My Kinsman Major Molineux
Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of “My Kinsman Major Molineux” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” was published in 1831. Hawthorne notes that it is set “not far from a hundred years ago” (1), suggesting the story takes place in the 1730s. It was first published in an annual collection titled The Token and Atlantic Souvenir. In the 1960s, New England poet Robert Lowell adapted it to stage.
In the opening paragraph, the author provides context for the political climate in which the story is set. He notes that the King of Great Britain appoints colonial governors. Among Massachusetts Bay residents, there is much resentment directed toward the rulers. Over the past 40 years, King James II has appointed six governors; all of them were unpopular, and some were overthrown. Prior to commencing the story’s action, the author instructs the reader to disregard popular accounts of colonial rule.
The protagonist, Robin, is a country-raised young man “of barely eighteen years” (2). He travels to Boston, where he aims to make his start in the world by locating his kinsman, Major Molineux. Robin’s family believes that Molineux is a well-respected governing official who can provide work and connections.
At approximately nine o’clock in the evening, Robin arrives in Boston by ferry. The ferryman observes that Robin is dressed in clothing that is well-worn, but also seemingly well-made. Robin has “brown, curly hair, well-shaped features, and bright, cheerful eyes” (2). Though it is late, and he has traveled a long way, Robin feels energized by his arrival in Boston.
He sets out on foot in search of Major Molineux. Along the way, he sees “small and mean wooden buildings” (2). He cannot believe that his distinguished kinsman would live in such a dilapidated area and decides he will ask strangers to point him in the right direction.
Robin continues his walk, and the city’s appearance improves. From behind, he approaches a well-dressed old man. As they step in front of a barber shop, he grabs the skirt of the man’s coat. Robin bows and formally greets the man. He then asks the man if he knows his kinsman’s whereabouts. The barbers turn their attention to Robin. The old man angrily tells Robin to let go of his coat. During his rebuke of Robin, the old man lets out “two sepulchral hems,” which have a “most singular effect, like a thought of the cold grave obtruding among wrathful passions” (3). The old man tells Robin to show him greater respect or “[his] feet shall be brought acquainted to with the stocks, by daylight, tomorrow morning” (3).
Robin hears laughter from the men in the barber shop. He walks away, telling himself that the old man’s status must not be high enough for him to know Major Molineux. He continues walking through the city and arrives at its center, but he finds no one around. Eventually, he arrives at an inn, from which he hears the cheerful sounds of many patrons. Upon smelling the food, he realizes he has nothing to eat, nor money to buy provisions. He assumes that his relation to Molineux will bring him a warm welcome.
Inside, there is much smoke and many of the patrons appear to be seamen. Robin does not feel a sense of kinship toward them but does feel sympathy for the few “sheepish countrymen” who are “supping on the bread of their own ovens, and the bacon cured in their own chimney-smoke” (4).
Robin’s attention becomes focused on a man whose “forehead bulge[s] out into a double prominence, with a vale between” and a nose that comes “boldly forth in an irregular curve, and its bridge […] more than a finger’s breadth; the eyebrows […] deep and shaggy; and the eyes glow[ing] beneath them like fire in a cave” (4).
The innkeeper welcomes Robin and asks him if he wants to place a dinner order. Because the innkeeper speaks to him in a respectful tone, Robin thinks that his relation to Major Molineux is apparent. The patrons turn their attention to Robin, who, in a hushed tone, tells the innkeeper that he has no money for dinner. The innkeeper refers to a wanted poster on the wall, noting that Robin bears a resemblance to the person being sought. Robin feels an impulse to use his cudgel to attack the innkeeper but composes himself. As Robin leaves, the horned man glares at him and the patrons laugh. Robin thinks to himself that it is strange that they were unwilling to accommodate him despite his relation to Molineux.
Robin walks through town, continuing his search. He crosses paths with “many gay and gallant figures” (6). Still, there is no sign of his kinsman. He hears the old man who again is “uttering, at regular intervals, two sepulchral hems” (6). He starts losing his patience and considers using his cudgel to force someone to show him the way to his kinsman’s location.
