‘My Kinsman, Major Molineaux’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My Kinsman, Major Molineaux by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1831

The magic trick:

Suggesting the supernatural but delivering human behavior

We’re leaving small-town New England today and heading for the big city. As with many versions of that story, it’s a scary transition. But Hawthorne wraps it up with enough surprises to keep the reader interested.

For one, this is a very funny story. The characters our hero meets in the city are vivid and hilarious, while the hero himself is a great mix of naiveté and pride.

The really cool thing is Hawthorne’s flirtation with magical realism here. As our hero moves through the city, things get weirder and weirder. What is real blurs with what might not be. The reader – or at least I did – begins to assume this is some kind of a fever dream.

But – and I suppose this is a spoiler so I apologize – it’s not a dream. It’s not magic. There is a very reasonable, if slightly absurd, explanation. Which really only makes the entire comment on the city all the sharper.

And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.

The selection:

So saying, the fair and hospitable dame took our hero by the hand; and the touch was light, and the force was gentleness, and though Robin read in her eyes what he did not hear in her words, yet the slender-waisted woman in the scarlet petticoat proved stronger than the athletic country youth. She had drawn his half-willing footsteps nearly to the threshold, when the opening of a door in the neighborhood startled the Major’s housekeeper, and, leaving the Major’s kinsman, she vanished speedily into her own domicile. A heavy yawn preceded the appearance of a man, who, like the Moonshine of Pyramus and Thisbe, carried a lantern, needlessly aiding his sister luminary in the heavens. As he walked sleepily up the street, he turned his broad, dull face on Robin, and displayed a long staff, spiked at the end.

“Home, vagabond, home!” said the watchman, in accents that seemed to fall asleep as soon as they were uttered. “Home, or we’ll set you in the stocks by peep of day!”

“This is the second hint of the kind,” thought Robin. “I wish they would end my difficulties, by setting me there to-night.”

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