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The Problem of Knowing

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    Consider the meaning of ambiguousness: for something to have two contradictory meanings, with emphasis on the unknown. In, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Nathaniel Hawthorne uses ambiguity, as well as other writing tools, to tell a pre-Revolutionary war story about a young man’s journey from childhood innocence into the adult world of evils and reality. Hawthorne utilizes the power of setting, symbolism, and conflict, to name a few, to help portray the problem of knowing that is ever present through out the stories’ entirety. Foremost it is important to know the main character of the story: young Robin is on a journey from the country into town to find his kinsman, the Major Molineux. Robin’s character is round in that it is complex and dynamic. He changes from the innocent youth he is in the beginning to an adult educated in the ways of evil and harshness. On the other hand, Major Molineux’s character, which you never meet until the end of the story is flat: static and yet vital to the story: helping the reader see Robin’s character more clearly. The other characters in the story are significant, but also flat; you never see too much about any of them, further enhancing the ambiguousness of the work. It is the mystery of these flat characters, such as the waiter at the tavern or the woman with the red skirt, which keeps you questioning what exactly is going on.

    Robin’s character is discovered in many ways through the conflicts with each situation he finds himself in through out his journey. Each conflict is carried through a sequence of events that leads to the climax and creates the characters. Robin’s conflict starts with the elder authority figure that he meets on the street, the conflict between the two characters sparks the conflict that Robin eventually finds within himself. He continues to meet different towns people, asking each for his kinsman, but always creating more and more conflict within himself. Each meeting reveals some small clue about the major, but in parallel creates more questions and ambiguity leading to the climax.

    It was no mistake that the story of Robin’s search for Major Molineux was told in the limited-third person narrative. This particular point of view significantly attributes to the problem of knowing; it allows some light to be shed on the questionable sequence of events, but at the same time restricts what is revealed to lead once again to more questions.

    It is important, though, to not forget the vital role of Hawthorne’s choice of setting for this work. Adding to the ambiguousness of the story is the dark, evening setting that the story takes place in; darkness represents the unknown and the light represents the truth. Robin starts his journey with a walk through the woods; woods generally symbolize the unknown as well, but in this story they are not the evil unknown, but in fact only the beginning of what is to come. The setting of the town is important to note: from the dark quietness of the streets to the dark smokiness of the tavern, no light is ever shown brightly enough to give the truth away. Perhaps, though, the most significant of all of Hawthorne’s attributes to this problem of knowing was his use of irony. Language is central to the understanding of Robin’s journey. For instance, the symbolism he uses is vital to the archetypical pattern of a young man’s right of passage. Hawthorne’s use of symbolism paired with ambiguity and irony leads to the reading of two parallel stories. Without the use of these language tools the reader would read only one story, instead the reader is able to also read the underlying story. The real impact this has on the story as a whole is rooted in the fact that all of the symbolism only leads to more questions, attributing greatly to the problem of knowing that encompasses the story.

    Although Hawthorne utilizes irony throughout the story as a language tool, it is important to see that the tone of the whole work is ironic. The way that we are looking at Robin is different from the way he is. This particular form of irony is known as dramatic irony; it is not long from the beginning of the story that it is obvious to the readers that they know more than Robin does. Robin believes hopefully that he will find his kinsman eventually and all will be well, but even the unsophisticated reader sees that something, if not everything, is not right. The ironic tone of the work aids in the problem of knowing not only for Robin’s character, but also for the reader. This in itself may seem ironic, but Hawthorne utilized the power of irony to create question after question in both the character and the reader’s mind.

    In conclusion, it is attainable for you as the reader to understand the problem of knowing that Robin faces once you realize the many ingredients used to emphasize this problem. Hawthorne’s deliberate use of symbolism, ambiguity, tone, setting and so on attribute to the effectiveness of his story. With these tools, the author was able to clearly represent the age-old story of man’s journey from innocent naivety to adulthood in a unique and original way.


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    The Problem of Knowing. (2018, Nov 24). Retrieved from

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