It was the very spot to utter the extremest nonsense or the profoundest wisdom, or that ethereal product of the mind which partakes of both, and may become one or the other, in correspondence with the faith and insight of the auditor.
—Hawthorne, “The Old Manse”
In this article, I intend to make several remarks in the direction of an interpretation of Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” I will not, however, be trolling the text for its hidden metaphors or its class prejudices or its socioeconomic or racial undertones, and I will definitely not be engaging in hermeneutic imperialism or textual colonialism. I will be doing, in short, what I think critics used to do, before they got the idea that they were all formidable philosophers and redoubtable social critics. I will be striving to construct a preliminary interpretation of what I take to be a fine work of literature.
In attempting to construct an adequate, or even a satisfying, interpretation of a work of fiction, the critic must assume that the work of art under scrutiny is perfect. The hypothesis that any element in a work of fiction is idiosyncratic and thereby, meaning-less, is absolutely the critic’s last resort. Such a judgment of any adequate work of literature represents a failure of interpretation. In the interpretation of Moby Dick, we are intrigued if a critic observes that white is typically associated with purity and innocence, yet that nature, on Melville’s showing, is anything but pure and innocent, and so white, as the color of the whale, is presumably ironic. On the other hand, if all that a critic can produce in answer to the question, “Why is the whale white?” is “Perhaps white was Melville’s favorite color,” that critic has failed. We assume that each identifiable element is present and in its place for a reason…
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