Hawthorne begins the story with a short explanation of historical context. To demonstrate the “jealous scrutiny” with which American colonists regarded British “exercise of power”, Hawthorne writes that of six governors, four met miserable ends within a frame of forty years.
One evening, an country boy named Robin, barely eighteen, arrives by ferry in Boston in search of his kinsman, Major Molineux. A youth with brown, curly hair, well-shaped features, and bright, cheerful eyes, Robin appears a merry traveler, eagerly entering the New England colony.
Lost in a new environment, Robin sees an old man with a cane, and hurries to ask him where he might find the dwelling of his kinsman. He grabs hold of the man’s skirt hem, but the man reacts with great hostility, ordering Robin to “let go of his garment” and telling him, “I have the authority”. A threat is uttered: “If this be the respect you show your betters, your feet shall be brought acquainted with the stocks, by daylight, tomorrow morning!”
Next, Robin enters an inn, and again inquires about his kinsman – but only after first seeing a curious man, whose “features were separately striking almost to grotesqueness”. Robin’s reference to his kinsman is met again with derision. The innkeeper insinuates that Robin is a wanted man, a servant who has run away, and that a reward has been posted for his return to jail. Robin is at first indignant, and assumes that the locals are simply incompetent, but senses the hostility in the Inn and moves on. As he leaves, he hears laughter escaping the Inn.
Continuing through the streets, Robin spies a house with a woman in the doorway, and decides to try his luck once more. The woman, Robin finds, is a pretty mistress in a scarlet petticoat, whose eyes possess a “sly freedom” that “triumphed over those of Robin.” She tells Robin that the Major lives at that house, but that he is in bed. She is leading him inside the house when movements in the street make her flee into hiding. The movements belong to a night watchman, who, upon seeing Robin, calls “Home, vagabond, home, or we’ll set you in the stocks by peep of day!” This is the third threat Robin has encountered. His shrewedness tells him not to enter the dwelling, and he flees, resisting the temptation of the pretty mistress.
Desperately roaming streets to no avail, Robin passes by a few parties of strangely dressed men who speak in a foreign language. Finally, he runs into a man while passing a church, and bars the man’s passage. The stranger reveals himself as the horrific-looking stranger from the Inn – except now, his face had undergone a change in complexion; one side of his face is red, while the other is black. The man tells him to wait, and the Major will pass by that very spot in an hour's time.
Robin sits on the steps of a church and, as he peers into a window, sees a moonbeam strike an open Bible. Robin fantasizes about his father's home. He imagines his family in prayer and his mother, brother and sister thinking of and missing him. As the service draws to a close, Robin's sister closes the door to their home before he can enter. Robin feels he has been excluded.
While seated, Robin encounters a man who looks “intelligent, cheerful, and altogether prepossessing countenance.” Robin begins speaking to the man, and tells him that his father was a clergyman. While the Major, Robin’s uncle, had inherited riches, he did not have any children, and had shown an interest in Robin. As Robin’s elder brother was to succeed to the farm, Robin was destined to profit by his kinsman’s generous intentions. The man waits alongside Robin for the Major.
As they sit, they hear shouting growing louder and louder, and Robin inquires as to the multiplicity of voices. The man asks Robin, “May not one man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?” The shouts grow louder, and suddenly, a mighty stream of people enters the street. The leader, a single horseman in military attire whom Robin recognizes as the two-faced devil, looks Robin squarely in the eye. The crowd stops, and in the center is Major Molineux, tarred and feathered. Though his face is pale and contorted in agony, his “bitterest pang” is in locking eyes with his nephew, who realizes, finally, the truth about his kinsman.
Suddenly, those had “made sport” of Robin that night begin to laugh, a contagion that takes over the multitude. Robin, frozen with “pity and terror,” is taken over by the same contagion, until his laugh is the loudest of all. As the procession moves on, Robin asks the man beside him to take him to the ferry. The man, instead, suggests that Robin stay in the city, and rise in the world without the help of his uncle.
My Kinsman, Major Molineux has been considered a parable for America’s “coming of age” in its quest for independence from Great Britain. The colonies do not attack their real father (the British King), but rather governors such as Molineux, a removed authority figure and representative of colonialists. As an analogy, America’s “coming of age” also is achieved through a denunciation of traditional European values. At the end of the story, when Robin laughs along with the crowd, he has “come to age” and has shown his other “complexion”.
