Hawthorne's serio-comic muse in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux".
Even so, elements of comedy exist in Hawthorne's works. Hawthorne's use of the comedic may be examined from a variety of angles and perspectives, including, but not limited to, reader response theory, his portrayal of a variation of the comic Yankee stereotype, the application of Thomas Hobbes's superiority theory of comedy, the comic grotesque, the tragicomic, and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. Several of his stories, "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" (1834) and "Mrs. Bullfrog" (1837), for example, are demonstrably comical. While the former has been generally recognized for its detective story elements and being "in the tall tale tradition, that most venerated mainstream of American humor" (Inge 3), the farcical "Mrs. Bullfrog" exploits the popular mode of the comic representation of the grotesque body, the body of Mrs. Bullfrog comprised mainly of artificial parts. Depending on one's perspective of what constitutes comedy, parts of The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836), "Ethan Brand" (1850), "The Birthmark"(1843), "Wakefield" (1835), and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832) have their risible moments. Even in Hawthorne's own time, several reviewers and critics perceived him as a humorist and showed an appreciation for his peculiar brand of comedy.
As early as 1845, in an unsigned essay, "American Humor," published in the Democratic Review, the writer situated Hawthorne in the company of humorous essayists Benjamin Franklin and John Wirt, noting that
Hawthorne ['s] strength lies in a combination of rich quaint sombre fancy, with a delicate melancholy coloring. The Tieck of this American literature of ours (though the gayer fancy of the German is clouded in his case by the slight tinge of the gloom of "puritanical New England, in itself one of the sources of romantic interest and in his case of the mildest tinge and softest hues) has shown gleams and streaks of humor in most of his tales, his best writings by far. (qtd. in Crowley 101)
This reviewer also observed that in his tales and sketches,
[Hawthorne] sometimes discloses a vein of genuine humor, like himself however, rather of a gentle than of a forcible character. With more of Goldsmith than of Rabelais in it, though with little of the former and nothing of the latter. A graceful, pleasing humor, neither riant nor grotesque, nor copious, sometimes only just enough to satisfy the reader of its existence at all, and often with nothing more whatever, (qtd. in Crowley 101)
Several contemporary reviewers of Hawthorne's works recognized and celebrated him for his humor. Caleb Foot, in his review of the first edition of Twice-told Tales in the Salem Gazette in March 1837, remarked that "Mr. Hawthorne's quiet and cheerful humor brightens every view of human nature" (qtd. in Idol and Jones xiii). In his review in the Boston Quarterly Review of the second edition of Twice-told Tales in April 1842, Orestes Brownson also perceived some comical incidents and praised Hawthorne for his "wit, humor, [and] pathos" (qtd. in Idol and Jones 58).
As M. Thomas Inge has rightly pointed out, Hawthorne "had something of a reputation as a humorist" and his sketch "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe," is "an entertaining tale of mystery, intrigue, and alleged murder [that] comes out right in the end because of the hand of fate and circumstance" (Inge 3), although as has been recently argued, it also exhibits a serious dimension.1 This sketch, as Inge notes, was also included in the American section of William E. Burton's Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor in 1858 (1). Notable too in Burton's Cyclopaedia is Edwin P. Whipple's brief essay, "The Literature of Mirth," in which he offers a generous appraisal of Hawthorne as a humorist, commenting that Hawthorne
deserv[es] a place second to none in that band of humorists, whose beautiful depth of cheerful feeling is the very poetry of mirth. In case, grace, delicate sharpness of satire, in a felicity of Addison, in a subtlety of insight which often reaches further than the subtlety of Steele,--the humor of Hawthorne presents traits so fine as to be almost too excellent for popularity, as, to every one who has attempted their criticism, they are too refined for" statement. The brilliant atoms flit, hover, and glance before our mind, but the subtle sources of their ethereal light lie beyond our analysis.... (480)
Several years later, English critic Gerald Massey in his essay "American Humour" singled out Hawthorne, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, as the major early nineteenth-century American humorists, an observation that may surprise many contemporary readers of Hawthorne's work. (2) In regard to Hawthorne and the second edition of Mosses from an Old Manse (published in London by Routledge in 1856), Massey writes:
America has produced ... genuine and genial humorists in Hawthorne, Mrs. Stowe, Holmes, and Lowell. These have given to American literature a better right of challenging a comparison with other literatures, in the department of humour, than perhaps in any other. The humour of Hawthorne is a singular flower to find on American soil.... He is a humorist for the fastidious few, not for the multitude.... He is a kindly, smiling satirist. But his smile often goes deeper than loud laughter. He is one of the tenderest-hearted men that ever made humour more piquant with the pungency of satire. There is a side of sombre shadow to his nature which sets forth the bright felicities of subtle insight with a more shining richness. His mirth is grave with sweet thoughts; the very poetry of humour is to be found in his pages, with an aroma fine as the sweet-briar's fragrance. (471)
In Massey's laudatory appraisal of Hawthorne's humor, he does not perceive the author's work as mimicking any of the popular comic trends of the time. Instead, Massey sees Hawthorne's comic muse as "genuine and genial" and his comedy understated and employed with a moral purpose in mind. He calls Hawthorne a "kindly, smiling satirist." Yet despite such generous accolades, Massey assuredly declares that of the writers whose comic modes he has examined, James Russell Lowell, not Hawthorne, is the "greatest of all American humorists" (479).
