Hawthorne's short story My Kinsman, Major Molilneux: Analysis
Between Home and the Unknown
The first thing one considers, and indeed the first thing discussed in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, is the colonial setting; the American colonies stand on the brink of revolution. This air of personal conflict exists, not only in the historical context of Loyalist against Revolutionary neighbor, for which the story is given, but in many different aspects of Hawthorne’s story. The theme of one side of a whole being at odds with the other is reoccurring both through descriptive narration as well as dialogue. Hawthorne uses a language of duplicity, and characters that reflect a double nature, to illustrate inner turmoil. This theme is demonstrated in particular by Robin, a young man coming of age, who exhibits signs of mutually exclusive desires. Robin appears to want do his duty and obligation to his father and kinsman, remaining in the comfortable known of childhood, but he stands on the threshold of the freedom that adulthood offers, reflecting the transitioning world around him.
Despite Robin’s persistent inquiries after his kinsman, a close reading suggests that from the very beginning Robin is less than forthright about what it is he wants out of this small colonial metropolis. Robin is literally fresh off of the boat when Hawthorne gives the reader insight into Robin’s mood. “He then walked forward into the town, with as light a step, as if his day's journey had not already exceeded thirty miles, and with as eager an eye as if he were entering London city”(374). Hawthorne characterizes Robin with the giddiness and naiveté of a child in contrast with his physical masculinity as described. Already the notion of Robin’s duplicity, caught between being a boy and a man, arises.
Robin will explain that he has taken this trek because “[he] thought it high time to begin the world.”(383) Although the statement comes towards the end of the work, the decision is made prior to any of the events depicted. Robin expresses that it was “high time” which colloquially implies a kind of lateness, as if the time to begin the world has been upon Robin before he is ever invited to stay with his kinsman. Begin the world he says, and an image of just how small the colonial town is in relation to the world pops into the readers mind. The comparison in the context of Robin’s coming of age, and the fact that Robin himself brings about said comparison hints, without saying outright, that Robin has a vision of a life in “the world” outside of his childhood home or even the home of Major Molineux.
A lot can be taken from Robin’s dialogue. Even the short and superficially insignificant declarations can reveal a side of him that seems more inclined towards independence than he lets on. There is a moment of reflection for our protagonist, upon seeing the two-faced man, in which he exclaims to himself out loud. “‘Strange things we travelers see!’ Robin ejaculated” (380) Without thought, Robin simultaneously reacts to the two-faced man and proclaims himself a traveler. For Robin, in this moment of surprise, there is a self-identifying pretension that he may call himself a traveler. True, he has taken a trip away from home and so is technically a traveler, this cannot be argued. But the fact that he refers to himself as a traveler in the context of all other travelers suggests that Robin counts himself among the men who have “begun the world”. A small utterance stands out as a revealing fragment of how Robin sees himself.
On the surface Robin does nothing but ask after, and attempt to find Major Molineux until he sees him at the climactic, for lack of a better word, parade. This sense of purpose illustrates the child-like duty Robin feels to his father and his home. Even in these interactions wherein Robin inquires after his relative, there can be the sense of another side to Robin, a side that desires the freedom of adulthood. A prime example of this lies in Robin’s encounter with the pretty woman in the petticoat. “her bright eyes possessed a sly freedom, which triumphed over those of Robin.” (378) The reader will note that Hawthorne designates the eyes as giving clues to underlying motivation and desires. He notes the girl’s eyes for their freedom. She is, as the reader will see, not bound by the sense of moral duty that hangs on Robin’s back, as the reader will see her attempt to seduce Robin and later joins in the parade of the tarred and feathered Molineux. The woman triumphs in her lack of inner conflict she is free to do as she wants; her duplicity is by choice. Hawthorne hones in on the woman’s eyes as indicators of her true nature. “Robin read in her eyes what he did not hear in her words” (379) Because of Robin’s own intuition the reader knows two things: that the girl has another side and that Robin recognizes this. While Robin can recognize this ulterior motivation in others, he seems unable or unwilling to recognize it in himself, just as one can look into another’s eyes but not one’s own without assistance.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for the duplicity of Robin and his inner struggle, besides his laughing outburst, comes from Robin’s almost entering of the pretty woman’s house. The event, like the outburst, is so convincing because it is an outward, non-subtle demonstration of Robin’s transgression from what he “should” be doing, according to his stated intentions and context. Rarely in the story does Hawthorne allow Robin to overtly show independence from his father’s plans and his kinsman, and the climax is given strength and shock because of his diligence. But before the parade, Hawthorne establishes that Robin is some semblance of the “shrewd youth” he claims to be, in that he identifies an ulterior motive in the young woman and “ yet the slender-waisted woman, in the scarlet petticoat, proved stronger than the athletic country youth.”(379) Robin is almost led inside, an unsavory act for the son of a clergy man, only to be chased away as his foot approaches the threshold by a watchman, a lone figure and representation of authority. The reader sees Robin move towards what he wants, the girl, and away from his goal, as he runs away from the one person in the story most likely to be able to help him locate Molineux. In such a short story with few intensely dramatic events, identification of the more obvious dissonance in Robin’s character goes a long way to establishing duplicity as a theme, again particularly in the protagonist Robin.
