The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 18

Chapter 18Summary: In the parlor of the House of the Seven Gables, Judge Pyncheon sits in the ancestral chair, not moving, not stirring. Hours pass. The narrator tells us about the busy day the Judge had planned for himself, including a dinner meeting at which he and his friends would plot his rise to the post of Governor (hence the title of this chapter), and the visit Jaffrey had planned to make to his physician to inquire about the “disagreeable choking, or stifling, or gurgling, or bubbling in the region of the thorax.” Now, however, the Judge will keep none of these appointments. The narrator briefly entertains a ghost story: at midnight, he envisions all of the deceased Pyncheon family members, from the Colonel himself on down the line, assembling in the parlor. The narrator imagines seeing even Jaffrey Pyncheon, Jr., the Judges surviving child (who was briefly mentioned in Chapter 1)-but “how comes this shadow thither” if the young man lives?? What is more, the narrator sees the Judge himself take his place in this spectral assembly-and yet “[w]e discern his figure. still seated in the oaken chair!” But the light of the next day, and the buzzing of a fly around the Judge, reveals that Jaffrey Pyncheon is, in fact, dead.
Analysis: The chapter presents a remarkable literary performance by Hawthorne. No actual action takes place within its pages, and yet Hawthorne, in his narrative persona, manages to advance his theme a great deal by relating how busy Judge Pyncheons day was to have been, and how great his ambitions for the future would have reached-even to the office of Massachusetts governor. It is testament to Hawthornes skill as a storyteller that he can sustain readers interest through a basically plot-less passage, focusing instead on the elements of mood and characterization. Above all other functions, this chapter is designed to-and successfully does-ring changes upon the old Puritan doctrine of total depravity, mentioned above in other chapters, as well as the theme that Hawthorne has been expounding upon throughout the book of appearances and reality. For example, the ghostly parade of Pyncheons-which the narrator ironically insists “must by no means be considered as forming an actual portion of our story,” when it actually cuts to the storys thematic heart-is “simply” a figment of the narrative personas imagination, but it illustrates the central truth that this family line is, in more ways than literal, dead: a relic of a haughty past, no longer suitable for the society of the young democracy that the United States is; a prisoner of its past sins, unable to move forward into the future. Likewise, Judge Pyncheon, who appears (at first) to be merely sleeping, unable to be roused, and dressed in his finery for a long day of socializing and politicking, is, literally and figuratively, dead: a dead soul because he lacks compassion for Clifford and, indeed, for others; dead because he pins his hopes on the ancestral lands once promised to the Pyncheons, and, like his whole family, unable to move past that disputed claim. The fate of Jaffrey Pyncheon illustrates a scriptural text with which Hawthorne would have been familiar from his Puritan upbringing: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).