Subjectivity and Dialogical Discourse in Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”
by Nicole Scoppettuolo
In the early nineteenth century, America was undergoing profound changes in the political, economic, and social realms. The rise of international commerce and the development of industrialization displaced previous Republican ideologies that valued the community (Matthews 5). Instead, the market became the principal societal system. Significantly, the major agent driving this system was the individual. Thus, a new philosophy of liberal individualism was born that honored the rights and independence of the individual man. It maintained that the individual’s “drive for success” would naturally contribute to the overall good of the community (5). Indeed, “setting free the creative energy of individuals would naturally produce a prosperous order in which all would benefit” (5). These socio-economic changes coincided with radical transformations in the political sphere as well.
Andrew’s Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1830 was particularly significant. Mainly, it expanded the inclusiveness of the political process. Class distinctions were nearly obliterated when Jackson granted suffrage to all men that were white and over 21 (Mackey 64). With this increased participation in government, the common man was elevated to a new and higher plane. This inclusiveness widened the democratic community by including multiple voices and various perspectives, instead of only the select few of the aristocracy.
At the fundamental level of all of these changes was a shift in the relationship between society and the individual. However, this also presented an interesting paradox in the developing democracy: the individual man and the community were both celebrated. As much as individual will and freedom were honored, there was a persistent fear of the societal fragmentation and disorderliness it would bring. The question was whether this community of different individuals could be brought together as a unified and connected whole or whether they would deteriorate into a disruptive and chaotic mob. Ultimately, the pressing social problem was how to attach the individual back to the community without restraining personal liberties. In its early formative years, America struggled to solve this problem of effectively combining individual rights with the overall good of the democratic community.
Nathaniel Hawthorne undoubtedly had these issues in mind as he wrote “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in the 1830’s. By setting the tale during the tumultuous time of the American Revolution, Hawthorne creates a parallel between that era and the new Jacksonian democracy. With the American Revolution, the country broke away from an oppressive and established order (Britain). Similarly, with Jacksonian democracy, the country overthrew its own internal oppressive and established order (a class divided system with a privileged aristocracy). However, this also raised many important epistemological questions. With no authority to dictate truth and meaning, how does one come to know anything? When the new country was simply a conglomeration of various and equal perspectives, and there was no existing hierarchy, it became increasingly problematic to determine who was right or correct. These questions allowed the revolution to transgress the boundaries of national politics by extending it into the philosophical realm as well.
Thus, the struggles for political and national independence also demanded an ideological revolution in the fields of culture and literature. The Revolutionary poet Philip Freneau wrote: “Can we never be thought/To have learning or grace/Unless it be brought/From that damnable place?” (quoted in Cohen 19). Clearly, the ties had to be broken between America and Britain in all respects, and not simply those on a political level. Since the new nation didn’t want to be culturally dependent on European traditions, it had to establish its own unique literary and artistic voice. William Ellery Channing wrote in “Remarks on National Literature” in 1830 that “Literature…is plainly among the most powerful methods of exalting the character of a nation, of forming a better race of men…A foreign literature will always…be foreign. It has sprung from the soul of another people” (quoted in Budick, Nineteenth Century 17). The creation of a national literature assumed utmost importance, not only to form a distinct national identity, but to communicate that identity to the rest of the world. Ultimately, these aims were accomplished through the development of the genre of Romance.
The Romantic genre was characterized primarily in opposition to the form and content of the novel (Martin 72). Whereas the novel dwelled on the ordinary and the probably, the romance focused on the unusual and the possible (73). The novel tried to create a mirror of real life and everyday existence; the romance tried to distort that view of reality. Typically, it focused on imagination, emotion, and other things associated with individual consciousness. It also employed dialogical discourse; instead of presenting one “truth” as correct, it displayed multiple perspectives and paths to truth. Most importantly, these elements worked together in harmony to define the new American nation. Subjectivity related perfectly to the new liberal individualism. Additionally, dialogical discourse coincided with the emergence of Jacksonian democracy as it presented a picture of a diverse community. Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” utilizes these Romantic elements of subjectivity and dialogical discourse not only to illustrate a radical break from an established order, but also to show how they align perfectly with democratic principles. Finally, the Romance bridges the gap between the individual and the community, effectively solving the paradox of democracy that had emerged in the nineteenth century.