Another English critic Leslie Stephen, who also explored early nineteenth-century American humor in an essay in Cornhill Magazine in 1866, was not as impressed with Hawthorne as Gerald Massey. In Stephen's assessment, although America had developed a distinctly national character, it had not created a national literature to express its transition from the adolescent stage into full-fledged maturity. In fact, Stephen regarded Hawthorne as a writer of the "second rank" (29), and while Hawthorne and Washington Irving "showed some very delicate humour ..., it was scarcely original enough to be distinctly American, in that it resembled 'European models"'(42). Stephen's idea of representative American humor was probably of the hyperbolic and tail-tale variety as seen in the popular backwoods sketches of the Old Southwest. Five years later, an anonymous article, also titled "American Humour," published in The Graphic of London on April 1, 1871, provided yet another nineteenth-century British assessment of Hawthorne's humor. Perceiving him more favorably than Stephen, the reviewer stated that Hawthorne was an
admirable and most original writer ..., the first American writer, with the realism and the subtlest imagination, who boldly painted his own countrymen as he saw them in all those degrees of happiness that lie between laughing and tears ..., there was always a certain reflective pathos in his humour.... [I]n many of Hawthorne's detached stories, the love of allegory, the quietness and shrewdness of the humour, as well as the vivid sense of Satanic agency frequently remind us of the Puritan descent of "the writer, (qtd. in Sydney Morning Herald 28 June 1871)
Though Hawthorne's humor was rarely acknowledged as being of major significance in the nineteenth century, still both some American reviewers and British critics noticed the comic dimension of his art. In fact, in the review from the Graphic seems very much on the mark in characterizing Hawthorne's comedy for its "reflective pathos" and notable for its "quietness and shrewdness," views particularly valid since Hawthorne placed a strong emphasis on the didactic in his fiction.
In the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries, scholars have come to identify Hawthorne's propensity for the comic more readily and with penetrating analyses, employing several diverse critical approaches to interpret the comedic underpinnings in his work. Nearly forty years ago, Hennig Cohen in an essay devoted to the "comic mode" of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, wrote that while Hawthorne and his fellow dark romanticists did "use comic effects to temper their predominantly tragic view, they also appreciated the ridiculous for its own sake. But their attraction to the comic was their sense of man's limitation and a concern for the spiritual, especially poignant in an age of enterprise and materialism" (93). In 1975, examining smiles and laughter in some of Hawthorne's short stories, Mary Allen persuasively argued that they are "without the usual accompaniments of humor, grotesque, bitter, or" benign" (119); instead, she continues, "the smiles and laughter ... do present a vision of the ambiguous nature of reality ... intensifying] the mystery, leaving... readers more baffled and disturbed than before" (119).
Characterizing Hawthorne's comic device of laughter as "anarchic," Brian Way writes: "[The] laughter in his work, far from being genial and benign, is a force that seems to sap the very foundations of things" (20). Moreover, Way sees Hawthorne's brand of laughter as a "source of power ..., releasing] immense disruptive energies in the world of men, and analogous dramatic energies in the world of art" (25). Inge points out that "the comic overshadows the tragic by a ratio of two to one." Many stories in the collection, Inge continues, "while not always comic in their effect, are couched in gentle humor, exaggerated whimsy, or acerbic irony," and in them Hawthorne demonstrates" a "subtle comic sensibility" (5). Despite the tragic and dour fabric of Hawthorne's fiction, Carol M. Bensick claims that his work may be" classified most accurately as tragicomedy, a label, I believe, which most fittingly applies to his comical and semi-comical works. The moments of comic relief in Hawthorne's fiction, Bensick perceives, are accomplished through disruptions, "off-key sentences, phrases, or images ... [that] topple seemingly serious fundamental premise[s]," thereby opening up opportunities for comic responses (49). As we will see later, this strategy is relevant to "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Finally, Michael Dunne" regards Hawthorne's humor as Calvinistic, by which he means his brand of comedy springs from the rigidity of his characters and their common human failings" and "in looking down on the failings of [his] characters" (18).
While Hawthorne's comedy in his short fiction exhibits all of these elements, it is the tragic-comic dimension, where the comical is combined with the serious, that stands out in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." In examining the story's comic aspect, I will apply several different approaches to show how the comedy works. Focusing on some of the disruptive comic elements that Bensick has observed characterize some of Hawthorne's short fiction, Thomas Hobbes' superiority theory of comedy, Bakhtin's paradigm of the carnivalesque,3 and a variation of the familiar comic Yankee stereotype, I hope to demonstrate that Robin Molineux, the central character, is not only an object of pathos and sympathy, as has frequently been noted, but also the vehicle for much of the story's comedy.