Undeniably the climax of the story comes with the arrival of the “parade” and the disgraced Major Molineux. When Robin first encounters the two-faced man he displays an authority of his own, verging almost on anger. “I'm not the fool you take me for, nor do you pass, till I have an answer to my question.” (380) Robin is confronted with the personification of duplicity and his frustration comes out, defensively but with strength. A man with a two colored faced is disconcerting, to be sure, but because it is the first time in the story, it is significant that the reader sees Robin display signs of anger when faced with the inner conflict and personal change he is experiencing as a youth coming of age, externalized and personified in a stranger. It is as if Robin’s refusal to acknowledge latent desires translates into an outward frustration.
If the two-faced man is the personification of change and later its harbinger for Robin, the “gentleman” stranger that sits with Robin is certainly his guide. He, like most characters in the story is never given a name and as such remains vague, almost mythological. It is through dialogue with this stranger we learn Robin’s backstory and it is this stranger who assures that Robin wait for his relative and learn his fate. Upon Robin relaying the sight of the two-faced man the stranger counsels, "May not a man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?"(383). Robin’s new “friend” comments on the man with a half black half red face, that he is not so unusual. The “friend” uses Robin’s name in the question, drawing close the association between “a man” and Robin. At this point we have already seen Robin speak with many voices, anger, confusion, sweetness, and pride so there is an implication that the “two complexions” are not only those of the mysterious man but those of Robin as well. The question prompts Robin to reflect and is more philosophical than anything. Robin’s response is equally revealing as the question but more explicit. “Perhaps a man may; but Heaven forbid that a woman should!’ responded the shrewd youth, thinking of the seductive tones of the Major's housekeeper.”(383) The man asks Robin what seems to be a hypothetical, and Robin answers, revealing his thoughts to be not of the two-faced man or Major Molineux, but of the duplicitous woman in the petticoat.
As the red and black man returns in climactic chaos he is “... war personified: the red of one cheek was an emblem of fire and sword; the blackness of the other betokened the mourning that attends them.”(384) Hawthorne joins the two opposing sides to the man in a symbol of war; personal discord equated with an outward projection of violence, the picture of conflict. The first meeting with this man resulted in Robin asserting his authority and independence. This time, the man brings release from Robin’s duty to his kinsman and so is the first time that he is able to truly embrace any inner desire he has to be free of it, and as such he laughs. He laughs so that even the moon might hear. Jubilation is an emotion not seen in Robin before or after and so the context in which he feels this must be considered to be somewhat causal, we can suppose he is not just laughing out of insanity or at a joke he heard the other day.
This is not to say that Robin wholly or even mostly desires to be free of his father and family. He is constantly asking after Major Molineux and after seeing him, when Robin expresses that he “begins to grow weary of a town life” (384), we can believe him in his exhaustion. After having Robin embrace his freedom Hawthorne has him reflect, showing Robin’s obligations to his father as still a check on the young man. Robin asks after the ferry twice, assuring the reader he really does intend to leave. It is in the beginning of the last line of the story that ambiguity as to Robin’s future is added. “No, my good friend Robin, not to-night”(384) the stranger says and we are to infer that Robin is given another night to reflect on whether he really wants to go home. Rash decisions have dictated Robin’s behavior thus far, he grabs a coat, almost walks into a ladies’s house, threatens a demonic man. The stranger who has given Robin guidance to some extent now suggests, and even, in a way orders Robin to think his decision through. The stranger gives the choice weight, giving further evidence that there are two relatively equal sides to Robin, and that he must comes to terms with his identity. Hawthorne puts into physical form this notion of childhood versus adulthood, illustrating the theme of leaving versus staying, both literally and metaphorically.
The reader finds him or herself in an America that will very soon go through a war for its independence, and as such, the setting and the characters blend into a feeling of unease, of restlessness. The language of the text is rich with a motif of duplicity and dissonance, but even without that, from his first light steps, Robin is undeniably in a period of personal transition that matches his surroundings. The reader must consider this harmony when he or she makes an analysis of either Robin, Hawthorne’s tale as a whole.
Baym, Nina, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. B.
New York: Norton, 2012. Print.