Two hundred years ago, many who lived in the “old world” decided to venture away, settling to the West. Many went on voyages to conquer empires, or participate in trade. But, the colonists of Merry Mount were a different sort of people – they were the merrymakers of the town, the minstrels, wandering players, rope-dancers, and “mirth makers of every sort”. Their livelihoods were disturbed by the growth of Puritanism, and so they came across the sea to settle at Merry Mount. The mirth may have only been a “counterfeit of happiness,” but they “would not venture among the sober truths of life not even to be truly blest”.
The settlers of Merry Mount particularly venerated the Maypole, which they decorated with flowers in the summer and leaves in the autumn. They danced around it every month, and “called it their “religion, or their altar”. They participated in sports and pastimes, such as teaching a bear to dance, or playing blind man’s bluff.
Not far away, however, lived a settlement of Puritans, who were quick to strike down savages and were solemn in their processions. If a man in their group danced, he would be punished on the whipping post. A feud of historical importance arose between the two groups; as Hawthorne writes, ‘the future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel.”
One midsummer eve, the inhabitants of Merry Mount hold a festival to celebrate the joining of two youths, the Lord and Lady of the May. Edith, the lady of the May, bears sad look in her eyes, a sadness that was “high treason” at Merry Mount. She tells her new husband that she believes that their jovial friends are only visions, and that their happiness is not real. Edgar, the May Lord, understands her. In the moment that the two began to truly love, they sense something “unsubstantial in their former pleasures”. The love between them made them subject to earth’s “doom of care and sorrow". Edith contemplates death even in this most joyous occasion.
At that moment, the Puritans attack the gathering. The Puritan leader, Endicott, cuts down the Maypole. He begins to sentence the captive Merry Mount settlers to whippings and other punishments. He orders the dancing bear shot because he senses witchcraft. Turning to the Lord and Lady of the May, he senses in the pair a “youthful beauty” that seemed “pure and high”. The May Lord asks Endicott to let his wife go untouched, while the May Lady cries, “be it death, and lay it all on me!” Endicott is touched by the expression of love from the couple, which he recognizes as unique for settlers of Merry Mount. He decides that the two have hope for reform, and throws a wreath over their heads. The couple follows the Puritans, without wasting “one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount.”
At the end of the story, Hawthorne notes that the account is based in some historical truth. Merry Mount did exist at one point in history, and was led by a man named Thomas Morton who was persecuted by the Puritans. The story, therefore, exemplifies the tension between the Puritans, who stand for establishment, solemnity, and order, and the Merrymakers, who tend toward free thinking.
The specific story of the couple, however, may be more symbolic than historical. The relationship between the Edith and Edgar demonstrates the power of true love in the face of two extremes - the pleasure-seeking Merrymakers and the grim Puritans.
While Hawthorne refrains from siding with either the Puritans or the Merrymakers, the tone of the story does indicate that the Merrymakers are, in a way, devoid of true emotion. Even if they understand that their mirth is not real happiness, they still choose it over Thought and Wisdom. They do not understand what Edgar and Edith come to realize – that real happiness relies on contrast between the trials and sorrow in life and the compassion that people may feel for one another. The chilling reminder of death that causes Edith pause in her marital joy - which foreshadows the ensuing raid by the Puritans - enhances her bond with Edgar. They share a feeling of melancholy though it is forbidden by their pagan brethren. But this feeling, like the adversity that arises from Endicott's arrival, deepens their love rather than tear it apart.
On the other hand, the Puritans seem to be harsh and extreme in their dealings with a hedonistic but physically harmless group of individuals. Their ruthless cutting down of the maypole, the shooting of the dancing bear and the trimming of Edgar's hair are broad examples of the rigidness Hawthorne proscribes to their religion. However, Hawthorne paints their leader, Endicott, with a dash of human kindness. Softened by the love of the couple, Endicott spares them and welcomes them into his fold. The Puritans can be seen as severe, but can also be moved by compassion.
An alternate reading, however, could be that Endicott is not softened at all – but rather only accepts the couple after sensing in them a willingness and potential to convert. Therefore, his response to their love is neither compassion nor acceptance, but rather a practical action that serves to demonstrate his rigid desire to purify young minds and eradicate the unclean.