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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown”

As humankind was developing and progressing in its cognition of the world and self, the views of human essence varied depending on the time and place: some saw man as a tabula rasa, acquiring all the characteristics in course of life; others insisted on the inborn virtuousness of man, which was later spoilt by influences from the environment. In Puritan America, the idea of evil and sin inherent in humanity prevailed among the public and thus were by no chance widely reflected and developed in the literature of the period. One of the bright representatives of the literary trend of the time is Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose short stories “My Kinsman Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown” concentrate the writer’s ideas on evil as the true nature of humanity, and this message is delivered to the reader, inter alia, by means of such literary elements as setting, symbolism, irony, and foreshadowing.

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Hawthorne designs the setting of “Young Goodman Brown” in the village of Salem at the time when witch trials were held. On the one hand, such a choice of setting reflects his personal family history, as his great-great-grandfather, John Hawthorne served as an executive characterized by especial cruelty and absence of remorse. On the other hand, by setting the action at Salem Hawthorne produces a foreshadowing of the forthcoming Sabbath of witches. Likewise, is the witches’ Sabbath foreshadowed in Goodman Brown’s reference to the village minister: “his voice would make me tremble both Sabbath day and lecture day” (Hawthorne 1291).

The action takes place at night, and as time goes Brown moves onwards through a dense forest that none of his ancestors has ever been to. The intricate passages inside the forest can be viewed as a symbol of thorny paths of evil, and then Brown’s walk through them represents the wanderings of a wayward man who has drifted apart from the moral standards accepted by the general society.

The setting of the second story resembles that of the first in such features as the unfamiliarity of the place to the main character and the action taking place during nighttime. “My Kinsman Major Molineux” is set in a politically charged atmosphere of a city that closely resembles Boston (Jones 42). Unlike the forest in “Young Goodman Brown” that grows darker and gloomier with every step forward, “the little metropolis of a New England colony” strikes the inexperienced visitor, whose eyes have never seen more than a farm and its surroundings, with the variety of districts going from poor dilapidated huts to impressive mansions of the upper class (Hawthorne 1277). The place is called to symbolize a reflection of the British Empire’s magnificence that despite its entire splendor proved ungracious and hostile to the uncouth newcomer.

There is yet another common feature in the settings of both short stories, and it is the symbolic place of worship to which all the community gathers. Both the final destination of Goodman Brown’s walk through the forest and Robin’s observations from the church step are described as half-reality, half-vision, united by the common view of pines forming a symbolic colonnade enlightening the scene:

“The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths above the impious assembly.” (Hawthorne 1296)

“… the pillars of the balcony lengthened into the tall, bare stems of pines, dwindled down to human figures, settled again into their true shape and size, and then commenced a new succession of changes.” (Hawthorne 1285)

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The main characters of both stories, two simple young men, Goodman Brown and good youth Robin, set off each for their trip pursuing an errand: Goodman Brown’s one is characterized as “evil purpose”, which though never stated can still be viewed as one that would allow for a calm and virtuous life once completed (Hawthorne 1276); and villager Robin is in search for his prosperous and influential relative, Major Molineux, who would presumably help the youth with his future career. Both young men are characterized by the simplicity of nature and this feature is emphasized by the symbolism of their names. Robin’s low-class background is further explicated in his deliberately described clothes that do not leave any doubts as to his origin.

