The House of Seven Gables is set during a period of great change in American history. Following closely in line with this concept, Hawthorne makes change a critical part of the novel. Many changes occur in its early portions. However, one in particular seems to have a very deep-rooted impact. I believe this conception of change is particularly well characterized by the following quote, spoken by Hepzibah to Mr. Holgrave:
“You are a man, a young man, and brought up, I suppose, as almost everybody is nowadays, with a view to seeking your fortune. But I was born a lady, and have always lived one; no matter what narrowness of means, always a lady!” (30)
Hepzibah’s words speak volumes for the experiences of “gentlemen” and “ladies” of the time period; they were individuals used to living based mainly upon who they happened to be, what their name was, and what ancestors before them had done. Times were changing, however, and a point was being reached where a name was no longer enough to live comfortably. Furthermore, Hepzibah’s quote shows that she is hardly clueless as to her degenerate state. Despite the illusions of grandeur she may try to maintain with her dress, manners, and even her actions, such as giving away items from her shop when she feels she simply cannot bear to charge someone for so trivial an item, she realizes that she is hardly living the pristine lifestyle experienced by members of the Pyncheon family several generations prior.
This quote exemplifies a landmark representation of a theme of importance for Hawthorne since even in the reading for the first week’s assignment it asserted itself numerous times. For example, when Phoebe proves herself to be a highly skilled worker in numerous regards, Hepzibah to some degree laments the fact that Phoebe must take after her mother rather than her Pyncheon father in order to have such capabilities. Thus, Hepzibah asserts that for an individual to be skilled in some manner of labor they must fall into a category of being below that of herself with no heed paid to standard of living. Such a category emphasizes the importance of personal ability and success rather than tradition and rhetoric. The social class structure Hepzibah so adores, likely due in no small part to the fact that it would benefit her highly, has come to an end.
In my own experience, this change persist to a degree even today. It is certainly true that the concept of “class” is still thrown around, especially given our country’s current political environment and with a Presidential election looming on the horizon. However, the impact of class has been lessened since the time of Hawthorne and the concept of working for the betterment and success of one’s self persists to a strong degree.
Granted, even I have to admit that this argument exists mainly in the realm of what is theoretically possible; it deals with what could happen but not necessarily what does happen. For example, the concept of public education should provide children of all classes with an equal opportunity to learn. Factors such as whether or not schools in different locations are truly equivalent play a large role, though. Likewise, local factors such as money and family issues might prevent youth from a lower class from attending college while a similar youth from a higher class might not suffer from such detriments.
Regardless, the perfection or lack thereof in the system is largely irrelevant to this argument, which is simply leveraging the fact that the same type of change persists to a great degree to this day. The success or failure of it is a matter left to sociologists, of which I most certainly do not profess myself to be one. What I can recognize is that the basis of much of professional America is structured around the concept of the “great American dream”, where an individual, provided that adequate effort is given to the endeavor, can be successful and attain what he or she desires. Ideally, all of this is accomplished without thought to who anyone’s great-great-great-great grandfather was named.
This is not to say that name is a totally meaningless concept to modern American society. Certainly the progeny of a rather prolific, hotel-owning family has attained celebrity status due in large part to name, along with acts of relatively gross stupidity. However, I mean to say that name is not an insurmountable barrier as it once was. It has been my experience that no one tends to believe that they are fated to a particular livelihood due simply to who their parents are. Thus, Hawthorne keys in on a topic of critical importance during his own time which persists to this very day and still provides a driving force for American society.