Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
Kinsman, Major Molineux" is a short story set in colonial America. Its
genre is romanticism with Gothic overtones. Gray & Bowen published
the story in 1832 in The Token, a Boston literary annual bound as
a book for Christmas gift-giving. The story later appeared in The Snow-Image,
and Other Twice-Told Tales, a collection published in Boston in 1852
by Ticknor, Reed & Fields.
and Historical Background
action takes place on a moonlit evening in Boston, circa 1730, when the
city was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At that time, anti-British
sentiment was prevalent in the colony. The ill will began to take root
in 1686, when Britain appointed the first governor of the colony, Sir Edmund
Andros. Prior to that time (between 1630 and 1686), the colonists had ruled
themselves with little British interference. After 1686, resentment of
British rule manifested itself in hostility against anyone who represented
or supported British rule. In Hawthorne's story, Major Molineux is such
wrote the following introduction to the story to provide historical background
that helps explain the hostility toward Molineux:
the kings of Great Britain had assumed the right of appointing the colonial
governors, the measures of the latter seldom met with the ready and generous
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
their 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, as Hutchinson*
inclines to believe, was driven from the province by the whizzing of a
musket-ball; a fourth, in the opinion of the same historian, was hastened
to his grave by continual bickerings 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. The inferior
members of the court party, in times of high political excitement, led
scarcely a more desirable life. These remarks may serve as a preface to
the following adventures, which chanced upon a summer night, not far from
a hundred years ago. The reader, in order to avoid a long and dry detail
of colonial affairs, is requested to dispense with an account of the train
of circumstances that had caused much temporary inflammation of the popular
*Hutchinson: Thomas Hutchinson
(1711-1780), the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He wrote
a history of the colony.
Robin: Country lad
of nearly eighteen who travels to Boston to find his relative, Major Molineux,
a wealthy city resident who had promised to use his money and influence
to help the youth make an auspicious start in the world. When Robin arrives
just before 9 o'clock, he is unaware that the Bostonians plan to tar and
feather Molineux because of an offense he committed in connection with
his loyalty to Britain. Many citizens rebuff and laugh at Robin when he
asks them for directions to the home of "my kinsman, Major Molineux."
Major Molineux: Robin's
would-be benefactor, whom townsmen tar and feather.
Elderly Man With a Cane:
Pedestrian Robin meets upon his arrival in Boston. When Robin asks him
where he can find Major Molineux, the old man says he does not know the
major, angrily upbraids the youth for interrupting his walk, and threatens
to have him placed in stocks.
who witness Robin's encounter with the elderly man. As Robin walks off,
the barbers laugh at him.
Tavern Patrons: These
include seamen, craftsmen, countrymen, and a sinister-looking man with
a prominent forehead, bushy eyebrows, and fiery eyes. This man, who appears
later in the story with a face painted red on one side and black on the
other, is among the ringleaders planning the tarring and feathering.
Bartender and innkeeper at the tavern. He is a small man who greets Robin
politely. After Robin mentions that he is looking for Major Molineux, the
innkeeper becomes hostile and Robin leaves. The laughter of the tavern
patrons trails after him.
Woman in Scarlet Petticoat:
Young woman who attempts to seduce Robin.
Watchman With Lantern:
He encounters Robin on the street and orders him to go home.
Groups in Strange Attire:
Two groups of people Robin encounters separately. They address him in a
strange language. When he does not respond, they curse him.
Gentleman: Man who
treats Robin kindly and waits with him on a street corner while townspeople
haul Major Molineux, tarred and feathered, through the streets in a cart.
Robin's Family: They
include Robin's father, a clergyman and farmer; his mother; and a brother,
sister, and small child. They play no active role in the story.
who takes Robin across the river to Boston.