At the opening of the tale, Hawthorne illustrates a dichotomy between historical discourse and fiction to show the inadequacy of established roads to knowledge for the American nation. While history is general, fiction dwells in the specific and narrows in on particular places, times, and characters. Hawthorne makes this integral transition from history to fiction through “a change in perspective and language” (Cohen 23). The first paragraph relates to us the historical background of the story, and the information given is very vague and general. We are not told of specific places or people’s names and the scene is set at an indeterminate “not far from a hundred years ago” (Hawthorne 2194). This nebulous beginning, however, is a tactic purposely employed by Hawthorne to show the “inefficacy of text-book history…the bare ‘facts’ of American history are incommensurate with the intensity of the imaginative experience” (Cohen 22). Truly, these “long and dry details of colonial affairs” will not stir much emotion or national pride in the reader (Hawthorne 2195). To create a strong national identity, the Romantic writers needed to speak to the hearts and the souls of the people, and not to their minds.
The next paragraph immediately shifts us into the realm of fiction as Hawthorne focuses on particulars rather than generalities. The reader is drawn into another time and place as the fictional tale begins, “it was near nine o’clock of a moonlight evening” (2195). Most significantly, the story focuses on “a single passenger” (2195). Thus, we have an entirely individual and specific perspective on a significant historical event. This is exceedingly important, as the Romantics strongly emphasized the individual self as the only being that was capable of uncovering meaning. The genre’s philosophy involved a “secularized vision of the relation between conscious and unconscious, signifier and signified” (Steele 135). This vision is characterized by ambiguity as there is “no final center of linguistic of semantic authority” (135). There are no authorities to dictate or impose truth. In fact, there is no truth outside of the individual. This bold idea has significant implications for literature and textual analysis as well. Fellow Romantic writer Herman Melville wrote that the Romantic perspective releases us into “’a universe whose center of meaning seem[s] indeterminate’, a voyage into ambiguity that leads both author and reader into a ‘labyrinth of semantic madness’” (135). Meaning is not somewhere to be located since it is completely relative to the individual. However, this transforms the role of the author in profound ways – (s)he is no longer an “authoritative” figure that presents truth to readers. Instead, it is indeed the reader who gives the text any kind of meaning at all. Thus, the author and reader create a constant interplay of ideological conflict, each one struggling to maintain control of the “truth.” They find themselves in a metaphorical “labyrinth,” trying to uncover a meaning that isn’t there, a “truth” wound up in the complexities of language and interpretation.
Finally, since there is no external truth,
Romantic theory explored the dark recesses of the human mind. Henry
T. Tuckerman wrote in 1851: “What the scientific use of lenses -
the telescope and the microscope - does for us in relation to the external
universe, the psychological writer achieves in regard to our own nature.
He reveals its wonder and beauty, unfolds its complex laws and makes us
suddenly aware of the mysteries within and around individual life” (55).
This focus on the mysteries of the human mind works in conjunction with
a focus on subjectivity. Ultimately, the Romantic writers realized
that it was through imagination and language that we perceived and interpreted
History as experienced by individuals in time has none of the ordered, categorized causality that is afforded by the scientific recoding of facts and figures in the annals of a nation. Instead it reveals a realm of unpredictable contingencies, of confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty, of temporal and spatial disorientation. In this world of pervasive plurality the historical experience begins to take the shape of a mythic adventure into the eerie labyrinth of the mind. (23)This distinction between historical fact and imaginative experience is apparent in Hawthorne’s fiction. In 1860, Richard Holt Hutton wrote that Hawthorne “is often positively anxious to suppress all distinct account of the actual facts which have given rise to his ideal situations. He wishes to save the mental impression from being swallowed up, so to say, in the interest of the outward facts and events” (109). Quite simply, Hawthorne believes that the mere facts offer an incomplete picture.
