The Presence of Laughter in Hawthorne’s works
Within Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown,” the presence of laughter is used repeatedly across both narratives, often for dramatic effect, showcasing the act’s many facets and qualities. Most typically, laughter is associated with cheer or general happiness. It is an outwards expression of internal feeling, which usually establishes itself through audible and visible demonstration. In Hawthorne’s case, this notion is challenged and further diversified, as numerous characters in both stories laugh for a multitude of reasons. Across Hawthorne’s two tales, laughter serves as a representation and indication of community and belonging, mischief and rebellion, unease and agitation, as well as mockery and humiliation. As a result of such varying implications, the protagonists of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”—the shrewd, young Robin—and “Young Goodman Brown”—the titular Goodman Brown—are both guided and left confused by the action, thereby creating a distinctive power structure and separation of roles among the stories’ many characters.
Throughout “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and prior to its climax, much of the story is devoted to illustrating the naive Robin’s struggles to locate his kinsman Major Molineux’s lodging and pay the major a visit. Shortly after his initial rejections by the local townspeople, Robin stumbles upon a few scenes of shared joy. Looking into a dwelling-house, he notes that “the fragrance of good cheer steamed forth into the outer air” (882), dually characterizing the partygoers’ positive spirits and the scent of their food. Through this metaphor, Hawthorne depicts laughter—or, the broader sense of joint happiness—as something detectable, but not entirely tangible. In pairing laughter with a hearty meal, Hawthorne not only emphasizes Robin’s physical hunger, but implies a deeper, emotional pining for acceptance and belonging, cementing Robin’s role as the outcast. This occurs yet again when Robin overhears the uproar of the far-off crowd later in the evening, causing him to point out how “[he has] laughed very little since [he] left home … and should be sorry to lose an opportunity” (891). To Robin, laughter comes almost like second nature, thus making its absence odd. Like the earlier passage, he considers it as integral to his survival and wellbeing as eating food is. Therefore, as both observer and outsider, Robin attempts to seek companionship in those around him, subsequently outgrowing his naiveté through the jeering crowd with whom he later decides to band.
By contrast, the devilish congregation in “Young Goodman Brown” showcases a darker side of community and belonging, as conveyed through their use of laughter. Tormented by the sights of those he held dear working as the Devil’s pawns, Brown begins to hear a faint hymn from the depths of the forest, in which “all the sounds of the benighted wilderness … [were] pealing in awful harmony together” (917). This perverted depiction of church music and laughter—particularly in association with the Devil himself—creates an atmosphere of eerie tension, captured in a dramatic cacophony of awful noise. In addition to this, Brown then describes the wicked “visage” of the “fiend-worshippers” at the assembly, how the “smile of welcome gleamed darkly” upon their faces (919). What may have been perceived by the foolish Robin as a genuine display of hospitality is instead a manifestation of communal sin, making laughter a double-edged sword. Hawthorne presents laughter—and smiling—as a method of deception and an illusion of goodwill, emphasizing Brown’s efforts to accept the contradictory and sinful nature of those around him. Whilst Robin continues to chase after idealized encounters of politeness and benevolence, Brown is forced to confront his presumptions of the people within his community, as his faith, his trust, and the social hierarchy all slowly disintegrate.
Along this same vein, Hawthorne uses laughter to indicate shows of mischief and rebellion. Laughter in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” primarily appears as something unrestrained and possibly uncontrollable. When the distant crowd first catches Robin’s attention, he makes reference to how there were “frequent bursts from many instruments of discord, and a wild and confused laughter filled up the intervals” (891). In this case, laughter is a disruption of the otherwise peaceful evening, pointing to activities of the more riotous sort. Contrary to the more subdued, romanticized image of cheer as depicted prior, as though shifting alongside the passage of time, laughter takes on a more volatile nature as the evening wears on and inhibitions are lowered. This makes for a fitting climax to the story, too, as it marks the first time Robin actively chooses to acknowledge, address, and vocally respond to the presence of laughter. “The shouts, the laughter, and the tuneless bray, the antipodes of music” (892) were all heard before the originators of such noises were seen, pointing to laughter’s dominating quality. Through this, laughter overtakes individualism, reducing single persons into a general mob only determinable by sound. In similar fashion, the “grave and dark-clad company” (917) in “Young Goodman Brown” is initially identified by their individual titles and roles, but soon moulds into an amorphous mass, unified through their sacrilegious intentions.
