Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The symbols of Hawthorne’s story blend masterfully to create its dual allegory. Robin arrives in darkness (doubt) with only the superficial confidence that his family background gives him. He wanders labyrinthine streets (the subconscious) in search of where he belongs. He fortuitously rejects temptation (the saucy maiden) and stares evil in the face (the man with the red-and-black countenance). He finally acquires the strength to laugh at the tarred-and-feathered Molineux’s false dignity, realizing even as he does this that he needs others. This is what provokes an offer of help from the kind man with whom he watches the procession.
Hawthorne’s story thus moves from the absolute darkness of its first scenes, representing Robin’s early state of mind, to the glare of torches at its conclusion when Robin sees Molineux’s face. Significantly, Molineux’s face is described in terms that make it resemble the devilish appearance of the stranger from whom Robin had earlier received an answer to his question. Thus, Robin finally sees the full reality of Molineux’s evil.
Ancillary symbols support the story’s legal theme. The Ramillies wig that the barber is dressing in one of the first scenes would be worn by a presiding judge. Also, the mansion that Robin thinks might be his kinsman’s home is clearly described as a colonial courthouse, while the sober man with the “sepulchral hems” in his speech could be a judge. That some legal...
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The Romance and the Tale
Writing ‘‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’’ in the late 1820s or early 1830s, Hawthorne looked primarily to European writers for his models. For readers and writers of the nineteenth century, the forms of writing called ‘‘the novel’’ and ‘‘the romance’’ were distinct in style and in theme. Hawthorne found that most readers and critics favored the novel, but that the romance suited his own artistic temperament better.
Romance did not have the meaning it came to have in the late twentieth century: a story mainly concerned with romantic love between a beautiful heroine and a dashing, heroic man. Instead, the word originally applied to the languages derived from Latin (the Romance languages), including Spanish, French, and Italian. The term was later applied to stories written in French, and later still to a specific type of French story dealing with knights and castles and adventures. Romances were popular in Europe through the nineteenth century, and often used medieval settings, royalty, and chivalry, and fantastic spirits and dragons.
For Hawthorne and others, the term Romance was used to distinguish more imaginative literature from the novel, which was considered more realistic. Hawthorne frequently wrote about these terms, especially in the prefaces to his longer works. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, he explained the difference as he saw it:...
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The term ‘‘irony’’ refers to a difference between appearance and reality, or between what someone says is true and what is actually true. The narrator in this story is being ironic when he continually refers to Robin as a ‘‘shrewd youth.’’ Robin certainly believes himself to be shrewd, and tells the kind gentleman that he has a reputation at home for shrewdness, but the fact remains that Robin is remarkably not perceptive or intuitive. For example, when Robin meets his first town-dweller and asks about his kinsman, the man answers him rudely, and even threatens him. Robin ponders this response for a moment, and then, ‘‘being a shrewd youth,’’ he guesses wrongly that the man must be a newcomer who is unacquainted with Molineux. As Robin passes through town he misinterprets everything he sees and hears, and the narrator greets every misinterpretation with an ironic comment about Robin’s shrewdness.
The effect created by this irony is to add light humor. The narrator and the reader know more than Robin does, and poke fun at him for his inability to see what is before him. But the mocking is gentle. Robin is not stupid, or someone to despise because of his own inflated sense of self. Instead, the quiet irony demonstrates that Robin is a young man who might rightfully have expected to do well in the city, but who finds himself in over his head.
A story’s setting is the background...
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Although he uses some elements of Gothic fiction in this story, Hawthorne's principal model for this tale is the historical memoir. The writer takes great pains in the opening paragraphs to establish a precise time for the story, locating events during the colonial period in American history when local rebellions were making life difficult for British officials sent to govern the provinces. Having established a degree of realism through this technique, Hawthorne turns his attention to a psychological study of the youth Robin. He makes significant use of symbolism, relying on the traditional associations of light and dark, primal colors, and moonlight to suggest something of the psychological state of his protagonist. Hawthorne also uses a number of allusions which suggest the tale can be read as a traditional descent into hell. The writer includes details which link "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" to such classic works as the Odyssey, (c.1050-850 B.C.) the Aeneid, and especially the Inferno (1321).
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Throughout his career, Hawthorne showed intense interest in celebrating the "new man" who had emerged in America as a result of the colonials' heroic decision to cast off the shackles of English rule. A number of his characters, most notably Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), illustrate the best qualities Hawthorne saw in his countrymen. The writer is no simple jingoist, however. Robin and the townspeople who tar and feather Major Molineux are also in this tradition, but the portrait Hawthorne paints of them is decidedly less favorable than that of the daguerrotypist in his novel about Salem. At the same time, Robin's behavior — especially his swift change of mind about his uncle — can seem troublesome to many who look for adequate motivation in literary characters. As a result, a close examination of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and a comparison of the story to other works by the writer, may reveal the complex nature of Hawthorne's attitude toward the notion of revolution.
1. A number of critics have discussed Hawthorne's meticulous attention to historical detail in the opening paragraphs of the story. How does this information affect a reader's understanding of the story? Would it be possible to develop a sensible appreciation for the tale without this information?