Interestingly, Robin Molineux, whom Daniel G. Hoffman aptly calls a "Yankee Bumpkin" (113), is, Hoffman further notes, "the shrewd youth from the backwoods [who] proves to be the Great American Boob, the naif whose odyssey lead him, all uncomprehendingly, into the dark center of experience" (121). Though Hoffman classifies Robin as a "Yankee bumpkin," he does not actually examine the rich possibilities of Hawthorne's modification of the comic Yankee figure he features in "My Kinsman." The comic Yankee stereotype is most frequently embodied in rustic New Englanders who speak in vernacular dialect, who often display literal mindedness and the commonsensical perception of experience, and who sometimes even exhibit shrewdness, that trait Robin repeatedly and ironically boasts he possesses. One of the quintessential early nineteenth-century representations of this type is Seba Smith's Major Jack Downing, an amusing rural character, also notable for his shrewdness and plain-spoken and quaint, philosophical observations. Viewed by Cameron C. Nickels as the "typical American," the "iconic American," the rustic comic Yankee has been part of American culture from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War (7, 8). In further describing the rustic New Englander, Nickels points out that this stereotype
stood emphatically free of influences derived from the city, where it was believed ... values and practices tended to prevail and inhibit, even to corrupt native growth. From those rural origins come the other indigenous, distinguishing features of the Yankee--his homespun dress, manners, and speech.... [A] provincial, the rustic Yankee embodied the American common man who had become the principal element in the experiment in democracy and thus who, more significantly, seemed to give substance to the hope of achieving an indigenous national identity. (8)
While not exemplifying all the traits Nickels associates with the comic rustic Yankee Robin Molineux (he is neither insightful nor intuitive), like Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the Connecticut schoolmaster who receives most of Irving's comic barbs, is an intruder, an outsider, and through most of the story is an object of suspicion and derision in the town as he desperately seeks to find his Uncle Molineux. Also, unlike the familiar country bumpkin in nineteenth-century American literature, Robin draws reader sympathy. Unlike Hawthorne's Robin, however, Ichabod, a genteel Yankee, a practitioner of the arts of singing and dancing, excessively superstitious, and a raconteur of and believer in ghost tales, is always the butt of Irving's mockery. Both Robin and Crane share idealistic perspectives of life (Robin is confident his uncle will provide him with a financial support to help him rise in the world and Crane hopes to marry a rich farmer's daughter and move to the frontier), lack a practical and mature sensibility, and sometimes even make comical fools of themselves. In igniting comedy, both Irving and Hawthorne feature the contrast of cultures theme. Yet more so than "My Kinsman," Irving's story employs an intruder plot for comic-satiric purposes. Irving actually uses his narrator as an accessory to ridicule Ichabod, who aspires to marry a rich Dutch farmer's daughter and to become the beneficiary of her father's wealth. Hawthorne, too, employs an intruder plot combined with the journey motif to structure "My Kinsman," though it lacks the brazen comedy of "Sleepy Hollow." Hawthorne similarly employs his narrator at various junctures in the story to expose and mock Robin's personal weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, simplistic rationalizations, and bad judgments, all of which make Robin the focal point of the comedy. For example, Robin displays over-confidence and vanity in his encounters with the townspeople, often judging their persons and intentions facilely and wrongly. On one occasion, after being treated hostilely by the old man he encounters and asks where his Uncle Molineux's lives, and then being laughed at by the patrons of a nearby barbershop, Robin, who ironically prides himself in his shrewdness, erroneously concludes: the old man "'is some country representative ... who has never seen the inside of my kinsman's door, and lacks the breeding to answer a stranger civilly.'" (4) Still, as I later point out more fully, Hawthorne's narrator seems ambivalent in his attitude toward Robin and the rebellious townspeople, tolerating as well as mocking Robin and favoring as well as condemning the colonist conspirators who intend to undermine the authority of Major Molineux, the British official governing Boston. This contradictory perspective fuels the story's overall ambiguity and complexity.
The serious conflict that underlies and ignites much of the action of "My Kinsman" comes into play in the story's initial paragraph, for it provides the rationale and historical context for the ensuing rebellion in the story, an uprising about which Robin seems entirely uninformed. According to Roger R Wallins, the narrator of "My Kinsman" views Robin with a "balanced viewpoint," to "show both Robin's shortcomings ... and his strengths" (175). Even so, Robin does not fit into the community, remaining essentially bewildered and alienated throughout much of the story. In helping to expose or highlight Robin's provincialism and naivete, the narrator both empathizes with Robin and shows some favoritism toward the rebellious colonists of Boston who subjugate Major Molineux. While such a view of the narrator runs contrary to Hawthorne's own attitude toward violence and anarchy, as advanced by Larry J. Reynolds, (5) I will argue that the narrator, whose view may not unequivocally represent Hawthorne's, possibly helps to mollify the seriousness of the developing conspiracy of the colonial townspeople to depose Major Molineux by concentrating on comically disclosing Robin's inadequacies and inexperience, ultimately revealing that Robin's supposed learning and maturation at the story's end remain tentative and indeterminate. From the story's outset, both the narrator and the Boston colonists seem to know, understand, and accept why the furtive overthrow of British authority represented in Major Molineux is "necessary and justified, and as the first paragraph discloses there are historical precedents for the townspeople's planned but carefully concealed anarchy:
AFTER the kings of Great Britain had assumed the right of appointing the colonial governors, the measure of the latter seldom met with the ready and general approbation, which had been paid to those of their predecessors, under the original charters. The people looked with most jealous scrutiny to the exercise of power, which did not emanate from themselves, and they usually rewarded the rulers with slender gratitude, for the compliances, by which, in softening their instructions from beyond the sea, they had incurred the reprehension of those who gave them. The annals of Massachusetts Bay will inform us, that of six governors, in the space of about forty years from the surrender of the old charter, under James II, two were imprisoned by a popular insurrection; a third ... was driven from the province by the whizzing of a musket ball; a fourth ... was hastened to his grave by continual bickering with the House of "Representatives; and the remaining two, as well as their successors, till the Revolution, were favored with few and brief intervals of peaceful sway. (208-209)
This passage, given Hawthorne's personal aversion to mob violence, may be ironic. But, as Roger Wallins has pointed out, the narrator actually presents a "balanced viewpoint," revealing that "colonial officials ... pleased neither the King who appointed them nor the colonists whom they governed" (175, 174). This establishes a pattern, Wallins has further noted, wherein the narrator presents mixed perceptions of Robin as well as of the townspeople. As Wallins accurately indicates, the narrator is more complex" (173) than some critics have acknowledged. The narrator's attitudes toward and perspectives about Robin may mirror some of those of the so-called "implied reader." According to reader response critic Wolfgang Iser, the "implied reader" is actually a "hypothetical" fabrication,
extrapolated from the reader's role laid down in the text [one that] embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect--predispositions laid down, not by empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader. (28, 34)
Iser goes on to say, it is the implied reader that "makes it possible for the structured effects of literary texts to be described," creating, Iser notes in paraphrasing Eckhard Lobsien, "the meaning toward which the perspectives of the text have guided him" (38). Like the narrator, the implied reader may from his accumulation of perceptions about Robin Molineux feel sympathy for him as well superiority toward him, thereby possibly finding him both a victim of a mean-spirited community and a comical, pompous fool.
