Launchpad: "The May-pole of Merry Mount," by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Maypole of Merry MountDirections: This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The May-pole of Merry Mount.” After reading the background, turn to read the story itself.

To help you understand the story and its wider significance, there are a series of questions for reflection. After discussing or thinking about these questions, click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Yuval Levin (National Affairs) about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

 

About the Author | Summary | Read the Story

Thinking about the Story

  • The Merry-Mounters
  1. 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 cup bearer to the god Dionysus (Bacchus, to the Romans), usually depicted as a winged youth or as a child-satyr). How is the leader like Comus? What do the festivities tell you about the people of Merry Mount?
  2. What is the May-Pole? What does it mean that the Merry-Mounters venerate it?
  3. How do the Merry-Mounters live day by day? Why have they embraced “a wild philosophy of pleasure”? Can you defend their view of life?
  4. What is the meaning of the presence of wild animals—and of human beings costumed as half-human/half-animal—at their festival? What is their view of the place of humankind in the natural world?
  5. Is this a sustainable community? Why or why not?
  6. Is Hawthorne’s picture of Merry Mount satirical or serious?

WATCH: What are the Merry-Mounters like? What animates them?

  • The Puritans
  1. What are the Puritans like?
  2. What do they revere? What is their implicit view of the place of humankind in the natural world?
  3. Why do the Puritans attack Merry Mount? Can you defend what they think and do?
  4. Why the practice of public shaming (the stocks) of wrongdoers? Is shame useful or necessary for communal life?
  5. Is this a sustainable community? Why or why not?
  6. 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 descriptions?

WATCH: What are the Puritans like? What animates them? 

  • The Young Couple: Edith and Edgar
  1. What is the premonition that Edith and Edgar have just before they are to be married? What is “Edith’s mystery”?
  2. What is their reaction—to each other, and to Endicott—when threatened with punishment?
  3. Are they typical Merry-Mounters, or do they represent something different? If the latter, what is it?
  4. 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”?
  5. Why, when they leave Merry Mount, do they leave without regret? Are they now going to become Puritans like the rest?

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?

  • The Story as “a sort of allegory”
  1. What does Hawthorne mean when he says that “the facts ... have wrought themselves ... into a sort of allegory”? An allegory of what?
  2. We are told that the parties of gloom (the Pilgrims) 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?
    2. 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?

Thinking with the Text

From its earliest beginnings, America has held together two ideas and practices that are often thought to be—and sometimes are in fact—in tension with each other: the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion. In his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville attributes both of these spirits to the Puritans, whom he takes to provide the point of departure for the American way of life. Every human community reverences or looks up to something. But not every community encourages the exercise of the rights to life, liberty, and the private pursuit of happiness. Conversely, not all pursuits of private happiness are compatible with a sustainable and decent community, especially where there is a lack of reverence that would support private self-restraint and public morals. The story invites us to consider some of the larger questions about the relation, especially in America, among religion, morality, freedom, and human flourishing. It also invites questions about the place of marriage and family among people who are devoted to the pursuit of individual happiness, on the one hand, and to the glory of Heaven, on the other.

  • Religion and Freedom
  1. Is there anything distinctly American about the confrontation between the two kinds of communities and views Hawthorne describes? Does the contest continue today?
  2. Which provides better support for a society of free, self-governing individuals, a biblical religion like that of the Puritans or nature-worship like that of the Merry-Mounters?

WATCH: Is there anything distinctly American about the confrontation between the two kinds of communities and views Hawthorne describes? Does the contest continue today?

  • Marriage and Community
  1. Is there something uniquely American about the marriage of Edgar and Edith?
  2. What does the story suggest is the proper relationship between marriage/family and community—especially between marriage/family and a community like ours, which is based not on ancient traditions and families but on shared ideals and principles? What is the relationship between the importance of marriage/family and the American celebration of the individual?
  3. If the Merry-Mounters celebrate the body without regard to the soul, and the Puritans celebrate the (disembodied) soul without regard to earthly life, is there something in marriage and family that can correct each of these partial and utopian visions?
  4. Does a marriage like that of Edgar and Edith still offer a living answer to a living problem in our time?

WATCH: Is there something uniquely American about the marriage of Edgar and Edith?

  • Love and Happiness
  1. Is there a difference between jollity (or mirth) and genuine happiness (or joy)? If so, what is the difference? Is real happiness compatible with sadness, loss, and suffering? Why or why not?
  2. Is true love necessary for rich personal happiness? For a fulfilling life?

 

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