Although on the surface “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” appears to be a simple story, it offers much information about Hawthorne’s experience, attitudes, interests, and artistic aims. This ability to suggest a wealth of meaning in compressed form is a sure sign of genius. The moral of the story is that no one should look to others for help: The individual must learn to look out for himself or herself.
This message is expressed in philosophical terms by Hawthorne’s friend and mentor the Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). Hawthorne’s early experiences as a poor relation living on the charity of his own “kinsmen” had taught him the bitterness of dependency. The story also shows Hawthorne’s interest in early American history, which he studied assiduously during his “silent years” of self-imprisonment from 1825 to 1837 and used as subject matter for much of his fiction.
It also shows the power of his imagination. “Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary writer of great imaginative talent himself, “is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest.” In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Hawthorne performs the difficult feat of re-creating a colonial city of a century before his time, complete with streets, houses, shops, sounds, smells, and a variety of inhabitants. It is this sensation of being transported backward in time that holds the greatest interest for the reader.
Another feature of this story, to be seen again and again in Hawthorne’s later work, is his sardonic, tongue-in-cheek humor, which mercifully brightens some of his grim subject matter. Although Hawthorne seems greatly concerned with matters of religion and morality, he deliberately took a more sophisticated and intellectual approach to these matters than was the case with his Puritan ancestors.
Hawthorne’s technical skill as a prose writer, which he polished during his years of seclusion after graduating from college, is clearly evident. He uses light and darkness as did the great painters Caravaggio and Rembrandt Van Rijn, who called their technique “chiaroscuro.” The story consists of a succession of night scenes feebly lighted by candles and lanterns or flickering fireplaces glimpsed through windows and doorways. The feeling of darkness is maintained until the climax in order to provide a vivid contrast when the protagonist’s proud and influential kinsman Major Molineux is seen in the midst of a horrible parade with all his pain and humiliation pitilessly revealed to the world by the light of all the blazing torches. The brightness of the parade symbolizes the young hero’s sudden enlightenment.
Finally, the story touches on what was Hawthorne’s favorite idea: that everyone, no matter how dignified and righteous he or she may appear, has a dark side of character which is hidden from the world like the dark side of the moon. Hawthorne does not reveal why Major Molineux has been tarred and feathered by the townspeople, but their behavior indicates that he has well deserved it.
On a moonlit evening just before the American Revolution in a time of political rebellion against British rule, Robin Molineux arrives at the ferry landing of a sizeable Massachusetts town. A country boy of about eighteen, Robin wears secondhand and homemade clothing, and he carries a cudgel consisting of an oak sapling with part of its root attached. He assumes that any passerby will be eager to tell him the way to the home of his kinsman, Major Molineux. However, he soon finds that directions will not be so easy to obtain.
The first person Robin meets is a well-dressed old man who coughs repeatedly. Robin takes hold of the old man’s skirt and asks if he knows the way to Major Molineux’s home. The gentleman responds angrily that he does not know the man, demands that Robin remove his hand,...
(The entire section is 2,265 words.)