Issues of Identity 1

January 8, 2015

My Kinsman Major Molineux19th Century American Fiction

What interests us in this essay is to see the way identity (of the individual and of the state) is described in some of the 19th century stories written in the United States of America. Puritanism and the Civil War are two of the factors that left their mark on the American national character, making it unique in its own way. It is difficult to actually say who the Americans are; their identity stands first and foremost under the sign of contradictions (tradition/ innovation, materialism/ idealism, nature/ civilization etc).

We will start this analysis with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story My Kinsman, Major Molineux; the action is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in a time where an anti-British feeling reigned over it. It is presented not only the quest for identity that Robin (the protagonist) has to face, but also the “journey” of America towards independence after it became free from the British monarchy. The same theme (finding one’s identity) is developed in Young Goodman Brown, but from a religious point of view.

If we look at Robin, we see that, even though he considers himself to be shrewd, he’s actually quite a naïve young man. The image of himself and the image others have about him do not coincide. He leaves his house in the countryside and his family in hopes of finding his way in life with the help of Major Molineux, in “the little metropolis of a New England colony”. The experience he goes through is one step towards his coming of age, but he does not seem to understand its importance. He is more concerned about what the future holds for him and we are left to wonder if he decided to return to his family or to remain in the city and become his own man. Even if he did return to his father’s farm, he would still be an outsider; once one steps away from childhood, it is impossible to return to that original frame of mind.

I do not think that Robin reached maturity by the end of the story, but he is getting there, moving away from childlike innocence little by little. I believe he would choose to stay in the urban area and try to stand on his own feet, as an independent man. The laugh at the end of the story was necessary in his coming of age; it was his choice to laugh and it symbolizes the rebellion against authority, a necessary rejection in the process of growing up and getting an identity. Robin becomes aware of his instincts and of the dual nature of the human psyche. It happens during nighttime and it is a somehow similar experience with the one through which Goodman Brown has to go through.

In Young Goodman Brown we see that the protagonist is disappointed when he realizes that no human is completely pure, not even his wife; he cannot accept the ambiguity of the human psyche, the fact that even his wife could be corrupted, and he loses his faith in humanity and salvation. His innocence now lost, his character changes and he becomes “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man”. Through this character, Hawthorne points out the fact that what hides within the Puritan society is actually corruption and darkness, a far cry away from the Christian values it should respect.

Going back to My Kinsman, Major Molineux, we are given in the first paragraph some information about the setting; without it, we would not understand what was really happening in the story, why the Major was punished. We realize that he is a representative of the British monarchy, against which the people from the colony revolt. As mentioned before, the themes of independence and identity do not apply only when Robin is concerned, but also when speaking of the society. The punishment is a symbol for the downfall of a father figure and also of the authority the UK used to have over the colonies. A new state is about to be formed and it needs to be independent and have the possibility to develop its own identity, with new institutions and rules.

A different perspective can be found in Sarah Orne Jewett’s A White Heron. One of the main differences is that in this story it is not a young man who is trying to find who he is or who he will become… it is a young country girl who lives with her grandmother (in a female territory, where male presence is a disturbance). She stands for purity and unrestricted freedom. At the beginning of the story, Sylvia is happy with her life, far from the noisy town and from “the enemy”, a boy who used to bother her. She is the spirit of the forest, part of nature itself, isolated and innocent, far from the industrialized world.A White Heron

Unlike the hunter, she does not see nature as utilitarian, but she still has doubts when faced with the decision she has to make: give away the secret of the heron or let it remain a secret known only by her. Sylvia, just like Bartleby (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener) chooses to remain silent. Despite her doubts, she chooses to remain one with nature (even though regrets would follow her later in life, no matter what she decides), mostly because she knows what waits for her in the city… she came from that place and did not wish to return there. It is not about a world that is good and one that is bad, but about two worlds that are different. Since she has experienced life in both of the environments, she chooses what she considers to be the best option, between nature and civilisation. Just like Robin, she is growing up; maturity means giving up childlike innocence, represented in this case by the white heron, by nature. Sylvia seems to refuse growing up, clinging to her present condition, at least apparently well aware of the consequences of her actions.

Part 2

by Elena Atudosiei

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to Issues of Identity 1

  1. Issues of Identity 2 | eLitere on January 10, 2015 at 7:32 am

    […] Issues of Identity 1 January 8, 2015 […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *