Clifford Pyncheon's Drowning


Boston Harbor 1843

Painting By Robert Salmon

Nathaniel Hawthorne concealed a narrative within The House of the Seven Gables which records the events in the final night of Clifford Pyncheon's life, and his suicide by drowning in the Boston harbor---

"aware of the presence of his Evil Destiny, he had crept silently down the staircase, while the Judge and Hepzibah stood talking in the shop, and had softly undone the fastenings of the outer door, and made his escape into the street".

He goes "wandering through the city, attracting all eyes, and everybody's wonder and repugnance", incurring "the ridicule of the younger crowd". Clifford is "goaded by their taunts, their loud, shrill cries, and cruel laughter---insulted by the filth of the public ways, which they would fling upon him. . ."

The town is "almost completely water-girdled", so he discovers "the wharves stretched out towards the centre of the harbor, each wharf a solitude". He bends "one moment, over the deep, black tide" and thinks "that here was the sure refuge within his reach, and that, with a single step, or the slightest overbalance of his body, he might be forever beyond his kinsman's gripe".

He is "an impressible person, standing alone over the brink of. . . a mighty river. . . massive in its tide, and black with mystery, and, out of its depths, calling to the kindred depth within him". "It might so fascinate him, that he would hardly be restrained from plunging into the surging stream".

"So it proved with Clifford. He shuddered; he grew pale, he threw an appealing look. . . At last, with tremulous limbs, he started up, set his foot. . . and, in an instant more, would have been in the. . ."

Clifford is "a wild, haggard figure, his gray locks floating in the wind. . . a lonely being, estranged from his race, but now feeling himself man again, by virtue of the irrepressible instinct that possessed him. . . But whether impelled by the species of terror, that sometimes urges its victim over the very precipice which he shrinks from, or by a natural magnetism, tending towards the great centre. . . it were not easy to decide. Both impulses might have wrought on him at once."

"In his last extremity, the expiring breath stealing faintly through Clifford's lips. . ."

Hawthorne describes the process of drowning in detail, a matter of "whirling sticks, straws, and all such trifles, round and round, right over the black depth where a dead corpse lay unseen. . . At his decease, there is only vacancy, and a momentary eddy---very small, as compared with the apparent magnitude of the ingurgitated object---and a bubble or two, ascending out of the black depth, and bursting at the surface."

Hawthorne displayed such a deliberate skill in arranging these fragments to conceal his true meaning that an admiring Herman Melville modeled the sinking of the Pequod on the sinking of Clifford. Melville's Ishmael is slowly drawn to the vortex of the whirlpool created by the plunging ship---

"Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the buttonlike black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst. . ."

John White Allen Scott, View Of Boston Harbor 1853, Detail, Showing Broad Street.jpg

John White Allen Scott, View Of Boston Harbor 1853

Broad Street, Later Atlantic Avenue


Quotation Locations

The scattered quotations which are re-assembled here may be found in The House of the Seven Gables, Vol. 2 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edited by William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude Simpson (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1965), pages 135-6, 165-6, 230, 247-248 and following, and 291, 309.

The chapters "The Arched Window" and "The Flight of Two Owls" are critical.

This concealed narrative caused the logical line of the apparent narrative to lurch at times, and there is the occasional strange juxtaposition of sentences. One critic says that "there are gaps in the plot through which a herd of rhinos could comfortably graze. . ."

But Hawthorne is so skilled in anticipating his readers' expectations, that his true intent remains hidden.



Thomas St. John

Thomas St. John graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and lived in Boston and Cambridge. He has published in the University of Utah's Western Humanities Review, the Ball State University Forum, and Counterpunch.

Forgotten Dreams: Ritual in American Popular Art (NY: The Vantage Press, 1987) is a collection of essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables; Rev. Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"; the Dakota Territory political symbols in Lyman Frank Baum's 1899 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and the popular movie Casablanca.

Brattleboro History at since 2001.

Site Design © Vermont Technology Partners, Inc.