[A]n individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man’s character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!... [I]n some low and obscure nook . . . may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it; for it has long been his daily breath! . . . Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses, to his life.
This passage from Chapter 15 addresses the complex character of the Judge, who is charming and self-assured on the outside but thoroughly rotten on the inside. Hawthorne does not attempt to understate the power of the Judge’s station and charisma; on the contrary, he likens these to a “palace,” a building of noteworthy opulence and splendor. The secret, this passage implies, is not that this palace is a sham, but that it has been irrevocably corrupted by a rotting corpse locked deep inside, hidden so completely that even the Judge has forgotten that it exists. This gloomy Gothic portrayal helps to establish the theme that the current generation inherits the flaws and errors of past generations. Here the rotting corpse becomes a physical embodiment of the perils of legacy. The palace is infested with the smell of a rotting ancestor, and no one even notices or thinks to root out the problem.