Moreover, the climactic peak of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” exhibits how laughter can stem from unease or agitation. When the disgraced Major Molineux is finally revealed, “in tar-and-feathered dignity” (892), Robin’s response is immediately presented as both the narrative’s and the character’s pivotal turning point. As “the contagion [of laughter] … [spread] among the multitude [of the crowd,] … Robin’s shout was the loudest there” (893-894). Having been subjected to ruthless scrutiny and disrespect throughout the evening, Robin’s decision to laugh signified rejection in more ways than one. To begin with, laughter is compared to a “contagion” (893), an illness infecting the townspeople that soon latches onto Robin himself. This paints laughter in a less flattering light, thus adding to the significance of Robin’s choice to join in. In this sense, Robin is reborn through this moment of laughter, as he learns to comprehend the connotations behind either option. By refusing to laugh, Robin will not only present himself as a sympathizer in the eyes of the unforgiving crowd, but he may also have to face consequences similar to that which Major Molineux had to bear. By becoming an active participant in the humiliation of his kinsman, Robin demonstrates a profound awareness of the act he is committing, in a surprising show of newfound maturity that was not present in the beginning.
Goodman Brown equally exemplifies the notion of appropriating laughter in order to combat against mocking voices, perhaps also at the expense of his own morality and well-being. After being taunted by the thoughts of his wife Faith worshipping the Devil, Brown issues a challenge to nature itself. “Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry” (916), he cries at the wind. Later on, Brown is shown “shouting forth such laughter … [that it] set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him” (917). Across both tales, laughter is made a weapon that the two protagonists take advantage of to gain a higher footing than before. Whether that be the moral high ground or a place on an equal playing field, Robin and Brown both abandon the idea of moral superiority in order to advance in achieving their goals. Yet, Hawthorne additionally attributes the act of laughing with “demons around [Brown]” (917), illustrating the infernal imagery as a counterpart to Brown’s virtuous disposition. This then creates a dramatic point of contention, as Brown’s adamance against temptation only drives him further towards becoming one with the degenerate mob. Volume thus becomes a measure of Robin’s and Brown’s commitment to their actions and brings them to the same tier as their counterparts, whether they be sarcastic townspeople or demonic apparitions, leveling the uneven power dynamic.
Most evidently, however, laughter according to Hawthorne conveys intense mockery and humiliation, most commonly at the expense of the protagonists. Throughout his search for Major Molineux, Robin is met with “an ill-mannered roar of laughter,” “a general laugh … like the dropping of small stones into a kettle,” “drowsy laughter,” “a voice of sluggish merriment,” “a sharp, dry cachinnation,” “a great, broad laugh,” and “a fit of convulsive merriment,” all of which were voiced in response to his requests to be directed towards the Major’s house (881, 883, 886, 893). The final description, in particular, is likened to “a funny inscription on a tomb-stone” (893), indicating a sense of inappropriateness and wrongness. Laughter becomes bold-faced humor in the presence of death, especially exemplified during the grand reveal of Major Molineux’s subjugation. The diverse types and forms of laughter, as punctuated by the use of “a” and “an,” all come from sources unknown and undeterminable to Robin. Comparable to Goodman Brown’s visions in the forest, Robin is greeted by the sounds of laughter before he is able to locate their utterers. Left to his own devices and to ponder the reasons behind such laughter, Robin is depicted constantly searching for an elusive punchline, failing to realize that he himself was the joke all along. This once again paints him as the persona non grata, a reject of the town’s already-established social order. Laughter is therefore the townspeople’s way of slighting Robin and asserting their dominance over him, regardless of his affiliation with Major Molineux.
