The story is set in Massachusetts around 1630, at the time of the first English colonies in the New World. It depicts an incident in the feud between the Puritans at Salem, under their governor, John Endicott, and a rival settlement called Merry Mount, founded by Thomas Morton. These two settlements represent different stances toward the world. Hawthorne says that “jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” and that “the future complexion of [New] England was involved in this important quarrel.” The story opens with the people of Merry Mount celebrating round their revered May-Pole. Their wild festivities culminate with the marriage of a youth and a maiden, Edgar and Edith, the lord and lady of the May-Pole. After introducing us to this young couple, Hawthorne, in the middle section of the story, interrupts the story of the wedding to describe the origins of the hedonistic philosophy of Merry Mount, as well as the main features of the Puritans. The third and final section of the story depicts a Puritan raid upon the Merry Mount gathering, just after the marriage had taken place. Endicott and his followers chop down the May-Pole and have its votaries whipped and placed in the stocks. They arrest the high priest of Merry Mount and kill the dancing bear. Most interesting, though, is what happens to the newlywed couple. Endicott, a man of iron, is unaccountably softened by their obvious love and care for one another, and he spares them the punishments that the others receive. Instead, he orders that they be dressed in more modest clothing, Edgar has his hair cut in the “true pumpkin-shell fashion,” and Endicott takes them into the Puritan fold. In the final paragraph, Endicott, the severest Puritan of them all, salvages a wreath of roses taken from the May-Pole itself and places it over the heads of Edith and Edgar.
Said by the author to be a “sort of allegory,” the story depicts an early version of the culture wars, between a party of otherworldly piety or “gloom” (the Puritans) and a party of pleasure or “jollity” (the Merry-Mounters). The cultural struggles between the two outlooks on life appear to be deeply embedded in the American grain.
A. The Merry-Mounters
- Describe the scene of the festival around the May-Pole, including their leader, who is likened to Comus (the Greek god of revelry and merrymaking, son and cupbearer to the god Dionysus, or Bacchus, to the Romans, usually depicted as a winged youth or as a child-satyr) (2–4). How is the leader like Comus? What do the festivities tell you about the people of Merry Mount?
- What is the May-Pole (5–6)? What does it signify? What does it mean that the Merry-Mounters worship it?
- How do the Merry-Mounters live day by day? Why do they live as they do? Why have they embraced “a wild philosophy of pleasure” (5)? Can you defend their view of life?
- What is the meaning of the presence of wild animals—and of human beings costumed as half-human/half-animal—at their festival (2)? What is the implicit view of the place of humankind in the natural world?
- What does this community produce? Do you think this community will last long given the Merry-Mounters’ free-spirited ways? Why or why not?
- Do you think Hawthorne’s description of Merry Mount is realistic and thus serious? Or, do you think the story is a satire?
WATCH: What are the Merry-Mounters like? What animates them?
B. The Puritans
- Looking at page 6, what are the Puritans like? What motivates them?
- What do they revere? What is their view of the place of humankind in the natural world?
- Why do the Puritans attack Merry Mount (7)? Can you defend what they think and do?
- Why the practice of public shaming (the stocks) of wrongdoers (8)? What is the relationship between shame and societal norms? What is the role of shame in a community? Could a community last without shame?
- Do you think the Puritan community, as depicted, can last? Why or why not? What does it produce?
- Is Hawthorne’s picture of the Puritans satirical or serious? What do we know of the historical Puritans in America? Do they fit Hawthorne’s description?
WATCH: What are the Puritans like? What animates them?
C. The Young Couple: Edith and Edgar
- What is the premonition that Edith and Edgar have just before they are to be married? What is “Edith’s mystery” (4)?
- What is their reaction—to each other, and to Endicott—when threatened with punishment?
- Are they typical Merry-Mounters, or do they represent something different? If so, what is it?
- Do you think Edith and Edgar’s current joy in one another, as described at their wedding, will fade with time?
- What is it about them that moves and softens Endicott, the Puritan of Puritans? What is the meaning of the fact that he throws over their heads a wreath taken from the May-Pole? What is meant when this is called “a deed of prophecy” (10)?
- Why, when they leave Merry Mount, do they leave without regret (10–11)? Are they now going to become Puritans like the rest? Or are they bringing something new to Puritanville? If so, what?
WATCH: To which community do the young couple—Edgar and Edith—belong?
WATCH: What is the meaning of the wreath that Endicott throws over the heads of Edgar and Edith?
D. The Story as “a Sort of Allegory”
- What does Hawthorne mean when he says that “the facts . . . have wrought themselves . . . into a sort of allegory” (1)? (Note: An allegory is a literary device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts.) An allegory of what?
- We are told that the parties of gloom (the Puritans) and jollity (the Merry-Mounters) were contending for an empire (1).
- As presented in the story, would you rather live among the Puritans or among the Merry-Mounters? Why?
- Does either party win a clear victory over the other? Or can neither side win unless it incorporates something from the other—or, better, from some third alternative (perhaps represented here by the love of Edith and Edgar)? What should the Puritans learn from the Merry-Mounters? And vice versa? What should both groups learn from Edith and Edgar?
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