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Excerpt from "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

The word "shrewd" is used in reference to Robin no less than eight times throughout the tale and, since whatever else "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" might be, it is surely a tale of the confrontation of unsophisticated innocence with urbane experience, the repetition is worth examination. While there are, no doubt, numerous possible interpretations of the use of the word, one must be that Hawthorne is suggesting by its repetition both that Robin is not shrewd at all, a fairly plain irony, and that, if he is, his shrewdness consists of a shallow regard for his own welfare, a quality that makes him a good candidate for membership of the nightmare metropolis he visits

Excerpt from "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"
ONE: [Here Robin, rebuffed by the man of authority, imagines he understands the reasons for the man's mistreatment of him. Of course, he is entirely mistaken.]

Robin released the old man's skirt, and hastened away, pursued by an ill-mannered roar of laughter from the barber's shop. He was at first considerably surprised by the result of his question, but, being a shrewd youth, soon thought himself able to account for the mystery

"This is some country representative," was his conclusion, "who has never seen the inside of my kinsman's door, and lacks the breeding to answer a stranger civilly. The man is old, or verily--I might be tempted to turn back and smite him on the nose. Ah, Robin, Robin! even the barber's boys laugh at you choosing such a guide! You will be wiser in time, friend Robin

 

TWO: [Robin makes a similar mistake at the inn, thinking that his poverty and not his family relations, incite the innkeeper to threats. Hawthorne's irony, as in the case of Robin's confrontation with the man of authority, is obvious and amusing.]

"Now, is it not strange," thought Robin, with his usual shrewdness, "is it not strange, that the confession of an empty pocket should outweigh the name of my kinsman, Major Molineux? Oh, if I had one of those grinning rascals in the woods, where I and my oak sapling grew up together, I would teach him that my arm is heavy, though my purse be light!"

 

THREE: [Here Robin's perception is correct. The woman is, indeed, a prostitute, but so obviously so that his insight is something akin to that acumen that notices the sun is up during the daylight hours.]

"Pretty mistress,"for I may call her so with a good conscience, thought the shrewd youth, since I know nothing to the contrary--"my sweet pretty mistress, will you be kind enough to tell me whereabouts I must seek the dwelling of my kinsman, Major Molineux?"

 

FOUR: [Once again, Hawthorne's irony is amusing. It does not take shrewdness to resist temptation when it shows up in a scarlet petticoat and a saucy eye. In addition the value of Robin's escape here is tempered by the fact that he almost succumbed to the woman's charms.]

The watchman made no reply, but turned the corner and was gone; yet Robin seemed to hear the sound of drowsy laughter stealing along the solitary street. At that moment, also, a pleasant titter saluted him from the open window above his head; he looked up, and caught the sparkle of a saucy eye; a round arm beckoned to him, and next he heard light footsteps descending the staircase within. But Robin, being of the household of a New England clergyman, was a good youth, as well as a shrewd one; so he resisted temptation, and fled away.

 

FIVE: [The genus homo who has just left Robin's company is none other than an earthly representative of a devil, the man painted black and red. That Robin fails to "settle the point," even though he concludes that he has, is made clear later in the story when his loud shout of laughter places him in league with that representative]

He seated himself, however, upon the steps of the church-door, resolving to wait the appointed time for his kinsman. A few moments were consumed in philosophical speculations upon the species of the genus homo, who had just left him; but having settled this point shrewdly, rationally, and satisfactorily, he was compelled to look elsewhere for his amusement.

 

SIX: [No shrewd person ever sincerely referred to himself as shrewd. We can readily imagine the half smile on the stranger's face as Robin makes this announcement.]

The elder brother was destined to succeed to the farm, which his father cultivated, in the interval of sacred duties; it was therefore determined that Robin should profit by his kinsman's generous intentions, especially as he seemed to be rather the favorite, and was thought to possess other necessary endowments.

"For I have the name of being a shrewd youth," observed Robin, in this part of his story.

"I doubt not you deserve it," replied his new friend, good-naturedly; "but pray proceed."

"Well, sir, being nearly eighteen years old, and well-grown, as you see," continued Robin, drawing himself up to his full height, "I thought it high time to begin the world. So my mother and sister put me in handsome trim, and my father gave me half the remnant of his last year's salary, and five days ago I started for this place, to pay the Major a visit. But, would you believe it, Sir? I crossed the ferry a little after dusk, and have yet found nobody that would show me the way to his dwelling; only an hour or two since, I was told to wait here, and Major Molineux would pass by."

 

SEVEN: [Here Robin seems to be congratulating himself on "seeing through" the temptations of the prostitute. But, of course, those temptations were transparent from the outset. In addition the "shrewd" Robin seems oblivious to the hint the stranger drops about the possibility of his own duplicity.]

"May not a man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?" said his friend.

"Perhaps a man may; but Heaven forbid that a woman should!" responded the shrewd youth, thinking of the seductive tones of the Major's housekeeper.

 

EIGHT: [In this final use of the word, the meaning may shift slightly. The seductive stranger intent on recruiting Robin into the diabolical population of the "little metropolis" may be suggesting that Robin's shout was indeed shrewd insofar as it allowed him to ally himself with those in power. That Robin's laughter was spontaneous undercuts this view to an extent. It may be however, that the stranger has seen into Robin's heart and found in it an uncharitable and unattractive selfishness, one that will make him a fit residence of the town the stranger appears to represent.]

"Well, Robin, are you dreaming?" inquired the gentleman, laying his hand on the youth's shoulder.

Robin started, and withdrew his arm from the stone post to which he had instinctively clung, while the living stream rolled by him. His cheek was somewhat pale, and his eye not quite as lively as in the earlier part of the evening.

"Will you be kind enough to show me the way to the ferry?" said he, after a moment's pause.

"You have, then, adopted a new subject of inquiry?" observed his companion, with a smile.

"Why, yes, Sir," replied Robin, rather dryly. "Thanks to you, and to my other friends, I have at last met my kinsman, and he will scarce desire to see my face again. I begin to grow weary of a town life, Sir. Will you show me the way to the ferry?"

"No, my good friend Robin, not to-night, at least," said the gentleman. "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."




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