Concerning "My Kinsman's" rebellious activity, Hoffman points out that "although dated vaguely around 1730, [the story] is clearly a 'type' of the American Revolution" (118). In addition it foreshadows the rebellious conspiracy against a British colonial leader, of which Robin Molineux becomes aware, but only near the end of the story. In a sense, then, the story's implied contemporary reader, likely a loyal and patriotic American who celebrated the American Revolution and what it represented in the foundation of the United States, has a special advantage that Robin does not: retrospective knowledge of that historical event and its significance. The implied reader's hindsight gives him and advantage and provides some justification for laughing at young Robin, who" presents himself as socially and culturally undesirable, his alliance being with the wrong person and therefore becoming a ready target of comic derision. After all, throughout "My Kinsman," many characters laugh at Robin for various reasons, none especially favorable.
Robin, a credulous young man from the country who sees in his beloved kinsman Major Molineux a person on whom he can comfortably depend to launch and establish an economically promising direction for his adult life, may, like his uncle, be a Loyalist or he may have no awareness of colonial politics. What little we learn about Robin's family, particularly his minister/farmer and conservative father, opens up the possibility that the rural Molineux, too, may be British loyalists, harboring no resentment or dissent against government authority. Or they may share Robin's ignorance of the anarchic schemes being concocted by the Boston populace or by rebels in other parts of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Admittedly, Robin seems pathetic too; he is in the unfortunate position of being his father's second son, and necessarily turns to his Uncle Molineux, who has agreed to help his nephew, knowing Robin will not be the beneficiary of any inheritance that is destined for his older brother. Thus Robin's alienation from his family on whom he cannot depend any longer for preferment begins even before he leaves home.
Yet the comic aspects of Robin's predicament actually start as soon as he crosses the river by ferry to Boston. Hawthorne emphasizes his youth and rural background throughout the story (his youthfulness is referred to fourteen times and his country origins, eight). Such characteristics provide the groundwork for why the implied reader may find Robin amusing and why the reader may contextualize his view of Robin's character in the theoretical domain of the comic superiority theory best explained in philosopher Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). Hobbes writes:
Sudden glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called LAUGHTER; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter at the defects of others is a signe of Pusillanimity. For of great minds, on one of the proper workes is, to help and free others from scorn; and compare themselves onely with the most able. (Web, n.p.)
The conditions for comic superiority theory work best when readers are motivated to laugh at persons socially and morally beneath them and can rationalize such a response as long as no one sustains physical injury. Yet the laugher, at least in "My Kinsman," does not necessarily have to see his amusement at Robin's expense as a "signe of pusillanimity." In laughing at others, readers rather may inflate their egos while correspondingly deflating the characters or institutions at which they laugh. In other words, the laughter results from a sense of superiority, it derives from one comparing himself to someone more foolish, weaker, more flawed, and less savvy. "According to the principle of superiority," Patricia Keith-Spiegal explains, "mockery, ridicule, and laughter at the foolish actions of others are central to the humor experience" (6), and this seems most applicable to Robin Molineux.
Hawthorne's narrator, actually sometimes a biased storyteller, represents an urbane perspective. Part of his function in the story seems, at times, to gently mock Robin's simplicity and consequent behavior; at other times, he derides the townspeople. For example, upon entering the town Robin assumes that Major Molineux is well known and apparently highly respected, which, as the subsequent action shows, is ironic. The townspeople too become targets of the narrator's judgment. When the barbershop patrons laugh at Robin, the narrator describes their laughter critically as an "ill-mannered roar" (211). While the implied reader can and does sympathize with Robin and his inhospitable reception in an alien environment, he perceives Robin's naivete and misperceptions stemming from the young man's countrified background, limited experience, and inappropriate comments, all making him an object of justified ridicule. Hawthorne sustains this pattern throughout much of the story, until he introduces a kind stranger, whose voice dominates in the last segments. In adopting this attitude toward Robin, the narrator seems, in part, tolerant of the rebellious Boston colonists and their malevolence toward Robin. Considering the context of the superiority/disparagement theory of laughter, Willibald Ruch points to Charles R. Gruner, a strong proponent of this theory and the author of Understanding Laughter, who claims that mirth results from a combination of factors: "a loser, a victim of derision or ridicule, with suddenness of loss"--as "necessary and sufficient to cause laughter" (30), all of which apply to Robin Molineux. The superiority theory of laughter emphatically encourages readers to look for amusement at the expense of someone whom they regard as flawed or inferior to themselves, and the narrator of "My Kinsman," at times, seems to embolden this reaction. After all, Robin's inexperience and simple mindedness place him at a disadvantage in his encounters with the sophisticated and calculating adult Boston community. These adult characters, especially the ones Robin confronts in his nocturnal journey through the city, share the bond of being anti-Loyalists unified in a conspiracy to depose and humiliate Major Molineux publicly. Though critics have viewed Robin variously--as an initiate; a simple and naive countrified youth, good hearted person, ironically self-assured, and ambitious; a newcomer in a strange place, partially in the mold of young Ben Franklin; and a "self-made man,"6 Hawthorne's portrayal of Robin as a supercilious fool supports the characters' mistrust and mockery of Robin and teases readers outside the narrative to react similarly. In exposing Robin's naivete and blatant self-assuredness as laughable, Hawthorne forges a connection between the townspeople and the story's readers, creating a common basis for ridicule, its frequent repetitions resulting in Robin becoming the object of their derision.
