My Kinsman, Major Molineux Analysis
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Start Your Free Trial

Download My Kinsman, Major Molineux Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 proceeding is under way while Robin waits for his kinsman to appear is plain, and this is most evident when the sober man reappears on the mansion balcony in time to see Molineux pass. This time the man’s sober “hems” are interspersed with hearty laughter.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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: ‘‘When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.’’ The writer of romance, if he wished, might ‘‘manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the pictures.’’ It is in this spirit that Hawthorne set many of his tales, including ‘‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux,’’ in darkness, twilight, and shadow.

Two difficulties presented themselves to the American writer of romance in the early part of the nineteenth century: there was little demand for this kind of imaginative literature, and America had no medieval past and no royalty to establish the proper atmosphere . This lack of...

(The entire section is 3,087 words.)