Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

Note: I really ought to reread some Hawthorne short stories. If The Scarlet Letter was the only Hawthorne that you read (most likely forced to read in high school), you missed out — his short stories are WAYYYY better than his novels, in my humble studentorial (is that even a word?) opinion. 

Robin’s Initiation into Spiritual Liberty: Sin as Necessary Crucible of the Soul towards Self-Perfection in Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

 

 

On first reading of Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one can see a simple initiation plot of a naive, country youth moving into the worldly city in which, after several trials and confrontations with various experienced townfolk, the youth becomes initiated into the worldly city, learns to laugh with them, and, as the cliché goes, “lives happily ever after.”

But, on further reflection, there does not seem to be anything happy about what happens to Robin after his laugh, and one can easily turn this story into an allegory of rural innocence being horribly corrupted by city experience. This would be a Romantic, or Transcendentalist, reading of what happens to Robin and, I believe, is not what Hawthorne, the descendent of Puritans, intends. Unlike Young Goodman Brown, the confrontation with the mob and his kinsman does not destroy Robin’s openness to other people; after all, he is still cordial to the gentleman after the mob leaves, asking him “’Will you be kind enough to show me the way to the ferry?’” (86).

So, what actually happens to Robin is a resolution of seeming paradox of the simple, initiation plot of maturity and the allegory of innocence falling into experience, a paradox resolved in seeing Robin’s fall as a felix culpa, a happy fault. In other words, Robin’s naive innocence limits him as a human being because he is not aware that he is a member of a larger community, a community of sinners, which Hawthorne constructs in his story as a “temporary inflammation” of mob rule (68), of political liberty turned to “wrathful passions” (70).

Unless he becomes aware that he is a part of this community by partaking in their communal act of sin – their laughter at Molineux – then Robin is cut off from humanity as a whole, and he cannot strive towards true spiritual liberty, which is the self-perfection of the soul, because he does not know, in his dumb innocence, that his soul is not perfect. Sin, therefore, becomes a necessary crucible, or test, of the soul towards its self-perfection, and his encounters with the six townsfolk unwittingly prepare him for his final encounter with Molineux.

That Robin is naively proud and confident in his innocence is painfully obvious. When he arrives at the town, he first sees a group of wooden buildings and thinks, “ ‘This low hovel cannot be my kinsman’s dwelling… and truly I see none hereabouts that might be worthy of him’” (69).  By association with his relative, one can assume, with a very little logical leap, that Robin also thinks that these buildings are not worthy of him.

Also, he is so certain that the name “Molineux” is so highly esteemed that he does not connect the poor reception he receives from the townsfolk with his utterance of that name to them. The first person he encounters is an old man, whose looks and cane imply that he is the local constable. When Robin asks him where he can “the dwelling of my kinsman, Major Molineux,” the constable responds that not only does he not know Molineux but that he will throw Robin in the stocks; afterwards, Robin hears “an ill-mannered roar of laughter” (70). But naive Robin, ironically called a “shrewd youth” by the narrator, attributes the constable’s behavior as being from “some country representative… who… lacks breeding” (70).

Next, Robin encounters an innkeeper in a tavern and inquires “with lofty confidence” of Molineux. When the innkeeper threatens Robin with turning him in as an indentured servant and then the whole tavern laughs as Robin leaves, the naive youth “with his usual shrewdness” attributes the innkeeper’s behavior to the fact that Robin has no money (73).

His next encounter is with a woman with a “scarlet petticoat” (75). The “shrewd youth” again asks where he can find Molineux, and, to his surprise, she answers, “’Major Molineux dwells here” and that he ought to come inside (75-76). By this time, however, Robin’s initial innocence of who this woman is – just a “pretty mistress” (75) – gives way to knowledge which “Robin read in her eyes what he did not hear in her words” (76).  This temptation is not so much forsaken by Robin as so much as he is saved from it from a watchman, starting his rounds (76).  When Robin asks the watchman where he can find Molineux, both the watchman and the “pretty mistress” laugh at him.

But there has been a change in the interchange between Robin and these townsfolk: both the woman and the watchman do no rebuke him for asking the question. Granted, the woman lies to him and the watchman makes no reply (76), but they do not reject Robin outright at the name “Molineux.” Also of note, Robin does not make any “shrewd” excuses for their behavior. With this perceptible change, Robin reorients his soul towards the two townspeople who will tell him the awful truth, even though this reorientation feels strange to Robin, like “a spell was on him” (77).

