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Alienation in "Feathertop"

Alienation in "Feathertop"

Material prepared by:
David Donavel , Department of English
Masconomet High School, Topsfield, MA
Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

While "Feathertop" is one of Hawthorne's more whimsical tales, it is, nevertheless larded with wry observations about both the act of artistic creation and the shallow values of those who occupy the top rungs of society.

The story opens with Old Mother Rigby, a cheerful witch, deciding to devise a scarecrow to keep the birds away from her newly sprouted corn. But, as she works, she conceives that her construction of sticks and old clothes and a pumpkin head is too fine for employment as a mere scarecrow and determines to bring him to life and send him to town as a gentlemen, there to woo the pretty Polly Gookin, daughter of a powerful public figure in the community who is, in some way the story does not disclose, an enemy of Mother Rigby's.

Literally inspired by smoke from an old magical pipe, Feathertop, for that is the name Mother Rigby gives to her creation, soon comes to life and learns to walk and speak with sufficient social skill so that his sojourn into town and into the presence of Polly Gookin is marked by the promise of success. The townsfolk are mightily impressed with Feathertop's appearance and gait. Polly's father, while sensing something amiss, remains too obtuse or fearful to save Polly from the romantic attentions of a literal stuffed shirt. Only a child and a dog see Feathertop for what he truly is, but, of course, the dazzled populace ignores these accurate observations.

The story reaches a climax when both Polly and Feathertop catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror, a glimpse which reveals to both of them Feathertop's true nature. Polly faints away at the sight. Feathertop is horrified and comes home, a broken pile of sticks, and falls at his creator's feet, explaining that he has come to see who he truly is and cannot bear it, an observation that ironically gives Feathertop more humanity than many who carry only metaphorical pumpkin heads on their shoulders. Mother Rigby considers rejuvenating him, but decides that he's too decent for that and, in the end, determines that an existence as a scarecrow is most fitting.

The artist in this tale is, of course, the isolated witch, Old Mother Rigby, and that fact alone points to the ambiguity with which Hawthorne viewed the artist. As a person who holds an almost magical power to inspirit the merely material, the artist has a great gift, but that gift carries a taint of the demonic, as this story repeatedly suggests. It may be that the artists, like the intellectuals in many of Hawthorne's stories, trespass or seem to trespass in areas rightfully reserved to God, the sacred territory of creation. If so, artist and intellectual both risk the dark pride that so damages some of his more flamboyant villains. In "Feathertop," however, Hawthorne's tone is so light and his artist such a good natured crone, that the notion of spiritual danger lies largely in the background.

Whether the story is, in addition and in part, a small vengeance on the philistine views represented by characters like old Peter Hovenden of "The Artist of the Beautiful," is debatable. If it is, it is further evidence of the gulf Hawthorne himself might have felt between himself and those around him whose lives were filled with mere "getting and spending." What is certain is that Hawthorne's amusing story aims to expose the hollowness of people whose heads are filled only with social convention and, because of that, is as applicable today as it was in the mid nineteenth century.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11692/

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