Friday, September 18, 2009

100 "Shots of Short" Reading

My Kinsman, Major Molineux
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Ever since I "read" The Scarlett Letter in high school (I use quotations because I don't think I ever finished) I have steered clear of Hawthorne. Boring. Boring. Boring. What could possibly be more boring than Puritans? Well, for my short story class I had to read a book of Hawthorne's stories, and I was seriously dreading this. And I did have a hard time getting through it. His language is very thick and formal, not my favorite at all.

But in class we discussed this story, and I have to admit, it's a pretty genius and well-crafted story. It's a very interesting and nuanced take on coming-of-age and the rough-and-tumble birth of American independence. Some great allegorical and symbolic things happening in this story. I really suggest a reading of it and you can find it easily online. Here's one link.

I wrote a short journal entry for class on this story, which I'll copy here, in case anyone is interested. If anyone has read the story, I'm totally up for any discussion.


After the in-class nudge towards the mythological context of the story and my subsequent rereading of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the story, which at first just seemed to be a boy’s desperate search for his kin in a strange place, suddenly bloomed into a complicated story. I was struck by the recurring light and dark images that contrasted the Edenic country with the hellish city, which underscored Robin’s coming of age journey.

In the first scene where Robin has crossed the river, a ferryman and a solitary passenger, immediately called to my mind Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx into the underworld. Without knowing anything else, we can see that Robin’s journey begins at the gates of hell. The ominous nature of his entrance is underscored by Hawthorne’s use of light and dark imagery. Robin has arrived at night and his entrance is lit only by the moon. However once the ferryman raises his lantern, this man-made light combines with the moonlight to reveal Robin’s physical features to the reader: a curly-haired, bright-eyed country boy.

Throughout Robin’s coming-of-age journey, Hawthorne uses moonlight, man-made light, and the dark to reveal Robin’s psychological state. This interplay between light and dark is most prominent when Robin encounters people in the city. When Robin meets the old man with the sepulchral hems, he is only able to get the man’s attention as they step into the light escaping from the barber shop. In the inn, he exchanges glances with a man whose eyes glowed “like fire in a cave” only to meet him again later on the street in the shade of the church steeple (30). But Robin only recognizes the man when he steps out of the shadow and into the moonlight revealing his singular countenance. Similarly, when Robin meets the prostitute all he sees is “a strip of scarlet petticoat, and the occasional sparkle of an eye, as if the moonbeams were trembling on some bright thing” until she steps out into the moonlight fully revealing herself (33). The watchman who threatens Robin with the stocks and ignores Robin’s entreaties carries with him “a lantern, needlessly aiding his sister luminary in the heavens” (35).

Despite being literally and figuratively illuminated at each meeting, Robin misinterprets the situations. He assumes that the old man isn’t well-bred enough to act civilly, that the men in the barber shop think he’s na├»ve for questioning the old man, or that the innkeeper values money over a good name. It is only after Robin begins to break down from exhaustion, hunger, and rejection that he begins to approach the meetings with less naivety: he recognizes the prostitute for what she is and almost forgets to ask the watchmen for his kinsman he is so distracted.

This combination of illumination and misinterpretation ends once Robin begins his revelation at the church’s steps. He looks into the church for comfort, but does not find it. This is in direct contrast with the scene of his childhood worship in the outdoors where the “golden light that fell from the western sky” illuminates the Scripture, because in the city church even the moonbeams trembled and only “one solitary ray had dared to rest upon the open page of the Bible” (38-39). There is nothing familiar about this place of worship, his faith being his basest instinct during desperate times, and it is therefore no comfort for Robin. He daydreams of his family so clearly that he becomes confused as to what is real and what is imagined. It is only then, when he’s given in fully to disillusionment, that he discerns a man in the shadows of the Gothic home across from the church. He calls out to the man in an unsure, peevish, and desperate cry, which is very distinct from his earlier confidence. The man comes to him in the shadow of the church and, unlike previous strangers, this man is kind to Robin and wishes to help him.

The final revelation comes to Robin when the crowd of familiar figures presents his uncle to him: “There the torches blazed the brightest, there the moon shone out like day, and there in tar-and-feather dignity, sat his kinsman, Major Molineux” (45). Finally Robin can no longer misinterpret the situation. The truth is lit up so bright by both fire and moonlight he finally breaks into uncontrolled mirth as his past misinterpretations are revealed.

If this coming-of-age journey is used to describe the burgeoning nationalism in America in the period of the story, then Hawthorne is making an interesting comparison. It suggests that he perceived America’s journey to independence as inevitable, yet fraught with chaos and darkness. As America grew into a nation, the journey was hellish and wrought with mistakes. He seems to be condemning the vigilante justice of the period by highlighting its horrific nature, while at the same time emphasizing that to truly come of age one must face difficult and hellish truths.

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