The last two townspeople he meets before the encounter with Molineux are the red-black face man and the kind gentleman. In this story of ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes, the red-black face man who looks like “a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness” (78) and the gentleman who speaks with “a tone of real kindness” (81) are, figuratively-speaking, the same person, that is, they both serve as helpful guides to Robin.

When he encounters the red-black face man, Robin asks him where he can find Molineux. When the red-black face man calls him a fool and tells him to let him pass, Robin brandishes his cudgel – the first time he has shown violence — tells him he is not a fool, and asks the question again.  Robin gets his answer: “‘Watch here an hour, and Major Molineux will pass by’” (78). After receiving the truth from what looks like two devils joined into one (78), Robin follows these orders.

Also of note is where Robin encounters the red-black face man: in front of a church. After the red-black face man leaves, Robin looks into the empty church from outside, an outsider looking in (79). Similarly, Robin reminisces of his innocent childhood in the country, which becomes an Edenic vision of nature, close family, and kindly neighbors; but he is also an outsider looking into this vision, for when his family goes into their house, Robin “was excluded from his home” (80). Robin’s soul is now in limbo, between innocence and experience, and he despairs.

When he encounters the gentleman, Robin is in despair, for he asks the gentleman in “a loud peevish and lamentable cry” (81). His two questions Robin asks are now different from his previous questions of where Molineux is: he asks, “[M]ust I wait here all night for my kinsman, Major Molineux?” and, when the gentleman asks if he can help, “[I]s there really such a person in these parts, or am I dreaming?” (81).

Like the red-black face man, the gentleman acknowledges the existence of Molineux but, unlike the previous man and all the other townsfolk, actually asks Robin why he wants to see Molineux. After listening to Robin’s background, he confirms that the red-black face man was speaking the truth but also states to Robin “I have a singular curiosity to witness your meeting” (82). While the red-black face man’s purpose is to answer Robin’s “where” question and tell him where to stand in the guise of a strict, fiendish authoritarian, the gentleman’s purpose is to answer Robin’s “why must I wait” and “is he for real’ questions and make sure Robin does not move, in the guise of a kind, empathic friend. Both the red-black face man and the gentleman become two sides of the same person, the knowing, neither God-like nor Satanic, guide who leads Robin to the proverbial Tree of Knowledge, that is, the tarred-and-feathered Major Molineux.

The drama culminates in the Robin’s final encounter, the vision of Major Molineux, surrounded by a grotesque, carnivalesque, laughing mob. The awfulness of Robin’s response would not be powerful if Molineux were a stooge, a buffoon. Instead, he is “an elderly man, of large and majestic person… betokening a steady soul…. His face was pale as death… in his agony” (85).  Molineux is the classic tragic figure, and as in any tragedy, Robin, looking at his kinsman, feels a “mixture of pity and terror” (85), in which catharsis becomes his laughter.

But this drama is not classical but Christian, and Robin’s cathartic laughter is a result of a   “contagion,” the contagion of universal sin, which “spread[s] among the multitude” (86). The multitude is not only the temporary inflammation of a mob in 1760s New England but is also the Original Sin of Man, when Earth was new. The laughter becomes a remembrance of this past sin, which the narrator comments, as the Man in the Moon, “‘the old Earth is frolicsome to-night!’” (86).

In his awful, sinning laughter, Robin opens himself not merely to the journey of a country youth moving to the city but to the real journey of the soul rising to its self-perfection, as worked out in this fallen world of fallen people. Like stunned Adam and his guide Michael, stunned Robin will need a guide to negotiate in this new world, until he gets used to his new knowledge. This is why the gentleman advises Robin to stay in town for a few days; or “if you prefer to remain with us, perhaps, as you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux’” (87).

Thus, Hawthorne, in what looks like a simple initiation story of a country youth entering in city life by losing his innocence, creates a story of spiritual liberty, of one soul’s acceptance of sin as a part of its condition so that it can be a part of a community and, in that community, achieve self-perfection.

What is remarkable about this tale of spiritual liberty is that political liberty and spiritual liberty do not always coincide and, as seen in this tale, are in fact at odds with one another: the loss of political liberty into license forms the crucible in which Robin’s soul is tested before it is ready for the long process of spiritual liberty, that is, self-perfection. Also, the mob rule formed in the lack of political liberty becomes the community of sinners to which Robin will become a member in the pursuit for spiritual liberty. In this tale, Hawthorne creates a complicated allegory that mirrors the complexities of the human soul itself.

 

Work Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Tales and Sketches. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1996. 68-87. Print.

© 8 December 1999 Rufel F. Ramos (modified for blog format, 24 August 2012)

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