Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

The Ungovernable Puppets and Biopolitics of Hawthorne's Gothic Satires

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

The Ungovernable Puppets and Biopolitics of Hawthorne's Gothic Satires

Article excerpt

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend," one of his last short stories, was composed in 1851 and published the following year. (1) It is a short tale of a vivified pumpkin-headed scarecrow who by means of a witch's pipe assumes the aspect of a wealthy foreign noble in a humble American town. Impressed by his garb and gait, the unquestioning townsfolk suppose the eponymous hero to be a cosmopolitan man of means, and he wins immediate access to the most eligible bachelorette, Polly Gookin--until he spots his true self in a mirror. Devastated, the "fantastic contrivance" (Hawthorne 10:232) returns to Mother Rigby, his creator, full of self-contempt: "I've seen myself for the wretched, ragged, empty thing I am! I'll exist no longer" (10:245). Before her, in a moment of reckless self-abandon, Feathertop discards the pipe that animates him and his body tumbles apart. It is an act both deliberate and defiant--he will not be the witch's puppet--and it connects Hawthorne's dark satire to a tradition of radical politics in English Romantic literature. "Feathertop" reveals that Hawthorne was familiar with both the Gothic tropes deployed by anti-establishment authors of the 1790s, such as William Godwin and Mary Hays, and the satirical wit, political engagement, and cult of self-sacrifice associated with the second generation of English Romantics, such as Percy Shelley and William Hone.

Feathertop's climatic defiance of Mother Rigby--the puppet cutting its own strings--calls attention to the lack of any significant action elsewhere in the story. Indeed "Feathertop" is a Gothic and satirical allegory of what Michel Foucault calls the "biopolitics" of nineteenth-century capitalism (21-2). Foucault argues that, preoccupied with calculating their narrow self-interests, populations in the nineteenth century failed to raise larger political questions about the realities of capitalism, a failure which rendered them susceptible to unrecognized government manipulations (323). Capitalizing on this failure, governments began to promote this short-sightedness by encouraging the application of "the

rationality of the market" to all domains of life, even those "not primarily economic" in nature, in order to render populations more governable; the more people are preoccupied with micro-managing their own lives, the more they themselves become manageable (323). In other words, while people believed they determined the course of their lives, they were in fact quickly losing their autonomy and becoming increasingly subject to economic markets and governmental regulation. Moreover, Foucault argues, when human affairs are organized around capitalist markets which necessarily involve innumerable variables and transactions, instead of an identifiable sovereign, then political and economic reality becomes much more murky; "the theory of the invisible hand disqualified the political sovereign," and produced an economic world that was necessarily "opaque and ... non-totalizable" (282-3). As a result, "economic rationality [in a capitalist system] is ... founded on the unknowability" of markets (283), and as a result people readily accept what is presented to them as reality as they pursue their own narrow interests. Through tropes of puppetry and machinery, Hawthorne exploits the Gothic potential of the "unknowability" of the economic forces that steer the lives of common folk and he satirizes the credulity of common Americans. In sacrificing himself, Feathertop--the puppet of the story--heroically reveals, opposes, and foils Mother Rigby's invisible machinations that aim to control the lives of the townspeople in ways they have yet to even imagine. The more human Feathertop seems to become, the more puppet-like everyone else becomes.

"Feathertop" is rife with allusions to puppets and machinery. Mother Rigby calls her scarecrow-man a "puppet" three times before he leaves her and "poor puppet" upon his return (10:226, 232, 245). …

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