Hawthorne’s Vision of the Urbanistic Triumph and Country Defeat
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is a tale of opposites and upset expectations. The ideal of the country or rural life is met by the overpowering, even corrupted nature of city life. Robin, the protagonist, the country boy striving to make it in the big city, is constantly being torn between his rural roots and the appeal of urban opportunity and success. Through diction and a careful characterization of nature, Hawthorne depicts a scene rife with tension between rural and urban where the country is ultimately overtaken by and surrenders to the city.
The short story begins with Robin’s thoughts of the town, which are ridden with a sort of sarcastic indignation. Torn between his country roots and the city’s opportunities, Robin tries to remain loyal to his rural home by passively slighting the city, calling it a “snore of a sleeping town.” The reader knows that the city is not boring—after all, it is home to a handful of colorful characters, notably a wily prostitute and a two-faced man. One could reasonably assume, then, that the evaluation of the town as a “snore” is meant more to persuade Robin than the reader. As a rhetorical device, “this snore of a sleeping town” makes the city sound unremarkable and ordinary, though, as the reader soon discovers and may already know, the town is anything but ordinary. In another attempt to make the city sound unexciting, Robin claims that the tedious silence is only occasionally broken by “a distant shout, apparently loud where it originated.” The inclusion of the word “apparently” yet again makes Robin sound sarcastic, as if the sound of the shout was so distant and weak that, while it may have been threatening in its place of origin, it is not menacing for him. Robin recognizes the stark differences between rural and urban life and therefore assumes a position of defense, repeatedly trying to convince himself that the city is not a threat to his country roots. Robin is, in fact, frightened by the city life and its urbanity, which is why he decides to climb into a window frame and look at the inside of a church. Being the son of a clergyman, it makes sense that Robin should seek solace and pace in the church: he hopes to be reminded of his father and his rural hometown, rooting him in something familiar and comforting.
Robin feels the need to defend the rural by slighting the urban because, as the language in the passage exhibits, the urban is slowly yet systematically conquering the rural. The moonbeams entering through the church window are characterized as “trembling” and weak, “[falling] down upon the deserted pews” and “hovering about the pulpit.” The moonlight here, symbolizing all of nature, is weak and hesitant, unsure of its position in the city and constantly mitigated by the urban landscape. The moonbeams “[fall] down” on the pews, making their presence seem passive, nearly accidental. Hawthorne writes that a “solitary ray had dared to rest upon the page of the great Bible,” implying that nature must possess a sort of audacity to exist in the city. Furthermore, the story explicitly asks the reader to consider nature’s relationship to the manmade city: “Had nature, in that deep hour, become a worshipper in the house, which man had builded?” This rhetorical question leads the reader to believe that nature has bent to the whims of man, existing only in the city by accident or by permission.
Robin, aware of nature’s inevitable defeat by and surrender to urbanity, feels his “heart shiver with a sensation of loneliness stronger than he had ever felt in the remotest depths of his native woods.” Seeing nature bend to the city’s rules unnerves Robin, leaving him with a profound sense of loneliness and even a distorted sense of reality, hence his nearly trance-like, dreamy state. Robin is consumed with overwhelming loneliness and hopelessness because he is, in fact, the only purely natural thing remaining in the city. Even in his loneliness, however, Robin is conceding to the persuasion of the city, stating that his emotions had never been as intense, even “in the remotest depths of his native woods.” That is, they city conjures and claims Robin’s strongest emotions, yet again triumphing over the country.
By establishing a power struggle between the country and the city, Hawthorne challenges the idyllic notion of nature’s power. As Robin wanders the urban streets and sees the moonlight overtaken by manmade, city buildings, the reader begins to realize that, in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” nature loses its power and inevitably succumbs to the persuasion of the city. By closely examining this passage, a thorough reader might even be able to predict Robin’s response to the strange man’s offer at the close of the story. If Robin’s actions follow this trend of the urban triumphing over the rural, he will most certainly become the shrewd young man he claims to be by deciding to stay in the city and forsaking his rural roots.
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