illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Start Free Trial

In his short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount," does Hawthorne describe real animals or men dressed as animals? Did Hawthorne describe a real bear standing on his hind legs? Why would Hawthorne choose this gray area, so to speak, to describe the time of the wedding? What is illusion and what is reality?

Hawthorne begins his short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" by introducing two groups: the Puritans, who are described as repressive and joyless and the villagers of Merry Mount, who are described as joyful, colorful, and full of life. Hawthorne uses these descriptions to contrast the two groups in almost every way, from their appearances to their activities. He then describes a sacrificial wedding taking place at Merry Mount that involves an elaborate ceremony. The Puritan's attack this ceremony, arresting those involved and destroying the Maypole. This conflict is not just about opposing religious beliefs; it is also about opposing cultural differences.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If we look at the third paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Maypole of Merry Mount," we can see very clearly that he is not describing real animals dancing around the Maypole but rather men dressed as animals. We can especially see the description of men dressed as animals starting in the line, "On the shoulders of a comely youth uprose the head and branching antlers of a stag." In the phrase "comely youth," the word comely means "attractive" or handsome and is generally used to refer to people (Random House Dictionary). The word youth refers to being young, generally specifically to being a young person. So, just by looking at those two words alone, we Hawthorne's sentence starts out by describing a person. That fact becomes even more obvious when we add in the words "on the shoulders of a comely youth"; animals are never described as having shoulders; only people can have shoulders. Next, it is said of the "comely youth" that the "head and branching antlers of a stag" are sitting on his shoulders, which would mean this head with antlers is resting where the youth's head should be. So, either the youth has been beheaded, or he is wearing a stag's head with antlers over his own head as part of a costume. If we look at the rest of the description in this paragraph, we see that Hawthorne is describing another man dressed as a wolf; another man dressed as a "mortal man," meaning just dressed as himself; and another as a "he-goat." Finally, let's look at Hawthorne's final description of another dancing around the Maypole: "There was the likeness of a bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were adorned with pink silk stockings." Is this also describing a man in costume, or is it describing a real bear? Let's take a look at the clue words, especially "adorned with pink silk stockings." To be adorned means to be decorated. Can a bear's legs literally be decorated in pink silk stalkings? Most definitely not; so, clearly this sentence is not describing a literal bear.

Next, what's Hawthorne's purpose in describing all of these people in costume dancing around the Maypole in celebration of the May Day wedding? Through his descriptions, Hawthorne draws a connection between the May Day wedding festival and the pagan traditions of Ancient Greece, traditions that England actually held on to in their own celebrations, long after Queen Elizabeth I. Beyond describing the wedding festival as representing a pagan tradition, he also describes it as a lively celebration full of colors, beauty, and gaiety. In so doing, Hawthorne draws a stark contrast between the villagers celebrating the May Day wedding and the Puritans who attack the celebration, arresting and even killing the villagers.

Hawthorne uses the short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" to parody a real historical occurrence, particularly a historical conflict between the Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and a small group of other colonists who also settled in Plymouth in a village they dubbed Mount Wollaston. The group was led by Captain Wollaston and Thomas Morton, which is why the village was named Mount Wollaston after Wollaston; however, Wollaston later re-dubbed it as Ma-re Mount, "meaning village by the sea," but pronounced Merry Mount (Cummings Study Guide, "The Maypole of Merry Mount"). Both the Puritans and those of the Merry Mount village were from England; however, the Puritans had developed a very strict religion that forbade any merry making, celebrations, dancing, and singing, except for singing psalms. Therefore, Puritans and the Merry Mount villagers were at odds with each other, and Hawthorne's story strives to capture this historic conflict. Historically, the Puritans even imprisoned Thomas Morton and sent him back to England; however, he returned to America only to be imprisoned again in Boston and sent to Maine (Cummings Study Guide). Hawthorne uses his character the English priest to represent Morton, who was imprisoned by the Puritans, both in the story and in reality. In parodying the Puritan's reaction to the villagers' celebrations, Hawthorne is also pointing out the hypocrisy of the Puritan's so-called religious actions.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team