Robin enters a more downtrodden part of town and comes across a half-opened door, where “his keen glance detect[s] a woman’s garment within” (6). He approaches, and the door shuts partially but remains ajar. Through the crack, Robin asks about the residence of his kinsman. A small, slender woman opens the door and tells him that Major Molineux lives there.
Robin asks to deliver a message to Molineux, but the woman tells him that he is asleep after a night of heavy drinking. She compliments Robin’s appearance and invites him inside. She takes him by the hand, and Robin is able to “read in her eyes what he did not hear in her words” (7). She nearly gets him inside, but then suddenly abandons him when a neighborhood watchman approaches. The watchman tells Robin to go home. From an above window, a woman with a “saucy eye” waves at Robin and tries to lure him inside, but he is “a good youth, as well as shrewd one; so he resist[s] temptation” (8).
Although most homes now have their lights off, Robin continues his search. Holding up his cudgel, he stops a passerby and demands that he divulge the whereabouts of Molineux. In return, the man threatens Robin but relents and tells him to wait in that spot for one hour and his kinsman will pass by. The man is now standing in the moonlight, and Robin sees that he is the horned man from the inn. Now, the horned man’s face is painted half black and half red.
Robin decides to trust the horned man and sits down on the steps of a church door, waiting for his kinsman to appear. He hears distant shouts, but no one is nearby. He climbs one of the church’s window frames, hoping to get a look inside. In the pulpit, “one solitary ray had dared to rest upon the opened page of the great Bible” (10). He feels increasingly lonely and worries that his kinsman could be dead, and that he might encounter him as a ghost.
In an attempt to find comfort, Robin recalls his family’s home and routine. He pictures them praying for him. His imagination is so vivid that he cries, “Am I here or there?” (11). His mind continues to struggle to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Robin calls out to a passerby and asks if he knows the whereabouts of Major Molineux. The stranger approaches. He perceives that Robin is from the country and asks how he can help.
The stranger asks about the nature of Robin’s relationship with Molineux. Robin explains that his father and Molineux “were brothers’ children” (12). Robin’s family is poor, but Molineux has inherited great wealth. Robin has come to Boston to find Molineux, who will help him become established.
Robin explains that he has struggled to find anyone who will point him in the direction of his kinsman. He tells the stranger that the horned man said that Molineux will soon pass by. The stranger believes that the horned man is correct.
The distant yelling grows nearer. The stranger says that there must be rioters out on the town. The sounds of a trumpet emerge. From the direction of the noise, people begin to appear. Robin assumes that “some prodigious merrymaking is going on” (13). Because he has had such a difficult night, he looks forward to the celebration. Neighbors open their windows and ask each other what is happening. A mass of people approaches. They are carrying torches and playing music. The group is led by the horned man, who is riding a horse and brandishing a sword. As he passes, he stares directly at Robin.
The horned man brings the procession to a stop. The torches illuminate a cart, inside which is Major Molineux, who has been tarred and feathered. Major Molineux still appears:
large and majestic […] [but] [h]is face [is] pale as death, and far more ghastly; the broad forehead […] contracted in his agony, so that his eyebrows form one grizzled line; his eyes […] red and wild, and the foam […] white upon his quivering lip (15).
Robin’s eyes lock with his kinsman’s, and they recognize each other. At first, Robin feels a mixture of “pity and terror” (15), but his feelings shift toward excitement. He is enthralled by:
the preceding adventures of the night, the unexpected appearance of the crowd, the torches, the confused din, and the hush that followed, the spectre of his kinsman reviled by the great multitude, all this, and more than all, a perception of tremendous ridicule in the whole scene (15).
This all creates a feeling of “mental inebriety” (15).
Among the crowd, Robin sees townspeople he earlier encountered, including the prostitute, the innkeeper, and the old man. Along with the crowd, Robin begins to laugh maniacally. His shouts become the loudest. The horned man gives a signal and the procession continues, going onward “like fiends that throng in mockery round some dead potentate, mighty no more, but majestic still in his agony” (16).
The stranger, still at Robin’s side, asks him if he’s dreaming. Robin asks him to show him the way back to the ferry. The stranger denies this request, suggesting Robin still try to make his way in the city, “without the help of [his] kinsman, Major Molineux” (16).