stand forth as the representative of many compeers in his native land”), forging new institutions and a new way of life-but the narrators benevolent but better-knowing treatment of Holgraves passion raises questions about the extent to which such a complete break with the past is possible. To be sure, as has been noted several times, that question forms one of the books central thematic concerns: How much should and does the past shape the present, and how free are we to reshape our lives for ourselves?