A set of recurrent symbolic images appear throughout the short stories, forming a kind of leitmotif system and arousing flashbacks that knit the narration tight. In “Young Goodman Brown” one of such leitmotifs is the figure of wife, Faith in her attire of pink ribbons. As it is already apparent from her name, she represents the religious values of the time. Brown refers to her throughout the whole journey, and those references signify the key points of development of the story and the turning points in Brown’s attitude to the situation. In the beginning, the Goodman realizes the wrong he is doing by leaving his Faith, but he is full of intention to come back as soon as the errand is over, “cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven” (Hawthorne 1289). Encountering the mysterious companion in the forest, Brown excuses his being late by the fact that “Faith kept [him] back”, emphasizing the moral restraint he has been experiencing (Hawthorne 1290). As Brown proceeds on his way through the forest and is frightened by wild visions of witchcraft and satanic symbolism (serpents, broomsticks, and levitation), he still holds on to his original beliefs, “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” but as soon as a pink ribbon falls into Brown’s hands he realizes that his Faith has been taken away by the devilish powers and ascertains that the world belongs to the evil: “My Faith is gone!… There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name. Come, the devil; for to thee is this world given” (Hawthorne 1294). However desperate Goodman Brown becomes, yet he still preserves his good core and in the most dramatic moment of the Sabbath utters a cry calling his Faith to be strong: “Faith! Faith!… look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one!” (Hawthorne 1297). The whole drama of the situation is that Brown does not actually know, whether Faith obeyed or not; he lives the rest of his life in doubt, questioning the goodness or the sinfulness of his wife and fellow villagers (Levin 121). But taken as such, the short story narrates the tale of transition from firm belief to utter suspicion that makes the character restless.

A story of disillusionment, but in a different way, is discovered in “My Kinsman Major Molineux”: Robin comes to the big city in search of his influential uncle with the purpose of using him as a springboard for achieving success in society. The city community, represented by such personages as the hemming old man, the barbers, the visitors at the tavern, the gallant public strolling a gorgeous street, resents and rejects him as a representative of a lower class. The symbolic character of Major Molineux embodies the imperial grandeur and splendor; a member of the social elite, he is believed by Robin to possess all the possible privileges. In fact, to Robin Molineux represents and equals the empire itself, with all the honors titular — that is why, when wandering through a bad neighborhood, Robin exclaims, “This low hovel cannot be my kinsman’s dwelling” (Hawthorne 1277). Major’s supposed charitable act to the young man establishes him as a gracious benefactor, which in its turn allows drawing a parallel between Molineux and the British Empire: both establishing a master-servant relationship, the first — to his poor village relative, the second — to its colony. The more resounding is the overthrow the Major experiences when he is grotesquely dragged along the streets all in “tar-and-feathery dignity” (a dramatic irony indeed) — an event foreshadowed firstly in the very beginning of the story, as already disembarking from the ferry Robin can smell tar; and secondly, in the utterance of his companion on the church stairs, “there does appear to be three or four riotous fellows abroad to-night” (Hawthorne 1286). Indeed, the riot appears in view and is led by the same two-colored man that first attracted Robin’s attention in the tavern — another grotesque figure that actually embodies the tragedy of the situation: the riot against the Empire is led by no one else but a sword-bearing soldier in military attain, and the fall of one dictator brings no liberation but mockery and insanity to the wildly dancing crowd.

In both stories, there is a series of another foreshadowing worth mentioning: Brown’s wife expresses her foreboding of evil already when he is parting; the guests to the Sabbath gathering discuss the expected acceptance of a young couple to the evil community; the eventual fall of Major Molineux as the representative of the Empire has envisaged already in the introduction to the story by mentioning the negative attitude of the population to colonial governors; ibidem does Hawthorne outline the miserable existence of the British supporters and their declining authority before the revolutionary war. The writer’s irony is directed in this case at the formerly prosperous exploiters on the one hand, and at the simplistic people of the countryside who are easily persuaded into riots that lead to no improvement. In the other story Hawthorne ironically treats Brown’s naïve faith in the goodness of his fellow villagers who turned out to be double-faced, hypocritical, and more sinful than he could have imagined.

Both short stories in their symbolism represent a narration of personal character evolution: in Brown’s destructive case it was an evolution from faith to doubt of human goodness; Robin represents a more constructive personage who went from faith in the power of authority through doubt and rejection of it to faith in his own capacities.

References

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “My Kinsman Major Molineux.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1276–1288.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1289–1297.

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Jones, Bartlett C. “The Ambiguity of Shrewdness in ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’”. Midcontinent American Studies Journal 3 (1962): 42–47. Web.

Levin, David. “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” On Hawthorne: The Best from American Literature (1990): 114–122.

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StudyCorgi. "Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown”." November 21, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/nathaniel-hawthornes-my-kinsman-major-molineux-and-young-goodman-brown/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown”." November 21, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/nathaniel-hawthornes-my-kinsman-major-molineux-and-young-goodman-brown/.

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