Hawthorne’s notion of laughter as mockery returns in “Young Goodman Brown,” taking form in the mysterious traveler’s patronizing treatment of Brown. At Brown’s proclamation of his unwavering integrity, the traveler “[bursts] into a fit of irrepressible mirth” and jokingly pleads with Brown, not to “kill [him] with laughing” (913). What was originally an intense, serious contemplation of human nature is completely overthrown by the traveler’s brazen dismissal, reducing the gravity of the situation to nothing but an opportunity for ridicule. The humiliation of Brown continues as he hears the sounds of “a young woman, uttering lamentations” (916), immediately struck with melancholy upon thought of his wife, Faith. As Brown unleashes a pained cry of Faith’s name, the forest taunts him in return with “a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter” (916). This fleeting moment of psychological torment wreaks havoc upon Brown’s psyche, inciting him to take up the serpent-like staff and journey towards the worshippers’ gathering. Along the way, Brown makes note of how “the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn” (916). Having committed himself to attending the twisted assembly, it seemed as though nature itself were jeering at Brown’s efforts and the sanctity of both puritanical religion and his own marriage, alluding to the slow deconstruction of such facets of society.
Considering the ideals of American literary nationalism, as illustrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar,” the motif of laughter in Hawthorne’s narratives is a direct celebration of “the near, the low, [and] the common” (706), making both “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown” truly American texts in their own right. Although laughter emerged as an act of oppression for the shrewd and less knowledgeable Robin, it is later reversed and inflicted back upon the condescending townspeople, allowing Robin to demonstrate a maturity gained through past experience and observation. As Emerson points out, “drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power” (699). Having previously been subjected to the townspeople’s dismissive behavior without any recompense, Robin’s audacious participation in mocking the disgraced Major Molineux serves as a call to action. Though still but a fledgling, unsure of its own identity, Robin represents America’s quest for independence and laughter—the conscious decision to forego and reject its Britain-dominated past. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” addresses America’s shaky first steps towards freedom, liberty, and autonomy, still haunted by the jeers of its previous colonial rulers. In this sense, Hawthorne elevates the simple toils of an uneducated youth traversing a foreign, unforgiving town, and turns it into a tale of growth, alienation, and self-reliance.
Young Goodman Brown’s journey, conversely, indicates a failure to fully embody the spirit of American literary nationalism. Laughter, then, showcases the darker underbelly of “the near, the low, [and] the common” (706) of American livelihood, steeped in a seemingly corrupt moral code. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson states that “a great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. … This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act” (701). One primary, foundational aspect of American literature is the act of reflecting upon day-to-day occurrences and turning the mundane into something “sublime and beautiful” (706). Emerson does not believe American literary scholars should merely cast fear and ignorance aside, but instead “look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin … henceforth defy it, and pass on superior” (703). The American literary movement, and America on a whole, values the merits of exploration and perseverance; this is seen as a source of strength and self-reflection. Brown, however, is unable to “pass on superior” (703), having been so thoroughly affected and shaken by the horrors he had to bear witness to. As a result, he could no longer listen to the deacon’s prayers, nor the choir’s hymns, nor the minister’s sermons, nor his own wife’s greetings. Brown is the image of America defeated and thoroughly beaten down, incapable of contemplating its complex history and moralistic pursuits. Contrary to the tentatively optimistic conclusion to “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown” serves as Hawthorne’s fall-of-man narrative, particularly critical of the code of ethics within Puritan society.
In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown” reveal two different facets of the movement of American literary nationalism. The recurring motif laughter is used to illustrate the characters’ sense of community and belonging, mischief and rebellion, unease and agitation, and mockery and humiliation. These varying qualities are not only evidence of power structures as reinforced by American society, but indicators of the characters’ separation of roles as well. In the context of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” captures the quintessential traits that uphold American literary independence, while “Young Goodman Brown” presents the movement in the event of failure. Emerson emphasizes in his renowned speech, “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds” (706). By receiving the present as the everyday and ordinary, we will gain access to insights of both past and future and become more enlightened than before.
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