Hawthorne’s attitude toward the characters in the story is positively skewed toward the Major, the representation of Europe. Major Molineux is described as an “elderly man, of large and majestic person, and strong, square features, betaking a steady soul,” a victim to a vicious crowd of “fiends” producing “senseless uproar.” Hawthorne sympathizes with the Major, regarding the mob as “trampling all on an old man’s heart” and disgracing “a head that had grown grey in honor”.
Throughout Robin’s search, the struggle between obedience and authority also presents itself – the first man Robin meets says, “I have the authority,” and he is also the man who begins the laughter at the end. At the same time, Robin greets the man with his own sense of authority – by grasping onto the stranger’s hem and refusing to let go. Despite earlier displays of his naivete, Robin also shows defiance against the devil-faced stranger with two complexions by barring him in the street and demanding that he confess the whereabouts of the Major. Dovetailing with the metaphorical "coming of age" of the colonists, Robin's own journey takes him into adulthood.
Another curious element is the diversity in voices and complexions, which some critics argue represent duplicity of emotions. The crowd leader’s face shows a side of red and another black; the woman in the petticoat seems to have many voices, and Robin, in laughing along with the crowd, seems to demonstrate his “other complexion” as well. The theme of change occurs both in a visual and auditory nature; as Robin waits by the church, he sees the pillar seem to change into stems of pines, for example. It is not until the end, however, that readers recognize the numerous characters that Robin himself can assume - a dutiful son in his fantasy of home and a mocking member of the crowd at the end of the tale.
In the end, Robin desires to leave the city, and remove himself from the mob that, for an instant, he joined in a ruthless way. His request to return to the ferry may demonstrate a rejection of the revolution. At the same time, the story ends with his newfound companion, compelling him to stay and achieve success without his kinsman. This symbolizes the revolutionary notion that prompted colonists to reject their ties with Great Britain, and move forward with neither the help nor hindrance of former relations. Again, this also speaks to Robin's own coming of age and the authority that it is suggested he reject is both metaphorical and literal; to stay in Boston is to part with home and his childhood.
Other authors have provided additional interpretations of Hawthorne’s tale. Simon O. Lesser offers a psychoanalytic approach and argues that Robin was never as intent on finding his relative as the story led readers to believe at face value. As Robin walks into town, he remembers that he probably should have asked the ferryman for directions to the Major’s home. But, he enters into the town with an eagerness, a “light step” that hints he may be attracted to his newfound freedom. The amount of time that elapses between each inquiry regarding his kinsman also supports this argument. Pausing to look at goods in the shop windows, Robin hardly seems impatient to find his relative. When he encounters the pretty housekeeper, he is almost lured into the house through sexual desire. The housekeeper, in this case, could represent Robin's sexual libido, or the sexual restraint he would have to show in his relative's home. Finally, when he avoids the watchman, the one person perhaps most capable of telling him the whereabouts of his kinsman, it becomes quite conceivable that Robin has ulterior motives for entering the New England town.
Lesser argues that Robin unconsciously does not wish to find his relative, as doing so would mean re-submitting to a father-figure type of authority. Indeed, while Robin sits on the Church steps, his dreams seem to link the Kinsman and his father, and the town and his home. Robin’s reaction to seeing his kinsman tarred and feathered, then, is the release of Robin’s unconscious urges which he was, the entire time, finding difficult to control. The Major is, to both the townspeople and to Robin, a “symbol of restraint and unwelcome authority”. The character of the night watchman also develops this argument. As the watchman comes close to catching Robin with the housekeeper, he fills the role of an authoritative figure who is likely to interrupt or discipline sexual behavior. The watchman also is the most natural link between Robin and his kinsman. In avoiding the watchman, Robin avoids both the nearest authority figure (the watchman) and the indirect authority figure (Major Molineux and his father).
Employing a Freudian concept, Lesser argues that the crowd acts out Robin’s “repressed impulses”, making the story not one about a thwarted search for an influential relative, but rather one about an aim that was made unsuccessful by internal inhibitions.