The inability to see the complete picture is a theme that appears continuously throughout the story. At the philosophical heart of Robin’s journey lies a tireless struggle to understand his own reality in the absence of clear-cut facts. He wavers continuously between fantasy and reality. Hawthorne believed this ambiguity to be necessary to the writing of Romantic fiction. In “The Custom House,” the preface to The Scarlet Letter, he states that he was striving to achieve a “neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairly-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other” (quoted in Hutton 94). In “Major Molinuex,” Hawthorne merges these two planes of reality through the moon, as it creates, “like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects” (Hawthorne 2201). He adds that it “gave something of romance to a scene that might not have possessed it in the light of day” (2201). These dichotomies between day and night, light and dark, permeate a Hawthornean metaphysics that holds that there are two sides to reality - a material and a spiritual (Budick, Fiction 115). However, these two realms can not remain completely separate. The hard facts of reality and the nebulous nature of the imaginative experience are consistently blurred as Robin’s mind “kept vibrating between fancy and reality…giving the whole…a visionary air, as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain” (Hawthorne 2203). Throughout his phantasmagoric journey, Robin consistently wants to revert back to his old ideologies and the established order. Budick states that “Robin is firmly outside the dream, resisting it” (Fiction 114). He is absolutely determined to “demystify” and make rational sense of the strange reality in which has found himself (114). “For Robin, reality is a single homogeneous substance - call it quotidian or fantastic - that he can turn inside out at will, with little or no damage, like an expertly sewn coat” (114). Robin is the “shrewd” country youth, out of touch with the new America and the ambiguities of democracy. He desperately tries to categorize and quantify, but remains unable to find a single authoritative meaning in his experiences. Likewise, in the era of Jacksonian democracy, reality was not something clear and defined. Rather, it showed the arbitrary nature of boundaries when hierarchies collapse and orders fall. The new democracy was beginning to form its own identity as a society that thrived on this blurring of boundaries and categories.
These blurred meanings and the celebration of the individual’s subjective voice is very closely tied to a democratic heteroglossia - the celebration of many individual voices. This dialogical discourse is integral to democratic culture; it refuses to recognize a single “official” voice and instead focuses on a community of multiple perspectives. At the start of his journey, Robin is perplexed by his fantastic visions and confused by the words and actions directed towards him. He valiantly attempts to understand this new world through his monological (and thus inadequate) rural discourse (687). Undoubtedly, where he comes from, things are simple and easy to categorize. Indeed, the principal problem is that Robin cannot categorize all the things he encounters. His travels throughout the city begin to take on the appearance of a dark and winding labyrinth as he becomes “entangled in a succession of crooked and narrow streets…which crossed each other” (Hawthorne 2196). He likens it to a story from his childhood in which “ a wizard of his country had…kept three pursuers wandering a whole winter night…” (Hawthorne 2200). The significance of this labyrinthine maze is that one single meaning or path is impossible to determine, since all paths lead to other paths. Lost and exasperated, Robin comes to a large church and peers through the window. There, he finds that “one solitary ray had dared to rest upon the opened page of the great Bible” (Hawthorne 2202). The sight immediately prompts “a sense of loneliness” in the youth; his old authority is a comfortable discourse and he longs for the bygone days when all the answers were known and everything was mapped out for him (2202).
Sometime later, however, Robin hears a shout break through the stillness, but proclaims to hear “at least a thousand voices” in it (2204). This reinforces the idea that America thrives on the interconnectedness of individual and community; they cannot exist separately. Hawthorne develops this further in the story when Robin’s patient guide questions him, “May not a man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?” (2202). Man is not defined by himself only, by a single voice; rather, he is inextricably tied to and defined by the voices that surround him. As the procession advances toward Robin, the music becomes increasingly louder and the “instruments of discord” are sounding in the distance; eventually, Robin is drawn into the wild, chaotic procession (2204). The significance of such an event is that Robin begins to move away from an old order that is strict and oppressive. His monological rural discourse is transformed into the dialogical world of the carnival. He “temporarily joins the polyphonic world of the city with ‘a shout of laughter that echoed through the street.’ He awakens as if from a nightmare; he awakes into critical consciousness” (Eldred 687). Robin’s sudden laugh in the middle of this pandemonium completes the subversion of his familiar logic. His response to the nearby gentleman is particularly telling as he gives thanks “to you, and to my other friends” (Hawthorne 2207). He then asks his way to the ferry. The use of the word “friends” here is clearly filled with irony and sarcasm; Robin has made the transition from “a monologic language to one consciously double-edged” (Eldred 687). Eldred calls it “a fiction that dramatizes the collision between competing discourse communities, their language conventions, and their inherent social logics, a fiction that invites us to analyze constructed characters as they negotiate and appropriate various discourses and world views” (686). Although Robin realizes that can’t return home, he does not enthusiastically embrace the chaotic life of the city either. Perhaps most importantly, he has realized that he must adopt “a new subject of inquiry” and establish his own unique, individual discourse (Hawthorne 2207).