Michael J. Cummings...©
the hour approaches 9 p.m., a country lad of nearly eighteen arrives at
Boston on a ferryboat and heads into town looking for the dwelling of his
kinsman, Major Molineux. The youth, called Robin, is wearing a gray coat,
leather breeches, and a tricorn hat. He carries an oak cudgel, and a sack
hangs from a shoulder. Nature has endowed him with handsome features. Spying
an old man attired in a periwig, a dark coat, and silk stockings who has
been tapping along with a polished cane, Robin tugs at his coat, bids him
good evening, and asks where he might find Molineux.
or Not to Laugh
go my garment, fellow" (paragraph 6), the old man commands.
then upbraids the youth for his forwardness and threatens to have him clapped
in stocks. Robin lets go and hurries off, followed by laughter from men
at a nearby barbershop who had witnessed the encounter.
enters the center of town, where shops are closed and the streets are empty.
By and by, he happens upon an inn from which lively conversation emanates
through an open window. He goes in to ask directions to Molineux's house.
Most of the patrons are seamen seated on benches and chairs drinking punch.
Others are craftsmen. In a quiet corner, country folk are eating bread
and bacon. Near the door is a man with a prominent forehead, large nose,
shaggy eyebrows, and fiery eyes. The innkeeper comes over and welcomes
Robin, expressing the hope that he will take lodging at the inn. The eyes
of the patrons then fix on the youth, who says he cannot stay because he
has only a three-pence note in his pocket. He wishes only to learn the
way to the house of his kinsman, Major Molineux. The innkeeper then turns
and reads from a paper on the wall that describes an escaped indentured
servant and offers a reward for his capture. When the innkeeper claims
that the escapee's description fits Robin's, the youth gets ready to wield
his club. But he refrains from doing so when he notices the hostility in
the eyes of the patrons. The man with the prominent forehead is sneering.
When Robin leaves, laughter again follows him.
turning into “a street of mean appearance" (paragraph 24) that runs down
to the harbor, he sees a woman's scarlet petticoat through the crack of
a door left ajar at one of the houses, a small dwelling of two stories.
Without seeing her face, Robin calls out to her: “My sweet pretty mistress,
will you be kind enough to tell me whereabouts I must seek the dwelling
of my kinsman, Major Molineux?" (paragraph 27).
polite manner and good looks attract her outside. She is a pretty little
thing with eyes reflecting “a sly freedom" (paragraph 28), the narrator
says. When she tells Robin that Molineux lives within, he doubts that the
major would live on a street of such common appearance and in so small
a house. Consequently, he asks only that the major be called to the door
so that he can give him a message from the country. But the young lady
tells him the major is already in bed, having drunk a strong brew before
retiring. However, saying it would be inhospitable of her to turn
away a kinsman of the major, she invites him in. Taking him by the hand,
she draws him toward the threshold. But when a door at a nearby house opens,
she lets go and hurries inside. A man carrying a lantern and a staff emerges
from the other house and walks up the street. When he comes upon Robin,
he says, “Home, vagabond, home!" (paragraph 34).
takes an immediate dislike to the watchman. But after the man passes, the
youth calls out to him: “will you guide me to the house of my kinsman,
Major Molineux?" The watchman pays no attention and turns into another
street. Robin then hears laughter coming from above. When he looks up,
he sees “the sparkle of a saucy eye" (paragraph 38), the narrator says,
and the beckoning arm the young lady in the scarlet petticoat. But Robin
ignores the temptation and moves on.
wanders here, then there. Most of the houses are dark. On two occasions,
he encounters small groups of people in bizarre attire. In both instances,
they address him in a strange language. When he fails to respond, they
curse him in English and continue on their way.
a church on a street corner, Robin blocks the way of a cloaked man coming
toward him and asks where he may find the dwelling of Molineux. The man
says he will knock Robin down if he does not step aside. Brandishing his
club, Robin repeats his question. Stepping into the moonlight, the man
reveals his face—that of the inn patron with the prominent forehead and
fiery eyes. He says, “Watch here an hour, and Major Molineux will pass
by" (paragraph 44).
is astonished to see that one side of the man's face is now deep red and
the other side black. “The effect was as if two individual devils, a fiend
of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal
visage" (paragraph 45), the narrator observes.
