A Lucid Portrayal of Ambiguity: Locating Meaning in Hawthorne's 'My Kinsman, Major Molineux'.

Author:Jenks, Rod
Position:Nathaniel Hawthorne - Critical essay

It was the very spot to utter the extremest nonsense or the profoundest wisdom, or that ethereal product of the mind which partakes of both, and may become one or the other, in correspondence with the faith and insight of the auditor. --Hawthorne, "The Old Manse" In this article, I intend to make several remarks in the direction of an interpretation of Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." (1) I will not, however, be trolling the text for its hidden metaphors or its class prejudices or its socioeconomic or racial undertones, and I will definitely not be engaging in hermeneutic imperialism or textual colonialism. I will be doing, in short, what I think critics used to do, before they got the idea that they were all formidable philosophers and redoubtable social critics. I will be striving to construct a preliminary interpretation of what I take to be a fine work of literature.


In attempting to construct an adequate, or even a satisfying, interpretation of a work of fiction, the critic must assume that the work of art under scrutiny is perfect. The hypothesis that any element in a work of fiction is idiosyncratic and thereby, meaning-less, is absolutely the critic's last resort. Such a judgment of any adequate work of literature represents a failure of interpretation. In the interpretation of Moby Dick, we are intrigued if a critic observes that white is typically associated with purity and innocence, yet that nature, on Melville's showing, is anything but pure and innocent, and so white, as the color of the whale, is presumably ironic. On the other hand, if all that a critic can produce in answer to the question, "Why is the whale white?" is "Perhaps white was Melville's favorite color," that critic has failed. We assume that each identifiable element is present and in its place for a reason, and interpretation, broadly speaking, seeks to discover and to articulate the reason or the reasons for the inclusion and the positioning of the elements in a work of literature. Interpretation is a delicate adjustment between what we seek to understand and what the work under scrutiny is prepared to declare to us.

As a writer, Hawthorne is keenly aware of his reader's hunger for meaning, the very hunger that manifests itself in this hermeneutic assumption. In "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," Hawthorne deliberately and self-consciously suggests several avenues of interpretation that he is well aware are dead ends. Other avenues of interpretation are left open, but not nearly enough material is presented by the narrator or by Hawthorne (2) to complete any of them or to lend the reader any confidence that they are intended by the author. It is as though there were a halo of significance surrounding the story, but the narrative refuses to settle into any single, settled line of interpretation. I will argue that Hawthorne presents a tale that is so tantalizingly unsettled in order to expose his reader to a critical angst analogous to the practical angst experienced by his uncertain protagonist, Robin.


We are introduced to Hawthorne's protagonist by means of this curious phrase: "... one of whose names was Robin" (209). The reader is immediately taken aback by this teasing piece of half-information. The character's other name might perhaps be "Goodfellow." (3) If so, this would be an allusion to Puck, the mischievous spirit of A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!" III, ii). And we are never told what Robin's other name is. He thus seems unconnected, a wheel that does not turn. It is curious that a character who seems to be unconnected is striving to use his connections to get ahead in the world. That his name is incomplete makes him seem to have no permanent pedigree. And what little representation of his family is presented is darkened by what appears to have been a death. When Robin envisions his family, he notes that his father's voice falters when he speaks of "the Absent One" (223). But no more is related about this; it is a thread Hawthorne does not later pick up.

Hawthorne's protagonist, though evidently good-natured (and, to this extent, not unlike Puck), is, by way of contrast, not noteworthy for his subtlety and his savvy. He seems, indeed, ingenuous and surprisingly ignorant. Robin is hungry for knowledge (as is the reader), and so Robin is easy prey for the mendacious townspeople. He is, in many ways, the mirror-image of the impish, worldly-wise Shakespearean character. What Puck is, Robin appears not to be. Perhaps, then, the allusion is intended ironically.

Although both the narrator and Robin himself describe Robin throughout as "shrewd" (211, 215, 216, 220, 225 and 231), he does seem to be rather easily deceived. He struggles to achieve an understanding of the hostility of the townspeople in response to his evidently innocent inquiries after the dwelling place of his kinsman, Major Molineux. Major Molineux is Robin's father's cousin. The farm where Robin was raised has been inherited by Robin's older brother. Major Molineux had, in earlier times, shown a certain affection for Robin, and Robin now hopes that the Major will help him to get established. His inability to receive an informative response to his continuing inquiries about his kinsman elicits little curiosity from this "shrewd" young man. Instead, he seems satisfied with quick hypotheses: This man is unschooled and does not know how to respond properly; that man has detected Robin's resemblance to his kinsman and so is treating him with deference, etc. Moreover, "shrewd" Robin at first has no suspicion that the landlady is a prostitute. The landlady, decked out in a red petticoat, whom he unwittingly addresses as "Mistress" (216), tells him Major Molineux is in a drunken slumber (217). Robin accepts this lie and acts on it. He finds the innkeeper to be "courteous" and "honest" (213, 214); we discover anon that he is neither. When Robin drops the name of his kinsman at the inn, he misunderstands the "general movement in the room" to signify that everyone there wishes to be his guide (214). In these instances, Robin reveals himself to be easily snared or deceived. This, of course, is what one would expect of a country lad on his first visit to the city, but it is inconsistent with his characterization of himself as a "shrewd" youth.

And yet, in spite of his self-characterization, he seems at one point aware of his naivete. He criticizes himself for his innocence in interviewing the sepulchral man: "You will be wiser in time, friend Robin," he tells himself (211). Consonant with Robin's current lack of wisdom, it might be observed that a truly shrewd man lives by his wits, and not by his cudgel. Perhaps, however, in this brave new world of delirious and murderous multitudes, arming oneself with a cudgel is the shrewd thing to do. One of the first things Robin notices in...

To continue reading