Interestingly, the author creates his own dialogical discourse within the tale by refusing to present one view or perspective as correct. The traditional view of the Revolution is one of courage and bravery - something to inspire pride among the nation’s citizens. However, this view is subverted with his unlikely presentation of this “glorious” revolution. It is described as a “senseless uproar,” composed of “a mass of people, inactive, except as applauding spectators” (2205). At the time that the story was written, during the presidency of Jackson, this deterioration of democracy into a discordant anarchy was a substantial fear. An incident that occurred on the day of Jackson’s inauguration gives a literal and metaphorical significance to this fear. At his White House party, hordes of common people trampled through the reception, stomping on furniture with their muddy boots and creating a general disruption (Mackey 63). This near riot only encouraged a suspicion that was already forming in people’s minds - that the reality of a democratic nation based on liberal individualism would not be a stable and rational order, but an indecipherable and noisy crowd of people. One commentator even wrote that it was “King Mob,” and not Jackson, who was the true leader of the American nation (63).
Contrasted with this, we have the patriotic view of Revolution at the introduction with the description of the colonial governors. The citizens despised any “exercise of power, which did not emanate from themselves” (Hawthorne 2194). This view of revolution, as a noble overthrow of an oppressive system, is firmly rooted within American mythologies. Hawthorne, though, exposes this revolution as something entirely different. Robin’s participation in the procession is not voluntary or deliberate; rather, he has been swept up in the chaotic exhilaration of the moment. He despotic tyrant that they overthrow is alternately described as a “large and majestic person” with a “steady soul” (2205). The courageous revolutionaries are merely “trampling all on an old man’s heart” (2206). It is clear that this “victory of the young over the old, the present over the past, democracy over monarchy, cannot be achieved without a radical ‘sacrifice of relations,’ nor without the shameful degradation of victor and victim alike…” (Cohen 27). Hawthorne refuses to give the reader a one-sided view of revolution. Instead, he shows that progress means different things to different people; some gain independence while others gain “foul disgrace” (28). Instead of being a “realization of reason and freedom,” the procession acts as a metaphor for the country in which all “order breaks down” (Bunge 9). The nation which extols the virtues of independence, rationality and freedom achieves this through the “irrational, discordant actions of the rebellious mob” (28). Most importantly, however, Hawthorne leaves the reader with no single answer.
Since there is no objective meaning, a third dialogical discourse is created between Hawthorne and the reader. The text does not dictate or impose a truth on the readers, but forces them to create and form their own interpretation (Cagidimetrio 28). Just as Robin produced his own discourse, so must the readers produce theirs, without relying on traditional ideologies. Thus, the reader also enters the world of the carnival, “to play a role [and] to wear a mask” (Steele 183). The problem of the correct answer is apt to be a futile and irrelevant search for something that just isn’t there. Instead, a wide variety of interpretations are incorporated and accepted. This community of ideologies is crucial to the workings of democracy, and thus an important part of romance fiction:
This mode of storytelling could not (in the manner of realistic, sentimental, or epistolary fiction) thematize values or ideas - as if there were a social or moral or even psychological “truth” out there that was the writer’s responsibility to encode. Instead, like democracy itself, it would have to permit the play of conflict and controversy. It would have to accommodate multiple and even contradictory systems of belief, to produce a text that, poised on a question, would demand the interpretive skills and active involvement of the reader. Only such a text, in the views of the romance writers, could contribute to creating a culture hospitable to, supportive of, and capable of realizing the values of democracy and pluralism (Budick, Nineteenth 20).By requiring the reader to interact directly with the text, the dialogical discourse extends into the larger community, forming a multitude of perspectives and opinions. It is for this reason that it was so important for Romantic writers to have their works read. The text, by itself, was useless and contained no inherent truth. Only a relationship between the text and the reader could produce meaning and, thus, contribute to the ideology of democracy.
Although it appears that Hawthorne undermines
democracy and revolution, he does precisely the opposite. If Hawthorne
were to simply support and idealize the revolutionaries, he would be also
be negating the politics of revolution. A single truth would be exalted
as correct, and a new authority and a new order would be in place.
Overthrowing one monological discourse only to replace it with another
is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, romantic literary theories utilize
subjectivity and dialogical discourse - both concepts that deny the existence
of objective and unchanging truth. As these concepts focus respectively
on the individual and the community, that problematic gap in democratic
culture is bridged. Hawthorne asserts with “My Kinsman, Major Molinuex”
that it is necessary to have a constant interchange of ideas which creates
a persistent dialectical tension. Otherwise, society will grow stagnant
and complacent. The poetics of romance perfectly suit the realities of
a democratic society. Assuredly, the Romantic genre performed the critical
function of establishing a unique cultural identity for the newly forming
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