Julia Wilkins and Amy Eisenbraun, in commenting on what the superiority theory of comedy accomplishes by drawing on the work of earlier scholars, point out that "laughing at faulty behavior can reinforce unity among group members" and "it maintains social order as laughter, rather than aggression, is invoked toward those who refuse to comply with rules and through laughing together at others, it reinforces group unity" (352). Yet the narrator and even the reader may not be so simply categorized as belonging to and being unequivocally in agreement with the conspiring and rebellious in-group of colonists. While the rebels regard Robin as "other," as outsider, as a contemptuous bother that may impede the execution of their secret plans against Major Molineux, and while they make Robin the object of their chastisement, contemptuous comments, and mockery, the narrator, Hawthorne, and perhaps even some readers may situate themselves in between Robin and this in-group, creating ambiguity concerning how readers may be expected to interpret Robin and his uncle's antagonists. Even so, sociologist William H. Martineau offers an apt explanation for how superiority theory works in a situation such as the one Hawthorne depicts in his story. He writes, "Humor esteeming the characteristics of a group or group members [in "My Kinsman" the rebellious colonists] constitutes positive reinforcement of existing behavioral patterns and strengthens the social bond" (116). In other words, the colonial anarchists become empowered and a cohesive group by directing their laughter against Robin, whom they treat as an outcast and regard as ridiculous. Martineau also posits that humor directed against a pariah may "increase morale and solidify the ingroup" or "introduce or foster a hostile disposition toward that [outcast]" (118-19). Such a view may offer a possible explanation for the apparent cohesion of the story's conspirators in the animosity they display toward Robin.
Most of the comedy in "My Kinsman," which leads up to Robin's encounters with selected townspeople and which ensues from their laughter at Robin's facile simplicity, curt, fallacious assumptions, and recurring misapprehension, is malicious, jeering, or mocking, usually triggered by Robin's recurring inquiry concerning where his kinsman, Major Molineux, resides. The story's diverse forms of laughter, none of which necessarily seems entirely amusing in the contexts in which Hawthorne stages them, may be more aptly classified as tragicomic, a compound of the serious and the ludicrous. Hawthorne's word choice in describing the townspeople's risible reactions after their encounters with Robin or in some of the sounds of laughter Robin hears preceding the climactic revelation of Major Molineux's ignominy, seems to discourage an outright comical response from the reader.
Laugher abounds in "My Kinsman," and most of it is at Robin's expense. Robin's first encounter with an elderly stranger near a barbershop elicits an "ill-mannered roar of laughter" (211), and his second encounter at a tavern prompts a "general laugh from the patrons, "in which the innkeeper's voice might be distinguished, like the dropping of small stones into a kettle" (214), an interesting choice of metaphor by the narrator making the innkeeper's laughter distinctively annoying and by association also slightly irritating. Moreover, after Robin's third encounter, this time with a prostitute donning a "scarlet petticoat" (217) and functioning as a deceiver pretending to be Major Molineux's housekeeper, the night watchman confronts Robin, threatening to send him to the stocks. Afterwards, Robin "seemed to hear the sound of drowsy laughter" (218), presumably that of the watchman who may possibly regard Major Molineux's kinsman as a potential adversary and possible spoiler of the people's design to subdue and humiliate Major Molineux, an incident assuredly not funny except perhaps from the perspective of the rebels who eventually degrade Robin's kinsman. Robin's fourth encounter is with a man having a two-colored "physiognomy," and having a "broad-hooked nose," and "shaggy eyebrows" (220). Based on the man's hideous appearance, so ghastly it seems intimidatingly grotesque, even diabolical, Robin hastily intuits that this individual with "parti-colored features," who "grinned in [his] face," is veritably the devil (220). Robin's simplistic explanation is not founded on credible or even circumstantial evidence, but rather may only be a distortion influenced by his traditional Christian upbringing. Robin's perception even seems sensationalized and hackneyed. Given Robin's frustrated and overly sensitized state of mind, it is not surprising how easily he perhaps misconstrues this character and is duped by this man's repugnant features, which, in his limited worldview, he naturally associates as representative of the devil. The man's "parti-colored features" are merely part of a staged masquerade and duplicity that the colonial anarchists orchestrate in carrying out their plot against Major Molineux, where, in the climactic scene, the crowd in their "counterfeited pomp" and "in frenzied merriment" is described as "trampling all on an old man's heart" (230). Though the act itself is not funny, Robin's facile deduction in equating this man with the devil offers light comic relief. Moreover, Robin's credibility is also challenged and mocked by the narrator mentioning Robin's propensity toward superstition after he has escaped the prostitute and has been reprimanded by a night watchman, both of whom laugh at him. In describing Robin's state of mind the narrator remarks, Robin was "almost ready to believe that a spell was on him, like that, by which a wizard of his country, had once kept three pursuers wandering, a whole winter night, within twenty paces of the cottage which they sought" (219). Again, the sophisticated implied reader may find cause for comic superiority in the narrator's belittling revelation, a disclosure that suggests Robin's predilection for the superordinary.
Certainly most people do not enjoy being objects of derision, especially when they do not comprehend why such laughter is being directed at them. This is what happens in scapegoating, a form of which seems applicable to the way the townspeople mistreat Robin throughout most of the story. Robin becomes a scapegoat simply because he does not know. Neither the story's adult characters, who direct most of their malicious laughter at Robin, nor the story's implied reader, would want to experience Robin's unfriendly reception and would likely be more cautious than he in drawing such abrupt and unsubstantiated conclusions. A simpleton, one the colonist characters and the reader can disparage, Robin, though his speech is dignified and sometimes eloquent, is portrayed throughout much of "My Kinsman" as a flawed perceiver. As such, he becomes a recurring object of ridicule because of what he says and how he reacts. The rebellious colonists, the narrator, and the implied reader all share the same justification for laughter: they can regard Robin as an outsider, a naif and fool, and the former, particularly, is consciously suspicious of his presence. For example, after being treated rudely by an old man whom he has accosted and angered and asked if he could direct him to Major Molineux, Robin dismisses the man's hostility toward him, saying to himself, "'This is some country representative ... who has never seen the inside of my kinsman's door, and lacks the breeding to answer a stranger civilly'" (211). Actually, Robin's supercilious denunciation is not only comically ironic (Robin is rebuking himself without realizing it) but also an instance where Hawthorne abruptly shifts from a serious situation of Robin's frustration to an amusing moment exposing Robin's condemning the old man on an unfounded and inaccurate assumption. This comic irony undermines trusting Robin as a credible judge, as he himself is actually the "country representative" whose inexperience he bitterly mocks. In this same scene, Robin further belittles himself through stern self-reproach, saying, "Ah, Robin, Robin! Even the barber's boys laugh at you, for choosing such a guide! [the old man]. You will be wiser in time, friend Robin'" (211). Such self-admonishment is intrusive and results in Robin's half-comical self-admission of bad decision making.