the man moves on, Robin sits on the church steps to await Molineux. He
notices that the houses on this street are generally far more seemly than
those in other neighborhoods. One that stands out is across the street
from the church. It is a mansion with an ornate Gothic window and a balcony
pass the time, Robin climbs onto a window frame of the church and peers
inside. Moonbeams reveal the emptiness of its pews and shine on an
open page of a Bible on the pulpit. The scene fills him with loneliness,
so he gets down and again sits on the steps. Gravestones in the churchyard
make him wonder whether the major is dead. He then muses for a moment about
his family at home—how his clergyman father, his mother, his brother, his
sister, and the youngest child passed the day. By and by, he sees a man
passing the mansion across the street and calls out to him. The man—a gentleman
with a cheerful face—comes over and kindly asks whether he can be of service
to the lad. When Robin inquires about Molineux, the man says he has heard
of him and asks Robin why he seeks him.
replies that the major is his father's cousin. Molineux is a wealthy man,
Robin continues, with military and civilian ranks. He has no children of
his own. On a visit to Robin's father, the major expressed a wish to help
establish Robin or his older brother in life. Because the older brother
is in line to take over the farm that their father operates when not performing
his churchly duties, Robin was designated to be the beneficiary of the
major's generosity. Robin adds that the choice was a logical one because
he possesses certain talents.
have the name of being a shrewd youth" (paragraph 60), he says.
notes that he he traveled for five days to reach the town and seek out
Molineux but that no one has been willing to direct him to the major's
residence. However, he says, the last person he asked for help told him
to wait at his present location; the major would eventually pass by. At
the gentleman's request, Robin describes the man who told him to wait,
noting that “his face was of two different colors." The gentleman says
he knows who the man is and, in fact, encountered him earlier in the evening.
The man is trustworthy, he says; the major will indeed be coming along
shortly. Saying he is curious to witness Robin's meeting with the major,
he sits down on the church steps to wait.
short while later, they hear the shouting of many people, then the sound
of trumpets mingled with laughter. Windows open and heads poke out. As
the merrymaking approaches the church, people pour into the streets. A
horseman appears, followed by a band of musicians, torchbearers, and people
in the garments of Indians. The horseman, dressed in a military uniform,
carries a sword. The red on one of his cheeks “was an emblem of fire and
sword," the narrator says; “the blackness of the other betokened the mourning
that attends them" (paragraph 78). As the horseman passes, he fixes his
gaze on Robin, and a moment later the wild procession stops.
in front of Robin is an uncovered cart bearing an elderly man who had been
tarred and feathered—Major Molineux! His face is pale, his body trembles,
and his brow furrows in agony. When he sees and recognizes Robin, he suffers
deep humiliation. Yet there is a kind of majesty about the man.
knees shook, and his hair bristled, with a mixture of pity and terror"
(paragraph 81), the narrator says.
the people Robin met previously in the evening are among the merrymakers.
Across the street on the balcony of the mansion is the old man Robin had
encountered just after getting off the ferry. He is laughing convulsively
as he leans on his cane. In fact, everyone is now laughing convulsively.
The wild merriment makes Robin laugh—louder than anyone else. And then
the procession moves on in its fiendish frenzy. Through it all, the major
maintains that air of majesty.
Robin, are you dreaming?" the gentleman inquires (paragraph 85).
replies, “"Thanks to you, and to my other friends, I have at last met my
kinsman, and he will scarce desire to see my face again. I begin to grow
weary of a town life, sir. Will you show me the way to the ferry?" (paragraph
man says now is not the time. But in a few days he will show him the way.
if you prefer to remain with us, perhaps, as you are a shrewd youth, you
may rise in the world without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux"
sight of Major Molineux as a victim of tarring and feathering shocks Robin.
