The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 2

Summary: Hepzibah Pyncheon awakes before dawn and slowly, frail woman that she is, begins her day. She is alone in the house except for a young male lodger, a daguerreotype photographer. Hepzibah spends time examining her appearance in her mirror, and also pauses to gaze upon the image of a man in a locket. The identity of this portraits subject will remain a mystery to readers for some time.
Hepzibah has been preparing to re-open the in-house store, behind the shameful shop-door referenced in the previous chapter, in an attempt to earn some money, however small an amount, for the floundering family fortunes. She had entertained other options-for example, becoming a school-mistress-but becoming “the hucksteress of a cent-shop” was the only option left to her. Resigned to the fact that she must expose herself to the outside world, but very anxious about doing so, Hepzibah unlocks the old shop-door and opens for business.
Analysis: Hepzibahs unusual name derives from the Bible. It is, in the original Hebrew, a joyful parents exclamation: “My delight rests in her.” It is also the name God bestows upon post-exilic, renewed Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:4). A literal Hepzibah in Scripture was the mother of King Manasseh of Judah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:1-2). Readers should bear all of these associations in mind as they are introduced to the character in this chapter. The narrator does not expect his readers to gain an overly favorable impression of her, emphasizing as he does her constant sighs-“indeed, her breast was a very cave of Aeolus [the Greek wind god], that morning”-and her constant scowl. The narrator apparently takes delight, even though he knows he shouldnt (“Heaven help our poor old Hepzibah, and forgive us for taking a ludicrous view of her position!”) as she scrambles to reopen the store, as this “patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.” Readers must wonder about the source of this apparent joy at Hepzibahs misfortune. Has the narrators sense of justice been satisfied? Is Hawthorne the author, perhaps, revealing some of his own opinions about proud aristocrats-or simply his neighbors, as he had, just prior to the composition of this novel, been dismissed from his post at the Salem Custom House “due in large part to the political partisanship and slander of fellow Salemites” (Notes, 2001 Modern Library Edition, p. 275)? At any rate, the text itself suggests that the narrators view of Hepzibah at this point is one of annoyance more than anything else: “How can we elevate our history of retribution for the sin of long ago, when, as one of our most prominent figures, we are compelled to introduce” such a one as Hepzibah? Still, the narrator resolves to discover “the beauty and majesty [in his theme] which [in the person of Hepzibah has been] compelled to assume a garb so sordid.” Readers will need to reflect upon the sensibilities and agenda of the narrative voice as they proceed. Do they agree with his assessment of Hepzibah, either now or later in the novel? And do they share the narrators (just or unjust) frustration that life does not always neatly serve the purposes of art?