Setting in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux Research Proposal

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Setting in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

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Setting is a vital part of fiction. Though human motives are and have been largely similar throughout history and across the globe, different settings can be very effective in enhancing themes, meanings, and even characters of a story. The wild, icy, and adventurous settings of Jack London, for instance, are quite different from the dustbowls and agricultural valleys of John Steinbeck. Both authors had a very strong view on what it meant to be a human being, and specifically an American, in a time when these concepts and their limitations were greatly in flux. But the stories they wrote and the conclusions they drew were vastly different, and were reflected in the different settings. London's bleak view was matched by cold, harsh, and even fatal North; Steinbeck, though no less depressing in moments, saw a world where the earth itself had potential; where growth and hope despite tremendous adversity were natural occurrences, eminently observable. Another American author who helped to shape the identity of his country and his countrymen at a very different time in the nation's history is Nathaniel Hawthorne. His settings, like his life, are part of the early American experience. Many of his tales actually take place before this country was founded. This is the case not only with his famous novel, the Scarlet Letter, but also with his short story, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." This story takes place sometime before but near the Revolution, and the setting enhances the pervading spirit of uncertainty central not only to the town and country where the story takes place, but also to the characters specifically involved.

Research Proposal on Setting in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" Assignment

In the story Robin is a young boy who is traveling from the country to the city to live with Major Molineux, a relative of his. Hawthorne is coy when it comes to the setting; he never reveals the year or the name of the city. Neither of these are obvious, either, until the last portion of the story, when it becomes clear that this is Boston, the seat of much political unrest and revolutionary agitation. The reader slowly realizes this as the third-person narrator describes what the naive narrator sees. In this way, there is a slight paradox to the reader's reception of the setting. On the one hand, details that Robin was certainly aware of -- things that would at the very least be available to him -- are not available to the reader. Though Robin almost certainly knows the year and the political climate, even if he is a bit of country bumpkin, the reader is not clued into any of this. Yet as the story progresses, the reader begins to recognize things that Robin sees but does not notice, or does not attach the proper significance to -- his treatment when he mentions his relative's name and rank, which could only apply to a member of the British military at that time, the strange dress and face paint of the mob, and even the church he stops in, presumably the famous North Church whose tower was used to signal American troops some time after the story. All of these clue the reader in on the time and place of the story, but Robin -- who knows the time and place -- is only increasingly confused. The reader is, too, as the time of the story is never fully revealed.

Hawthorne does start his tale off with a discussion of how the Crown-appointed governors of Massachusetts were treated (it wasn't good), but is deliberately vague in tying this into the story: "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 last clause, "not far from a hundred years ago," is especially annoying when trying to pinpoint the setting of this story. It was written in 1831, so presumably the hundred years is counted backwards from that point, but perhaps the narrator considers sixty years as "not far from a hundred," in which case this could be taking place around the time of the Boston Tea Party, which took place in 1773. Also, the fact that Hawthorne uses "a summer night" instead of giving a specific time and date, or even a month, seems deliberately obtuse. The ambiguity of the setting at the beginning of the story greatly enhances the reveal at the end of both setting and plot, when Robin, after much searching, finally find his kinsmen in surprising circumstance.

The first sentence of the story proper, after Hawthorne's brief history lesson, also describes a setting that subtly reflect the theme of the story. Here a time, though not day or month, is given: "It was near nine o'clock of a moonlight evening, when a boat crossed the ferry with a single passenger." The elements of this description all have a great impact on the story -- the isolation of Robin, and his transition from one thing to another. The physical transition of the setting matches the intellectual transition that Robin achieves by the end of the story, and the political transition that the story describes, as well. It is important that the boat is in the act of crossing when we first see it; both the boat and the water it is traveling over represent the state of change in the country. This change is further reflected in the description of Robin as he enters Boston; the narrator says he looked "as if he were entering London city, instead of the little metropolis of a New England colony." The position of London in a place of eminence over Boston is ironic given the full story, but for now this is the only detail that places the story firmly in New England. Just as setting reveals some of the underlying themes in the story, it can also be revealed by them.

The different areas of town that Robin travels through also reflect the themes of change and other things relevant to the fomenting revolution. The first area of town he sees, immediately after stepping off the ferry's landing area, is poor and run-down. Robin is taken aback by this; he is positive that a man of Major Molineux's stature would not be living in such conditions. When he sees broader avenues with nicer homes, and eventually a series of mansions, he believes he is far more likely to find his relative in one of these houses. In these passages, setting is used to denote class, which both Robin and the reader pick up on instantly. Class and economic issues were at the heart of the Revolution. Separatists were upset at the perceived situation of the British officers and merchants getting rich at the colonists' expense. The highly stratified description of Boston underlines this point, and Robin's reactions to his various settings shows a great deal about his mentality and his naive allegiances and assumptions.

The tavern is another instance of a stratified setting within the story. The first thing Robin notices about it is an open window, from which the sights, sounds, and smells of a small party's meal can be heard. Though the occupants of this private room are not described, it can be assumed from the description of the setting they are in that they are fairly affluent. Many of the leaders of the revolution were actually quite wealthy, despite the fact that they protested British taxation and trade controls (their wealth, in actuality, might have been a large reason why they were so opposed to British rule), so this affluence does not indicate their political persuasions. But the politics of those in the public room, which is described in far less lustrous terms than the private meal Robin first sees, are made quite obvious. First, there is the formerly friendly landlord's reaction to Major Molineux's name (or perhaps his title). Also, this is the place where he first meets the strange-faced man, who turns out to be the leader of the rebel mob. Just as the rich homes were understood to be where a British officer would be found, the poorer part of this tavern -- known interestingly as the "public room" -- is where to find the revolutionaries. Setting yet again reveals not only the exterior details of the story, but also the internal realities of the characters.

The brothel that Robin accidentally stumbles upon, and very nearly finds himself inside, is another element of the setting that resounds deeper than its external trappings. The house looks like any other, except that a door is open. This open door is important because it invites Robin to enter in a way that none of the other settings to this point did. He does not at first understand what the place is, he only knows that he sees a friendly looking house. The fact that it hides temptation of a less-than-moral variety (as though there were any kind of temptation) is an important detail, too.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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"Setting in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux."  November 17, 2008.  Accessed October 22, 2020.