Molineux is the man who had pledged to help Robin make his way in the world,
a man the youth thought had been held in high esteem. And it is not enough
that the townspeople are subjecting him to a painful physical ordeal; with
their ridicule and wild laughter, they are also subjecting him to the psychological
trauma of utter humiliation. To show the people that he objects to their
barbarous punishment of the major, Robin could display a stone face of
disapproval. Instead he laughs. Here is the narrator's account of the moment:
contagion [laughter] was spreading among the multitude, when all at once,
it seized upon Robin, and he sent forth a shout of laughter that echoed
through the street,—every man shook his sides,
every man emptied his lungs, but Robin's shout was the loudest there" (paragraph
passage seems to indicate that Robin's laughter is spontaneous, uncontrolled,
involuntary. However, a close reading of the story suggests that Robin
consciously and deliberately decides to laugh. After all, the narrator
has continually emphasized Robin's shrewdness. Robin himself has said,
have the name of being a shrewd youth" (paragraph 60).
being shrewd, Robin realizes that failure to laugh
at Molineux will brand him as a sympathizer of the major and render him
vulnerable to the wrath of the townspeople. In their frenzied state, they
could decide to tar and feather him too. So he laughs. His instinct for
survival supersedes any loyalty to, or pity for, Molineux. It also supersedes
his desire for Molineux's promised money and assistance. By laughing, Robin
severs ties with the reviled major; by laughing, he becomes a patriot instead
of a British sympathizer. He even (shrewdly) refers to the townspeople
as "friends" (paragraph 89) near the end of the story, when he is speaking
with the gentleman next to him.
thus saved himself from possible harm, Robin is ready to return home, noting
that the major "will scarce desire to see my face again" (paragraph 89).
But the gentleman—being a shrewd fellow in his own right—correctly points
out to Robin that his decision to laugh at the crucial moment was also
a personal declaration of independence. It made him a man, a man who is
capable of surviving on his own. "[A]s you are a shrewd youth," the gentleman
says, "you may rise in the world without the help of your kinsman, Major
Molineux" (paragraph 90).
climax of the story occurs when Robin joins the people in laughing at the
major. His laughter declares his political and personal independence. For
additional information on this turning point in Robin's life, see To
Laugh or Not to Laugh, above. .
Coming of Age
a country boy, Robin arrives in Boston untested in the ways of the world.
By the end of the story, however, he has proved himself capable of surviving
on his own amid strangers exhibiting peculiar and often unfriendly behavior.
Among the good qualities he exhibits are the following:
He persists until he achieves his goal—finding Major Molineux.
Though provoked by antagonists on the street and at the inn, he wisely
refrains from wielding his club.
He walks away from the “saucy eyes" of the pretty girl who attempts to
is a double theme in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux." First, Robin seeks to
become an independent young man with the help of Major Molineux. He achieves
his independence without the major's help, although it is uncertain at
the end of the story whether he will follow through and live in Boston
or give up his independence and return to his family. Second, in punishing
Molineux—who apparently supports the British overlords who rule colonial
America—the townspeople are making known their desire to be free of British
Quest for Identity
seeking independence, Robin, who answers to more than one name (paragraph
2), is also seeking to establish his own identity. At home, he was the
son of a clergyman and farmer. When he arrives in Boston, he is the kinsman
of Major Molineux. When he sees Molineux in the cart and laughs along with
the crowd, he severs his ties with Molineux and stands alone as a distinct
individual. Whether he will accept his individuality or retreat to the
security of the farm and his old identity is a question left unanswered
at the end of the story.
Hostility and Barbarity
arrives in town expecting to find civility. Instead, he meets with rebuffs
at every turn and eventually witnesses a barbarous form of punishment:
tarring and feathering. Whooping it up, the townsfolk enjoy subjecting
their victim, Molineux, to excruciating pain and public humiliation.
townspeople regard Robin as an unwelcome outsider because of his connection
with Molineux. Consequently, he feels very alone, prompting him to reflect
longingly on his happy life at home with his family.
Was the Major Punished?
his introduction to the story, Hawthorne notes that British-appointed governors
of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were highly unpopular with ordinary citizens.
