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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

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.

Passages Relating to Alienation in "Feathertop"

Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
 

Passages Relating to Art and the Artist:
Passages Relating to Hawthorne's Satire of the World:

Passages Relating to Art and the Artist:

  • In costuming her scarecrow Mother Rigby chooses exotic garments, some of which come to her through the "Black Man" or through other witches. Here Hawthorne makes the connection between the artist's work and the demonic, suggesting that the powers of creation carry with them a touch of the supernatural. 
     
  • In taking delight in her creation, Mother Rigby defies "any witch in New England" to make anything as good as Feathertop. Reading the passage, one cannot help but imagine Hawthorne himself feeling something of Mother Rigby's pleasure for, after all, he not only created Feathertop, but Mother Rigby herself. It is hard to imagine a man as self-aware as Hawthorne failing to feel a connection between himself and his jolly witch. 
     
  • Hawthorne offers in these three passages from "Feathertop" a humorously self-deprecating and yet somewhat revealing judgment on art and, perhaps, his art in particular. In the first passage, he suggests that artistic success is merely a "spectral illusion," one that might well vanish if scrutinized too closely. In the second, he as good as confesses that the characters he has contrived for his romances are no more substantial than Mother Rigby's scarecrow. In the third, then, a passage that occurs at the moment in the story when Mother Rigby is exhorting[ Feathertop to come to life, that is, the point in the tale which is least credible, Hawthorne wryly tells the reader that he would find the story believable, if only he believed in it, a conclusion which is quite funny and which arises naturally from the direction he's taken in the first two passages.

    Passages Relating to Hawthorne's Satire of the World:

  • In this amusing passage, the townsfolk speculate on the European, and therefore elevated, origins of Feathertop as he, a stranger, strolls through town. Hawthorne's satire is broad, but effective, and the passage puts one in mind of "The Emperor's New Clothes." It is apparent, however, that humor at the expense of the local simple people is, in itself, indicative of the distance of the artist from regular people. 
     
  • In the first two passages Hawthorne satirizes the empty language that commonly passes for civilized discourse and, by extension, satirizes those who speak in such a way. The story strongly suggests that these men are nothing but scarecrows themselves and indeed, as the third passage states, it is not an unusual occurrence for a pretty girl like Polly Gookin, empty herself, to give her heart away to a shadow. The scorn for the worldthat the passages imply points to the distance both Mother Rigby and Hawthorne felt from it.
     
  • While the image this passage conjures in the reader's mind may be largely humorous, it nevertheless echoes a similar passage in "The Minister's Black Veil," one much darker, in which Reverend Hooper also sees himself in a mirror and is horrified at the reflection. Both stories point to the great difficulty of seeing ourselves as we truly are and it is deeply ironic that the scarecrow uses his epiphany to change while Reverend Hooper does not. 
     
  • At the story's conclusion, Mother Rigby decides against giving Feathertop another chance to make his way in the "empty and heartless" world they inhabit and instead makes him, as she originally intended, a scarecrow, an occupation fit for such a one as Feathertop. Before calling for Dickon to light her pipe, she offers a wry judgment on the vocations of most of Feathertop's "human brethren." 
      Full text of " Feathertop"

Original Documents Related to "Feathertop"

Witches of Warboyse
Witches of Warboyse
Frontispiece to"A Complete History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft...." (London, 1715)  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse
This portrait of Old Mother Rigby from "Feathertop" serves as the frontispiece for the 1893 or 1894 edition of the Henry Altemus publication of Mosses From an Old Manse.  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

Images Related to "Feathertop"

Witches of Warboyse
Witches of Warboyse
Frontispiece to"A Complete History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft...." (London, 1715)  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
Illustration for \"Feathertop: A Moralized Legend,\" opposite p. 253, from <I>Hawthorne's Works,</I> vol. 2
Illustration for "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend," opposite p. 253, from Hawthorne's Works, vol. 2 
from the 1882 Riverside Press 15 volume edition of Hawthorne's works published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in Boston  (courtesy of Halldor F. Utne)
Frontispiece illustration \"Several Personages descending toward the Door\" by Frank T. Merrill
Frontispiece illustration "Several Personages descending toward the Door" by Frank T. Merrill 
In Colonial Days, in the edition published by L.C. Page & Co. in 1906  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

The gentlemen illustrated here provide a fairly good idea of how Mother Rigby might have decked out her scarecrow, Feathertop, before sending him into town.

 

Postcard c. 1900 of the Parlor in the House of the Seven Gables
Postcard c. 1900 of the Parlor in the House of the Seven Gables
 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

This postcard, which purports to be illustrative of the parlor in the House of the Seven Gables could as well be the parlor in which Feathertop courts the infatuated Polly Gookin.]

 

Salem View, 1839.  Looking North on Washington Street from the intersection of Front Street.
Salem View, 1839. Looking North on Washington Street from the intersection of Front Street. 
Engraving from John W. Barber's Historical Collections, 1839, Worcester.  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

John Barber's engraving of a view of Salem catches the flavor of the sort of town Feathertop visited when Mother Rigby sent him into the world to make his fortune.

Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse
This portrait of Old Mother Rigby from "Feathertop" serves as the frontispiece for the 1893 or 1894 edition of the Henry Altemus publication of Mosses From an Old Manse.  (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

Lectures and Articles Related to "Feathertop"

Mosses From an Old Manse
Mosses From an Old Manse (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
 

 

  • "'Feathertop': Smoke and Mirrors" by David Donavel, Chair, Department of English, Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA
    In this essay David Donavel examines the symbol of the mirror in Hawthorne's work, focussing particularly on its use in "Feathertop." Donavel asserts that "[t]he looking glass or mirror provides, it appears, a way for Hawthorne to articulate a sense of something like a 'parallel reality' in which truths are revealed that are otherwise hidden. This 'through the looking glass world' is closely allied to the created or imagined reality of romance, a reality that distorts our everyday sunlit experience in order to show us significance otherwise unavailable."