Hawthorne emphasizes Robin's bumpkin manner many times in "My Kinsman." One way he accomplishes this is by showcasing Robin's facile self-confidence, gratuitous vanity, and repeated failure to exercise common sense. A clear instance occurs at the beginning of the story when Robin fails to inquire of the ferryman who brings him across the river how to find his Uncle Molineux's residence. Once on shore and in town, Robin retrospectively admits to himself, "'it would have been wise to inquire my way of the ferryman, and doubtless he would have gone with me, and earned a shilling from the Major for his pains'" (210). After all, it is late and Robin's journey from the country to Boston has been a long one. Moreover, he seems to underpay the ferryman, drawing "from his pocket the half of a little province-bill of five shillings, which in the depreciation of that sort of currency did but satisfy the ferryman's demand" (209). Again, Hawthorne accentuates Robin's inexperience, highlighting the young man's faulty decision making, and in so doing slightly rebukes his lack of foresight. While Robin's self-admission in this scene may not be hilarious, still the implied reader may find in Robin's acknowledgment of wrong priorities some amusement since the focus of the gentle mockery here is Robin Molineux, not Hawthorne's reader. On another occasion when Robin enters a tavern, he misconstrues the innkeeper's congenial welcome and sales pitch in promoting the town. As a result, he seems to have found in the innkeeper the first townsperson who seems genuinely amicable. Addressing Robin "with a profound bow," the innkeeper enthusiastically states: "Beg to congratulate you on your arrival, and trust you intend a long stay with us. Fine town here, Sir, beautiful buildings, and much that may interest a stranger" (213). Though Robin views himself on eight separate occasions as "shrewd," in this instance, as in many others, what he thinks to be true and what he demonstrates in his behavior and speech are contradictory and comically ironic. In attempting to account for the innkeeper's hospitality toward him, Robin errs, boldly but erroneously speculating, "The man sees a family likeness! the rogue has guessed that I am related to the Major! ..." (213). From the implied reader's point of view, Robin's assumption seems shallow and unsubstantiated; his words become a comic disruption in an otherwise serious moment, or, as Carol Bensick puts it, in her study of Hawthorne's use of tragicomedy, they subvert the story's "seemingly serious fundamental premise" (49). Also, Robin's simple rationalization about the innkeeper's cordial treatment is yet another indication of his faulty tendency to draw hasty and unwarranted conclusions based exclusively on simple suppositions and inane inferences, not provable truth. In the same scene when Robin asks directions to his kinsman's house, he misreads the tavern patrons' intentions: "There was a sudden and general movement in the room," which Robin interprets as "the eagerness of each individual to become his guide" (214). The reader, however, is aware of the irony, having knowledge of the story's historical context and realizing what Robin does not: he is in an unfriendly place, where the mere mention of his kinsman's name will readily prompt a hostile response. Again, superiority theory applies: the reader having information that Robin does not have can readily perceive the young man's fallibility, his penchant for jumping to wrong conclusions, which Hawthorne's narrator makes an object of recurring ridicule. In fact, Robin's claims of cleverness come to fruition only once in the course of the story, that being when the woman in the "scarlet petticoat" tries to seduce him. Such lapses in perception and judgment afford both the narrator and the implied reader to be amused and to feel superior to Robin.
While such miscues may, on the one hand, evoke sympathetic understanding for Robin, on the other, the implied reader, especially, may view Robin as a naif whose words and actions are ridiculous. Robin's defective self-confidence, inexperience, immaturity, faulty perception, and vanity allow the reader to perceive him as somewhat obtuse. He not only lacks experience, patience, and common sense in dealing with some of the situations that arise in his encounters with the townspeople but also displays impetuosity, the latter manifested in Robin's propensity toward violence or some other excessive and imprudent action. Hawthorne demonstrates and mocks this flaw in Robin's character on several occasions. To illustrate, when Robin stops and inquires of the old citizen where Major Molineux dwells, the man becomes angered and annoyed and claims to have "authority," even threatening to have Robin put in the stocks. Offended and angered by the citizen's gruff and antagonistic manner, Robin rashly considers "turn[ing] back ... [to] smite him [the old man] on the nose" (211), clearly a brash notion. In the tavern scene that follows when the innkeeper points to and reads from a poster announcing a missing bonded servant who has apparently run away, he equates Robin to an individual of this disreputable class and threatens him with incarceration, Robin, we are told, "had begun to draw his hand towards the lighter end of his cudgel," motivated to "break ... the innkeeper's head." However, he does not act on this foolish whim because he observes a "strange hostility in every countenance" (214). Then upon leaving the tavern when Robin
becomes the object of "general laughter," his thoughts turn to violence again. Feeling insulted and his dignity crushed, Robin contemplates: "'Oh, if I had one of these grinning rascals in the woods, where I and my oak sapling grew up together, I would teach him that my arm is heavy, though my purse be light!'" (215). Here the narrator may be mocking a notion associated with the backwoods' bravado, a trait commonly found and dramatized in antebellum southern frontier humor, the threat and/or act of brute violence as proof of one's manhood.