Of six governors in a forty-year period, two were imprisoned, one was driven
out of the colony, one went to an early grave because of continual disputes
with members of the House of Representatives, and the other two enjoyed
only brief periods of peace. “The inferior members of the court party,
in times of high political excitement, led scarcely a more desirable life,"
Hawthorne says. Major Molineux is a fictional representative of a British
official. Apparently, in his support of the British crown, he had apparently
taken action with which the citizens strongly disagreed.
Robin Remain in Boston or Return Home?
wishes to return to his father's farm because he believes his laughter
has ruined his opportunity to make a start in society, noting that Major
Molineux “will scarce desire to see my face again." But the gentleman standing
next to Robin points out to him that he has exhibited the shrewdness necessary
to “rise in the world without the help of your kinsman." But the story
ends before the reader knows whether Robin remains in Boston to capitalize
on his opportunity or returns home to work on the farm. Given Robin's perseverance
and obvious ambition, it seems likely that he will choose to stay in Boston
to realize his full potential. But there is enough ambiguity in his behavior
to suggest that he will board the ferry and go back.
Robin's Visit to Boston a Dream?
if in a nightmare, Robin walks through a maze of shadowy streets, sees
a man with fiery eyes in a tavern, meets people wearing strange attire
and speaking a strange language, and on the street again encounters the
man with fiery eyes, who now has a face painted red and black. All along
the way, he is continually frustrated in an attempt to achieve his goal,
a common phenomenon in dreams. When he sees graves around the the church,
Robin has a nightmarish thought, which the narrator discloses in the form
of questions in paragraph 49: "What if the object of his search, which
had been so often and so strangely thwarted, were all the time mouldering
in his shroud? What if his kinsman should glide through yonder gate, and
nod and smile to him in dimly passing by?"
then becomes lonely for his family and pictures his parents and siblings
in their country setting. The narrator reports (paragraph 52), " 'Am I
here, or there?' cried Robin, starting; for all at once, when his thoughts
had become visible and audible in a dream, the long, wide, solitary street
shone out before him." The narrator then reports the following:
He [Robin] aroused
himself, and endeavored to fix his attention steadily upon the large edifice
which he had surveyed before. But still his mind kept vibrating between
fancy and reality; by turns, 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. For a single moment, when he deemed himself awake, he could
have sworn that a visage—one which he seemed to remember, yet could not
absolutely name as his kinsman's—was looking towards him from the Gothic
window. A deeper sleep wrestled with and nearly overcame him, but fled
at the sound of footsteps along the opposite pavement. (paragraph 53).......Later,
Robin asks the polite gentleman at the street corner, "I shall take it
kindly, if you'll answer me a single question. I've been searching, half
the night, for one Major Molineux; now, sir, is there really such a person
in these parts, or am I dreaming?" (paragraph 57). The gentleman confirms
for Robin what the man with the painted face told him: that the major will
be along soon. Shortly thereafter, the parade appears with "wild figures
in the Indian dress, and many fantastic shapes without a model, giving
the whole march a visionary air, as if a dream had broken forth from some
feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets"
(paragraph 78). After the parade passes, the gentleman asks, "Well, Robin,
are you dreaming?" (paragraph 85). Robin does not answer the question but
instead asks the gentleman for directions to the ferry—or, if one wishes
to interpret his answer another way, for directions out of the dream.
to Jean Nicot (1530-1600), who introduced tobacco seeds to Paris in 1550
while serving as French ambassador to Portugal. The word nicotine
derives from his name.
to Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BC), a Greek philosopher who renounced luxury
to live a simple life of self-mortification. He ridiculed those who preached
truth but did not live up to their teachings. Tradition holds that he walked
through Athens carrying a lantern in daylight and explained that he was
searching for an honest man.
Moonshine of Pyramus and
Thisbe (Paragraph 33)
to a character in a play enacted in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's
Dream. As part of the entertainment for a wedding feast, bumbling tradesmen
reenact the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Babylonian lovers whose parents
forbade them from seeing each other. One evening they stole away separately
to meet in secret in fields near the city. Thisbe arrived first. When a
lion appeared, Thisbe ran from it but lost the veil she was wearing. The
lion did not bother her, but it tore the veil apart. Later, when Pyramus
arrived, he saw the shredded veil and the footprints of the lion. Assuming
the lion killed Thisbe, he killed himself. In Shakespeare's play, the tradesmen
believe they need to emphasize the fact that Pyramus and Thisbe died on
a moonlit night. So, in their goofy reenactment, they make "Moonshine"
a character with a speaking part. Moonshine carries a lantern to signify
polished cane (paragraph
4): Urban, sophisticated life. It is carried by the old man Robin meets
upon entering Boston.
cudgel carried by Robin
(paragraph 1): 1. Country life. 2. Robin himself, inasmuch as the cudgel
was "formed of an oak sapling that retained part of its hardened root."
means a young tree or a youth. "Part of its hardened root" suggests that
Robin carries the root of his farm life with him but left part of it behind.
45, 64, 80): Patriotic fervor. The man with the prominent forehead and
bushy eyebrows has fiery eyes. The red paint on his face, the narrator
says, is "an emblem of war and fire." Participants in the parade
are carrying torches that illuminate the cart bearing Major Molineux, a
(paragraphs 26, 28, 32, 33, 81): Sin. Scarlet traditionally represents
sin and shame. The young lady wearing the petticoat attempts to seduce
Following are examples of
figures of speech in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux":
Repetition of a consonant
22: people promenading
on the pavement
26: All that Robin could
discern was a strip
of scarlet petticoat, and the occasional
of an eye,
39: 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
Comparison of unlike things
without using like, as, or than
34: accents that seemed
to fall asleep as soon as they were uttered. (Comparison of accents to
a living things)Onomatopoeia
38: At that moment, also,
a pleasant titter saluted him from
the open window above his head;
Paragraph 51: the
latch tinkled into its place
Comparison of a thing to
49: Had nature, in that
deep hour, become a worshipper in the house. . . ? (Comparison of nature
to a person)Paradox
statement that may actually be true
47: a beautiful strangeness
in familiar objectsSimile
Comparison of unlike things
using like, as, or than
78: The single horseman,
clad in a military dress, and bearing a drawn sword, rode onward as the
leader, and, by his fierce and variegated countenance, appeared like war
personified. . . . (Comparison of the horseman to war)
83: He supported himself
on his polished cane in a fit of convulsive merriment, which manifested
itself on his solemn old features like a funny inscription on a tombstone.
(Comparison of his face to a tombstone; comparison of the look on his face
to the words on a tombstone)
and feathering was a form of punishment that originated in the Middle Ages.
Typically, those carrying out the punishment painted hot tar on the bare
trunk of the victim's body and sometimes on his face, then applied feathers
to the tar. Victims suffered physical pain and humiliation while on public
display. Afterward, their agony continued when they removed the tar. American
colonists resorted to tarring and feathering to express their displeasure
with British rule.
bounden servant (paragraph
19): Indentured servant, a person who signs a contract to work for a certain
period of time in order to gain his freedom.
(paragraph 11): Inn in the Middle East.
Creature (paragraph 11): Alcoholic beverage.
(paragraph 45): Old spelling of parti-colored.
wig: Powdered wig with a tail adorned with a bow at the top and bottom.
garments (paragraph 1): Breeches running
to the knees
Questions and Essay Topics
Robin laughs at Major Molineux, does he betray his kinsman? Is his laughter
a sign that he is a coward who is afraid to defy the crowd?
2. Write an argumentative
essay that takes a stand on the questions posed in number 1.
3. Write a new ending
for the story that reveals whether Robin remains in Boston or returns to
his father's farm.
4. Write an informative
essay that explains the reasons for anti-British sentiment in colonial
America between 1700 and 1775.
tarring and feathering a common form of punishment in early America?
6. Compare and contrast
Robin's psychological makeup with that of Young