2. One of the few people who befriends Robin is the woman with the scarlet petticoat. Why does Hawthorne assign this questionable character a positive...
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Compare and Contrast
1828: Andrew Jackson is elected president. His emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of the common man in governing a democratic nation help create an era of enthusiastic patriotism.
1990s: After decades of well-publicized scandals involving top government officials, public interest in national affairs is weak.
1830s and 1840s: Handsomely printed and bound annual collections of essays, short stories, and poems are popular Christmas gifts in England and the United States. They provide a strong market for short fiction. Although most pieces are published anonymously, the annuals enable several important writers, including Hawthorne, to establish a reputation with publishers.
1990s: Short fiction is published in popular and literary magazines, but does not sell as well in book form as the novel. Fiction writers frequently gain practice by writing short fiction, but build an audience through the publication of novels.
1700s: With no motorized vehicles and no paved roads, travel from country to town is slow. It has taken Robin five days to come from one part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to another, a distance of no more than one hundred ninety miles.
1990s: A car can cross Massachusetts in about three hours, traveling at normal highway speeds. The Concorde airliner travels faster than the speed of sound.
1700s: Boston is the largest settlement...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the political climate in the American colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century. When did the colonists start to talk and write publicly about seeking independence? How common were minor acts of rebellion like that committed against Major Molineux?
Find one or two descriptions of medieval religious pageants. How is the procession in the story like these pageants? What is the significance of the similarity?
Research the methods and materials used in tarring and feathering. Is the punishment physically harmful, or primarily humiliating? Where and when has it been used?
Make a list of stories in which a young man from the country comes to the city on a quest. How is this story like and unlike the others? In how many of the stories does the young man find what he has come for?
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Hawthorne's contemporaries saw in his tale of Robin Molineux a continuation of a number of stories relating the break between the American colonies and England. From a literary perspective, however, the story belongs to the tradition of the Tale of Initiation, of which numerous examples exist. Distant eighteenth-century predecessors include the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett, e.g., Roderick Random (1748) and Humphry Clinker (1771), which describe the misadventures of young men thrust into the adult world and left to fend for themselves. Twentieth-century critics have also made a strong case for the story as a retelling of the descent into Hell, described vividly by Dante in the Inferno section of the Divine Comedy, Subtle allusions to the poet's journey through the eighth circle of Hell have been noted, and key phrases used by Hawthorne in this tale sound remarkably similar to those used in early nineteenth-century translations of Dante's poem.
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Throughout his life, Hawthorne composed tales of his New England past, and affinities exist between "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and dozens of other stories in the novelist's canon. Striking parallels can be seen between the naive protagonist of this story and the central figure in "Young Goodman Brown." There are also similarities between Robin's quest and that of the title character in Hawthorne's "Wake-field."
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What Do I Read Next?
‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’ (1835) is another Hawthorne short story of a young man on a journey. Brown leaves his wife and sets out through the forest, where he stumbles upon a witches’ coven and finds his wife among them. He returns to Salem a gloomy man who has lost his faith in the goodness of humans.
Hawthorne’s ‘‘The Birthmark’’ (1843) is an allegorical tale in which a scientist marries a woman who is perfectly beautiful except for a tiny birthmark on her cheek. Determined to remove the mark, the scientist tries several methods, finally finding a potion that erases the birthmark and kills his wife.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) is Hawthorne’s great novel about the suffocating influence of Puritanism. Hester Prynne is made to wear a scarlet letter ‘‘A’’ on her breast as punishment for adultery, while her lover keeps his sin a secret and suffers the torment of guilt.
‘‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’’ (1853) is Herman Melville’s tale of a Wall Street attorney who cannot establish a connection with his new scribe. The young employee answers every request with ‘‘I should prefer not to.’’
Great Expectations (1860–61) is Charles Dickens’ novel of the village boy Pip who goes to the city with the expectation of finding wealth and love.
Henry David Thoreau’s ‘‘Civil Disobedience’’ (1849) is an essay that asserts ‘‘that government is best which...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Benjamin, Park, Review of The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, in American Monthly Magazine, Vol. 2, October, 1836, pp. 405–07; reprinted in The Recognition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by B. Bernard Cohen, University of Michigan Press, 1969, p. 5.
Gross, Seymour, ‘‘Hawthorne’s ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’: History as Moral Adventure,’’ in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 12, September 1957, pp. 97–109; reprinted in Casebook on the Hawthorne Question, edited by Agnes Donohue, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1963, pp. 51–52, 59.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, 1851; reprinted, Norton, 1967, p. 1.
———, The Scarlet Letter, 1850; Bantam, 1965, pp. 34, 35.
Leavis, Q. D., ‘‘Hawthorne as Poet,’’ part 1, in Sewanee Review, Vol. 59, Spring, 1951, pp. 179–205; reprinted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by James McIntosh, Norton, 1987, p. 367.
Male, Roy R., Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision, Norton, 1957, p. 49.
McWilliams, John P., Jr., ‘‘‘Thorough-Going Democrat’ and ‘Modern Tory’: Hawthorne and the Puritan Revolution of 1776,’’ in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 15, Fall, 1976, pp. 549–71; reprinted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by James McIntosh, Norton, 1987,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of...
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