The House of the Seven Gables: Novel Summary: Chapter 7

Summary: At breakfast the next morning, a newcomer joins Phoebe and Hepzibah at the table: Clifford Pyncheon. Clifford no longer looks as good as his miniature portrait does! Indeed, he reminds Phoebe of nothing so much as a “material ghost” as he stumbles toward the table, makes faltering attempts at sometimes incoherent and usually random conversation, and seems to “fade” in and out of awareness. Sometimes Clifford is “present” (as modern psychology would understand the word); at other times, he is physically present but emotionally and spiritually quite distant. Despite his advanced age and poor appearance, however, Phoebe still senses something of the sweetness of spirit that his miniature portrait exudes. The narrator tells us that Clifford is a “Sybarite”-that is, an epicurean, devoted to pleasure. He still delights in beauty-for example, the fresh flowers in the parlor. And he is still repelled by displeasure: he reacts with alarm to the fact that old Colonel Pyncheons portrait still hangs on the wall, and he pleads with Hepzibah to cover it, since she insists she cannot take it down from the wall altogether. The sound of the shop-bell, too, disturbs Clifford; he dissolves into tears before falling asleep.
Analysis: “[W]henever people eat or drink together” in literature, claims one author, “its communion” (Foster, p. 8). Certainly, the breakfast in this chapter carries sacramental overtones, particularly so because the narrator repeatedly describes Clifford with the vocabulary and images of ghosts: e.g., Cliffords “mysteriously reluctant step made her feel as if a ghost were coming into the room.” Readers may recall the disciples reaction to the risen Jesus in Lukes resurrection narrative (see Luke 24:36-43), as they wonder whether their master is a ghost. They might also find echoes of the risen Jesus breakfast on a beach with his disciples in John 21. As a product of a Puritan upbringing, Hawthorne would no doubt have been familiar with these scriptural traditions; he may be intentionally using them here to create an unsettling effect in his readers. Has Clifford, whom we are told is a “martyr,” experienced some sort of “resurrection”? Is he literally, as the narrators (merely descriptive?) language suggests, a “material ghost”? Is Clifford the supernatural element about which the narrator (and indeed, in his preface, Hawthorne himself) has been hinting? Or is the narrator making some more symbolic comment on Cliffords state-is he existing but not living, for instance? Have the still-unspecified sorrows which he has seen made him (as the modern colloquialism has it) “as good as dead”? It is a strange communion, to be sure, that Hawthorne here portrays-but, like the ecclesiastical ritual, this communion at the breakfast table involves anamnesis: more than mere memory, the actual incorporation of the past into the present. In this chapter, Clifford embodies anamnesis for Hepzibah and Phoebe, even as the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon-or, as readers will later come to realize, the portrait of that face, which Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon closely resembles-embodies it for him.