Hawthorne’s Use of Light (My Kinsman, Major Molineux)

by Ezekiel Fry

The backdrop for “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is a “moonlight evening”, Hawthorne states initially, and it is into this scene that the country youth, Robin strides (30). This ubiquitous moonlight slowly works upon Robin by “creating, like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects,” and clouds his thoughts like a wizard’s charm (Hawthorne 41, 39). Even so, from the first moments, when Robin is illuminated in detail by the light of the ferryman’s lantern, there is a contrasting light that may have its own special properties. By this artificial, or human, light, as represented here in the form of the ferryman’s lantern, the reality of Robin, from head to toe, is revealed (Hawthorne 30). There is nothing enchanted or stilted about the description that is given of the young man beneath the lantern’s glow. Human light cuts through the ambiguity of the bewitching moonlight giving a clear picture of the young man. The “moonlight evening” casts a spell over Robin’s perception that only the presence of human light can penetrate to reveal truth.
Under the spell of the “moonlight evening” Robin, filled with his own assumptions about the nobility of his search, first approaches an old man. Robin accosts this man on the street and the encounter plays out “just when the light from the open door and windows of a barber’s shop, fell upon both their figures” (Hawthorne 31). This spotlighting of the interview works to place Robin on display, just as he has been from the opening appraisal of his figure by the ferry-man, under the microscopic and unfeeling vision of a human light. This brief glimpse of stark light does not help Robin discern truth immediately, but instead forces him to flee the scene in shame (Hawthorne 32). In turning away from the light Robin returns to the enchanted world of moonlight where he is free to construct a fanciful explanation for the harshness of that moment under the scrutinizing light (Hawthorne 32). In the course of his flight he finds himself at the door of an inn, where he must once again face the lamp of humanity.
Within the smoky light of the inn, Robin, reassured of himself through his solitary explanation, once again asserts himself in his search. His perception of the events that are transpiring around him is half-formed, as hazy as the atmosphere of the room. He believes that the innkeeper treats him politely, not with “superfluous civility,” but due to “a family likeness” with Major Molineux (Hawthorne 34). As he ventures deeper down the road of his moonlit logic and he announces his desire to find Major Molineux the tone within the room drastically shifts. The smoke seems to clear and every eye becomes focused on him. It is in this moment that Robin once again stands on the edge of perceiving a piece of truth concerning his situation, but faced once again with the jarring intensity of human light he leaves before the truth found in the room can be fully discerned. He finds himself back in the province of moonlight. Here, when removed from the intensity of examination beneath the human light, Robin again creates his own theory of the events that have just occurred (Hawthorne 35). Within the shadows and magic of the moon, Robin may, in addition to diverting himself from what may have occurred earlier, venture on the spot explanations for anyone—or anything—he encounters where human light does not fall.
One such occasion of an interview lit by moonlight alone arises when Robin calls on what he allows himself to believe is the Major’s housekeeper. Robin literally views this woman as she “[comes] forth into the moonlight” (Hawthorne 37). Under the light of the moon Robin sees her as he wants to, as if compelled by “the imaginative power,” and discerns her identity and role in this manner. It is not until the approach of the watchman, and the intrusion of his lantern, that the enchantment of the scene is thrown aside and Robin is forced to see the situation for what it actually is, and thus to flee from the light of humankind once more (Hawthorne 38).
Robin’s perception is heavily dominated by the influence of the moon’s ethereal light, but with each successive intrusion upon his imagined world by the light of mankind the tenor of the moon’s spell begins to change. Each exposure brings a more frantic and ambiguous return to the moonlight. This disconnection from even the most basic aspects of rational perception becomes clear as Robin enters under the “shade” of the church’s steeple (Hawthorne 39). Within this darkest of places, removed from both the moonlight and the light of humankind, Robin discerns the rays of the moon—now removed from his actual being—as they flicker upon a Bible (Hawthorne 42). It is here that Robin’s continued separation from human light, and the shift in focus of the moon’s spell becomes voiced. He yells, “Oh, that any breathing thing were here with me” and with this invocation fades out of his solitary darkly lit world, falling into a dream of sunlit fantasy which rudely returns him to his actual position viewing the ghostly light of the midnight town (Hawthorne 42). This jarring melding of past and present leads to Robin’s vexed cry “Am I here, or there?” (Hawthorne 43). This theme of disconnection, or the increased potency of the moon’s power, is finally brought to a head in Robin’s dreamlike vision of his kinsman staring out of a darkened window (Hawthorne 43). The moon’s power has begun to move towards its zenith, even as the intensity of human light gathers itself to bombard the spell with its garishness.
The defining scene of Robin’s search arises out of the moonlit streets like yet another phantom dream. The torches of the mob push back the enchantment of the moonlight, but they seem only to add to the obscuring properties of the night (Hawthorne 47). However, Robin is now forced to stand against his will and wait for his vision to become clearer. He can no longer evade the approach of truth. It is at this moment that the spell under which he has found himself all through the “moonlight evening” is heightened to its peak, and out of the combined intensity of the torches and the moonlight Robin clearly sees his kinsman in all his tattered shame (Hawthorne 48). The spell that has kept him in blindness—the fallacious viewing of each interaction—has been pushed to its limit in this view of his ruined kinsman, and as the spell is completed, as Robin suffers from “a sort of mental inebriety,” the charm is broken (Hawthorne 49). Robin sees clearly the faces of all the figures he has half encountered during his midnight search and by the consistent light of the torches he realizes the absurd reality of his search (Hawthorne 49). He no longer muses over the nature of his situation. It is quite clear. There are no more half glimpsed images, or flights into darkness, the images of the imagination have become tangible reality in this moment of shame and humiliation. Robin has shed the spell of the moon and within the brutish light of humankind found his kinsman.