Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Allie Penchar, a student in Dr. White’s American Literature class at Lewis University. Dr. White’s students were to submit one of their public posts for the class to the Jet Fuel Review Blog as an assignment. Allie has provided her post on American motifs in short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
America is all about the individual selves, always questioning the environment around us as well as ourselves when trying to fit into the new environment we have been settled in. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works he expresses this American motif through his suspenseful twisting plots. In Hawthorne’s short stories, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown” they all share the major theme of doubt in the time of a new nation. The American motifs that are expressed in these stories collectively are the exploring of new territory as well as exploring the self and the theme of the individual self making its way into the new nation.
The theme of exploration of the individual self and the new environment is explicitly present in the story, “My Kinsman, Major Molineus”, where the main character Robin, who has traveled to this new land to try to find his kinsman, explores all around town asking where his kinsman may be. However, every time he asks someone in the town about the Kinsman, they all laugh and Robin feels left out not knowing why. While Robin wanders the streets he eventually finds his kinsman who has been tar and feathered. Robin laughs along with the crowd in order to fit in as the individual once they ask him if he recognizes his kinsman. However, the theme of doubt is illustrated throughout the story of doubting who to trust whenever he asks where his Kinsman may be. He even doubts himself at the end of the story whether to stay in the new land by questioning the beliefs of the people of the new town when he is asked by another character to stay, “Some few days hence, if you continue to wish it, I will speed you on your journey. Or, if you prefer to remain with us, perhaps, as you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux” (Hawthorne 605). Along with this questioning of whether to stay, the character tries to convince him to stay that he can rise economically if he works hard in the new nation which is another major American motif that is expressed.
The theme of doubt continues in another one of Hawthorne’s stories called, “Young Goodman Brown”, in this story Goodman Brown, the main character, tries to overcome the doubt of his faith and what he believes in. His wife’s name is Faith which acts as a double meaning when he explores the new territory of the forest and starts his own individual journey of what he believes in. He imagines that he sees his wife Faith agreeing to work with the devil which he meets in the forest. During this time, he begins to question in the forest “Where is Faith?”(Hawthorne 612). This acts as a double meaning of looking for his wife and his own believe on his journey of exploration of himself with his faith. Also, he begins to question his faith even more when he sees his wife with the devil, “Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?”(Hawthorne 609). He describes that even though he sees everyone is doing the same thing as his wife, does that mean he should give up the individual self in his exploration to fit in. This is a huge American motif to express the individual self through exploring new land with the forest providing the new nation as the role of landscape.
Exploring new land is not the only way to find the individual self, but exploring the individual self in a new community is a major motif as well which is expressed in Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”. Everyone in the village doubts the minister in the community at first based on not knowing why the Minister wears a black veil. However, through this exploration he not only finds his individual self but connects with others as well that they can easily connect to the priest for they have sinned as well. The main character depicts through the text the aspect of the Jeremiah that he found in his individual self and among individual others that they are all under the watchful eye of God sinning and he explored this aspect of himself in his new territory of community.
Therefore, through these stories the themes of doubt and the major American motif of finding the individual self through explorations of new territories is relevant to American literature. The idea of starting over and finding place in a new environment whether it be in a new community or a new place, we struggle to find our individual self and stay true to it once we have explored our inner self.
— Allie Penchar