This impulse toward violence and strength as a test of masculinity in "My Kinsman" is further ridiculed in the next scene when Robin unknowingly encounters a prostitute, who almost successfully seduces him by pretending to be Major Molineux's maid. Though her "touch was light" and she is "slender waisted," the narrator says, she "proved stronger than the athletic country youth ... [and] had drawn his half-willing footsteps nearly to the threshold" (218). If one tries to visualize this scene, the gender reversal (the slight woman being stronger than the "athletic country youth"), Hawthorne not only overturns the gendered notion of superior male strength but also creates the ingredients for a potential visual farcical moment, though he does not bring it to fruition: "[T]he opening of a door in the neighborhood," the narrator continues, terminates Robin's physical domination by a woman, and "she vanishe[s] speedily into her own domicile" (218), though she makes one final attempt to coax him to enter her dwelling. The narrator, who seems too self-righteous to be taken seriously, does not lose the opportunity to slyly make fun of Robin again, debunking his prudishness and staunch morality. His abrupt intrusion at the end of the scene brings it back to a serious level, in his offering a didactic defense of Robin's religious upbringing: "But Robin being of the household of a New England clergyman, was a good youth, as well as a shrewd one, so he resisted temptation, and fled away" (219). Still, Hawthorne's narrative intrusion brings a potentially bad situation to a fortunate outcome, which frequently characterizes the resolution in the comic paradigm.
In the story's final sections leading up to the disgraced Major Molineux's appearance in "tar-and-feathery dignity" (228) and the recognition scene causing Robin's disillusionment and "mental inebriety" (229), one may find little justification for any kind of comic response. While these major events are not amusing and the narrative takes on an almost eerie, surreal quality, they may be interpreted in a serio-comical context. "My Kinsman," as T. Walter Herbert, accurately observes, involves the "collision between aristocratic and democratic orders" (25), it seems quite appropriate to interpret the latter parts of Hawthorne's narrative in the context of Mikhail Bakhtin's carnivalesque, which Bakhtin defines as "life drawn out of its usual rut; it is to some extent 'life turned inside out'" (Problems 122). In contrast, the noncarnival is the "laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of the ordinary" (Bakhtin, Problems 122). Creating an atmosphere of outright rebelliousness in the actions of the city's citizens who overthrow British tyranny represented in Major Molineux, Hawthorne seems to be replicating in "My Kinsman" a carnival world that, as Bakhtin puts it in Rabelais and His World, offers "temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it mark[s] the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions" (10). Though Hawthorne did not inequitably advocate using violence to effect "abrupt change" (Reynolds 14), and though he does not portray the mob's violence toward and humiliation of Major Molineux favorably, their actions are a triumph over the existing authoritarian rule and hierarchical social order, a harbinger of democratization that would be achieved during the American Revolution.
While at first glance, the power shift or social inversion, what represents a destabilization of class hierarchy that occurs in "My Kinsman" creates a tragic-comic impression. In accomplishing this, Hawthorne minimizes the sometime mocking voice of the narrator, whose influence was readily apparent in the first half of the story and whose function seems to have been in part to create, reinforce, and sustain the impression of Robin as a fool. Though the narrator is technically still present, the dominant voice of this part of the story in dialogue exchanges is an, elderly, "smiling" consistently kind stranger, who serves as Robin's "surrogate father" and "patriarchal quasi-mentor" (Way 28). A worldly wise and patient man aware of the conspiracy to overturn Major Molineux, the amicable stranger waits at the church with the lonely and distraught Robin and cordially directs and sympathizes with him rather than treating him with castigation and contempt. Moreover, he actually dictates Robin's actions during the waiting period leading up to public victimization of Major Molineux. When Robin remarks he would like to join in the "merrymaking" that he assumes is taking place nearby, because, as he tells his new mentor, "I have laughed very little since I left home" (226), the stranger urges him "to [s]it down again," reminding him they need to wait at the church to watch Major Molineux pass.
It is the Bakhtinian carnivalesque that may provide an apt context for the revelry and anarchy of the crowd, and while hardly hilarious, their deceptive scheme to dethrone Major Molineux proves successful; while at the same time Hawthorne tries to elicit sympathetic pathos for him. Yet the implied reader, already familiar with the tyranny existing in the American colonies under British rule and harboring dislike of British rule there, may find some delight and amusement in Molineux's overthrow. Still, Hawthorne's choice of words in describing the sounds and sights of the vindictive mob is hardly flattering. When the noisy revelers come nearer to Robin, he realizes that they are led by the same frightful man of "variegated countenance" he had previously encountered. His charges dressed in masquerade attire (part of the cover up in their cabal) consist of "wild figures in the Indian dress, and many fantastic shapes without a model, giving the whole march a visionary air" (227-28). In the midst of this clamor and laughter, Robin, at last, sees clearly that which has been concealed from him since his initial arrival in the town--the Bakhtinian dethroning of his supposedly respected uncle: "Right before Robin's eyes was an uncovered cart. There the torches blazed the brightest, there the moon shone out like day, and there, in tar and featherly dignity, sat his kinsman, Major Molineux" (228). Feeling mixed emotions, Robin reacts unexpectedly in a darkly humorous manner, his laughter, perhaps imbued with guilt, providing seeming comic relief to cope with the unpleasantness of the revelation. LeonaToker accurately perceives in this revelatory and climactic moment that Robin "becomes the center of the crowd's attention: the roles of the participants and the spectator are now interchanged," and he "surrenders to the inarticulate psychological pressure of the crowd and joins the crowd's contagious brutal laughter at the dethroned ruler" (27). According to Toker, the consequence of Robin's succumbing to the "bewildering excitement" of the moment, "affected ... with a sort of mental inebriety" and culminating in his own "shout of laughter that echoed through the street," Robin's "shout" being "the loudest there" (229-30), is an "irreversible surrender of the separateness of his self, and an initiation into the guilt of the baiting crowd" that results in his "change of allegiance" (27). Brian Way sees Hawthorne's laughter as exhibiting an "anarchic power," resulting in Robin losing his grip on reality and in capitulating to mob pressure: "[t]he tumult of the mob implies the annihilation of all rationality and order" (23). Admittedly, neither interpretation offers any definitive explanation for any possible comedy emerging in the midst of disappointment and disillusionment.
Nor does Toker or Way perceive that while Robin Molineux has learned the shocking truth of how the colonial community regards Major Molineux as a leader, Robin fails to act on this newly acquired knowledge. Still confused, still insecure, and therefore ineffectual and noncommittal, Robin vacillates, is unprepared to act on the words of the kind stranger at the story's end: '"you may rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux'" (231). Though Robin now sees the kind stranger and the colonial anarchists as his friends, his words seem insincere and ironic, for there is no indication he will ally himself with them and remain in the town. Such indeterminacy on Robin's part suggests that he may have deceived the townspeople and that his wavering conveys the impression he may still be somewhat immature shocked by the new and horrifying discovery of what his uncle is. Moreover, Robin, as Hawthorne makes clear, cannot (possibly will not in the foreseeable future) commit himself independently and responsibly based on what the townspeople have shown him about his kinsman. Robin's loud laugh at his uncle's humiliation (a laugh heard above all others), is not an act of the young man's "change of allegiance" or the triumph of anarchy over order, but rather it seems his resorting to a safe, opportune course. In short, Robin's laughter seems deceitful and expediently performative, a reaction of self-preservation in the face of unruly anarchists that represent a real and immediate threat to his personal security should he respond negatively to their actions and sympathetically to his kinsman's public ignominy. The only amusement here may be for Robin who has duped the townspeople into thinking his allegiance is with them, not with his kinsman.
In this respect, Robin's laughter is counterfeit, an expression of false complicity; it may even be interpreted as contemptible and misleading. Robin has become a time-server, doing what he has to do to protect himself from further scorn and possible rejection. By relinquishing his role as the principal mocking voice calling attention to Robins inadequacies, thereby diminishing his key function of ridiculing Robin and turning over major responsibility for Robin to the kind mentor figure, the narrator creates ambivalence and ambiguity concerning how Robin should be regarded in the final analysis. In refraining from providing a definite resolution in "My Kinsman," the narrator subtly shows that Robin is, in many ways, still a simple and confused rustic, still a "country youth" unprepared to transcend unequivocally his innocence and to live in a world of real, revolutionary political change. In creating "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" as an open-ended tale, Hawthorne" concludes on an ironically, serio-humorous note, showing that Robin has not become what he should now be, that his change in his perception of Major Molineux and the expected outcome of attaining mature judgment, individuality, and independence are tenuous. In sum, Robin, still the country youth," represents a character about which readers can comfortably feel superior, one whose self-preservation provides the provocation to regard him ultimately as a fool and an accommodationist as well as to view the indeterminate outcome of his experience as a parody of initiation. If Robin learns anything, he learns the power of deception and survival. As the kind stranger informs Robin shortly after meeting the youth, 'May not one man have several voices... as well as two complexions?' (226).
High Point University (Emeritus)
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(1) Recently, Leland Person has examined some of the tragic aspects of this story; perceptively noting it "brings into play attitudes toward the most significant ethnic groups in nineteenth-century New England [African Americans and Irish] and raises interesting questions about race and class conflict.... Hawthorne is working with tensions [between Irish and free African Americans] in exploring representations of blacks and Irish in the popular imagination" (11).
(2) I would like to thank Dr. Tracy Wuster for bringing to my attention the essays on American humor by British critics.
(3) Recently, several critics have explored the Bakhtinian carnivalesque as a context for" explaining the humor in several of Hawthorne's tales. Toker examines the carnivalesque events in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and subsequently in "The Maypole of Merry Mount and in Young Goodman Brown' (27-28). For another perspective of the carnivalesque in Young Goodman Brown, see Jamil 143-145. For more extensive" treatment of the carnivalesque in Hawthorne, particularly in works featuring "public" processions," see Fretz."
(4) "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" 211. Subsequent quotations from the story are from Volume XI of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Snow Image and Uncollected Tales, and page numbers will be inserted parenthetically" in the text.
(5) Reynolds writes, "Hawthorne possessed a constitutional aversion to abrupt change, in whatever form it came--personal, social, political. Although he appreciated the vitality evident in mass transformative action, it also evoked anxiety and resistance, especially when it involved crowds and mobs.... [His] sympathies flowed toward those victimized by political violence, rather than those who emerged victorious from it. For him, unlike many of his countrymen then and now, favorable political ends failed to justify violent political means. [Hawthorne came to forge] the strong pacifism that served as the foundation of his political thought" (14, 19).
(6) Several critics have drawn comparisons between Robin and Benjamin Franklin," who, in his Autobiography, exemplifies many of the traits commonly associated with" the comic Yankee. Julian Smith persuasively argues that both Franklin's Autobiography and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" treat "the necessity of change, of moving from one's father's home, of advancing in the world on one's own merits and shrewdness" (550-51). Moreover, Smith continues, "both young Franklin and Robin pass through a nightmare before they learn this" (551). A. B. England, who focuses more on the differences between these two works, argues that Hawthorne's intent in "My Kinsman" "was implicitly to criticize the vision of reality embodied in Franklin's Autobiography. (181). Robin's "Franklin-like behaviour," does not work for him in accomplishing the goal for which he came to the city: to find Major Molineux (184), and Hawthorne" shows that Robin "must learn "better" than "Franklin's version of reality" (188). Herbert, who sees Robin as completing his coming of age experience, observes that" Robin "transition[s] from deferential dependency and boyishness to self-sufficient manhood" and the "scene in which Robin confronts his ruined kinsman is managed by Hawthorne as an initiation into the emotional realities of self-made manhood. (23).
(7) As Bakhtin observes in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics: "The primary carnivalistic act is the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king. Under the ritual act of decrowning a king lies the very core of the carnival sense of the world--the pathos of shifts and changes, of death and renewal' (124) Bakhtin further points out: "[T]he ritual of decrowning has been the ritual most often transposed into literature" (125).
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|Title Annotation:||Nathaniel Hawthorne|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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