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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Crafting 'Major Deception': The Hawthorne Connection

Updated: Apr 20


James Gillray, The Patriots' revenge, tarring and feathering, 1795

I am fortunate enough to teach English literature. Every year or so I get to discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne’s My Kinsman Major Molineux. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, I’ll summarize the story.


In about 1732, a young man named Robin arrives by ferry in Boston seeking his uncle, Major Molineux, an official in the British Colonial government, who has promised him work. However, no one in town tells him where the major is. A rich man threatens Robin with prison for simply asking where his uncle might be. An innkeeper calls him a runaway bondservant, and a sex worker tries to entice him to an encounter. At the inn, Robin meets a man with a face described as looking like the devil – two protrusions emanating from his forehead (like horns) and eyes burning like ‘fire in a cave’ – who seems at the center of many evil things. Later, he runs into the man again, but this time his face is painted black and red. After blocking his path with a cudgel, he finally gets the answer that his kinsman will soon pass by. Robin waits at the spot on the steps of a church where he is greeted by the first polite gentleman that he has met all night. Soon, the two men hear the roar of an approaching mob. At its head is the man with the red and black face – and in its midst is Major Molineux, tarred and feathered. The crowd is in an uproar, and everyone is laughing. Soon, so is young Robin, as his eyes meet those of the Major, who knows him right away. Disillusioned, the youth asks the gentleman the way back to the ferry. Yet the latter restrains him, saying that it is still possible for him to thrive without his kinsman's protection.


Each time I taught Hawthorne’s My Kinsman Major Molineux, at least one of my students would ask, “Why did the Bostonians tar and feather Major Molineux? What exactly did he do?”


Neither I nor the story could offer them any answer. That unanswered question obviously percolated in the back of my mind, like patriot tar waiting for its compliment of feathers and a British officer.


I also had questions of my own. Such as, why was the story all about his nephew, Robin Molineux? Whatever the major had done to deserve his fate, he had done so before Robin came. To me, that meant the story was more the Bostonian’s than Robin’s.


So, when it came time to write a story set in New England, I chose to work with all these questions. I wrote Major Deception to answer what the Major could have done to make the colonists so angry and to develop a character, Hannah Turner, who could tell us. Hannah’s character is based on the sex worker who tempts Robin with false promises that Major Molineux resides with her.


Like any hopeless academic, I spent time researching My Kinsman Major Molineux and was struck by an article by Bartlett Jones on how Robin Molineux interacts with the Pretty Mistress the only name Hawthorne gives the sex worker who hopes to entice Robin. Barlett argues that Robin’s interaction with all the Bostonians, particularly the Pretty Mistress, stems from the political, social, and psychological tension in the story:

  1. Each character must choose between rival factions in the city.

  2. Bostonians, proud of their sophistication, are suspicious of those from outside the city.

  3. Each character’s clothing, whether rough or fashionable, establishes social hierarchy.

  4. Young characters in the story, Robin and the Pretty Mistress, struggle against the world.

  5. Both Robin and the Pretty Mistress must decide whether they will be a part of illegal personal force or socio-legal repression.

I had always felt an “ick” factor when Robin and Pretty Mistress meet, near the end of the story. He did not know her before coming to the city, and part of the humor in the story is his inability to recognize her as a sex worker. It didn’t sit right with me that Hawthorne’s humor rested on her occupation.


The Pretty Mistress attempts to draw Robin upstairs for an encounter after he asks, “— ‘my sweet pretty mistress, will you be kind enough to tell me whereabouts I must seek the dwelling of my kinsman, Major Molineux?’”


To me, that’s where the story lived. That’s where my main character, Hannah Turner was born.


What if the Pretty Mistress lied to Robin for a reason other than attracting a customer? What if Robin is mistaken in her intentions?


Before his encounter with the sex worker, Robin invariably draws the wrong conclusions each time he tries to interpret his experiences in the city. He mistakes an old man for a country representative and when he assumes that his light purse will be of no matter when Bostonians realize he is a kinsman of the major.


What if Robin was wrong about the woman’s motivations for trying to get him upstairs?


What if she was trying to spare the boy the fate that awaited him when he saw his uncle on the receiving end of colonial mob justice?


Robin does not go upstairs with the Pretty Mistress. Rather he continues his pilgrimage through the city in search of his kinsman. Hawthorne uses Robin’s wanderings to reify colonial tensions in 1732.

  1. Country vs. City

  2. Youth vs. The World

  3. Loyalty to England vs. Rebellion

The climactic moment in Hawthorne’s My Kinsman Major Molineux comes when Robin sees the major tarred and feathered wheeled through town as a kind of cautionary display of colonial rage unchecked. (The climactic twist in my mystery will have to wait on your reading!) When Robin sees the major, he hesitates, but then uproariously laughs at his shame along with the others from the city. In fact, he says, “I have laughed very little since I left home…and I should be sorry to lose an opportunity.”


Barlett, in his essay, also observes that Robin laughs because the Pretty Mistress’s touch provokes other desires unfamiliar to the rustic Robin. But what, his desire to be his own man? His desire to adopt the spirit of colonial rebellion? Or simply his desire to save himself? In a post-Freudian age, we might posit that Robin did not want to find the major at all. For Robin, Major Molineux might represent parental authority as Robin strives for adulthood.


I wanted my story, Major Deception, to mirror the bildungsroman Hawthorne started, but to tell the story from the point of view of the Pretty Mistress, my character Hannah Turner. She is young, like Robin. Yet he lived in the city, lived among loyalists and rebels, and was privy to what the major could have done to set in motion the climax of the story—the tarring and feathering.

__________________________________________________________________________


Read my short story “Major Deception” for the answer to the mystery why was Major Molineux tarred and feathered? The story is available in WolfsBane: Best New England Crime Stories, in November 2023. The anthology is published by Crime Spell Books.


 

Source:


Bartlett C Jones. “The Ambiguity of Shrewdness in ‘My Kinsman Major Molineux’” Midcontinent American Studies Journal 3, no. 2 (1962): 42–47.


 

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