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Literature / Feathertop

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One Heroic BSoD down and one Heroic BSoD coming up.
In 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne published the Fairy Tale-style Short Story "Feathertop". It tells about the day-long life of Feathertop, a scarecrow made by the witch Mother Rigby.

Proud of her handiwork, Mother Rigby brought Feathertop to life with a magic pipe that gets its powers from Hell. Specifically, by filling Feathertop's head with smoke he gained life and from that point on he has to keep smoking that specific pipe to stay alive and maintain the illusion of a handsome human appearance. While she was at it, Mother Rigby also set out a course for him by suggesting he should woo Polly Gookin, the daughter of Master Gookin, who owed her for one thing or another. Feathertop went on his merry way and became the talk of the town as soon as he arrived, with each townsman coming up with a grander theory as to who he was. Using the magic cane Mother Rigby gave him, he found Master Gookin's house with ease and as his mother predicted, once he whispered a specific word to the man, he was at Feathertop's service. Polly, meanwhile had seen Feathertop when he arrived and was delighted to learn that the handsome man wanted to spend time with her. It went well and would've ended well if there didn't happen to be a large, truthful mirror in the room. Polly caught sight of Feathertop's reflection and fainted in shock. Prompted by her behavior, Feathertop looked too and, terror-stricken, fled the town to return to Mother Rigby's cottage. The witch asked if either Master Gookin or Polly had affronted him, but Feathertop insisted on their innocence and elaborated that he had seen himself, that he knew now what a monster he was, and that he refused to live any longer. And so, he threw away the magic pipe and fell into pieces. Mother Rigby considered reviving him, believing him no less of a hoax than people in general, but decided against it because Feathertop had made his choice clear. Instead, Feathertop's remains were repurposed to what he was originally made for: a scarecrow to protect Mother Rigby's corn-patch.


Following the story's original publication in The International Magazine, it was collected in 1854 as part of Mosses from an Old Manse. At least as early as 1908, it became a popular pick for stage, television, and movie adaptations, which sometimes go by the story's own name, Feathertop, and sometimes by the first stage adaptation's name, The Scarecrow. The play, written by Percy MacKaye, is particularly influential on how modern perception of the story came to be.


Tropes found in this story include:

  • An Aesop: By means of Humans Are the Real Monsters. Throughout the story Mother Rigby and the narrator accuse humans of making themselves look good with attitude and possessions and what not while few actually have anything substantial or commendable to their personality. When Feathertop kills himself, Mother Rigby declares it unfair that the world houses "thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans" that don't even know of their own emptiness, yet her puppet, who does know what he is, is the one that comes to an end.
  • Beast and Beauty: Subverted. For one, while Polly's beauty, grace, and innocence are without question, much more is made of how strongly these traits manifest in Feathertop. For two, while their interest was mutual, it was under the assumption they were both human. Once Polly sees him as the scarecrow he is and the full extent of his true identity hits Feathertop with equal force, it's game over.
  • Big, Stupid Doodoo-Head: Mother Rigby shows her more childish side when Feathertop's metamorphosis to "human" doesn't happen quick enough. Her choice of words include "thing of straw and emptiness", "rag or two", "meal bag", "pumpkin head", and "nothing". Once she runs out of insults that are literally just descriptions of Feathertop's composition, she loudly asks "where [she] shall find a name vile enough" for her creation.
  • Classy Cane: Possibly overlaps with Magic Staff. The one item that Feathertop is gifted that isn't the hellish pipe or affected by it is a plain, oaken stick that in his hands changes into a gold-headed cane. He gets it so it'll guide him to Master Gookin's doorstep.
  • Deal with the Devil: Master Gookin has made one. The what for what isn't elaborated on, but there is the oddity that he holds four offices. He's simultaneously a magistrate, member of the council, merchant, and elder of the church. And it is made clear that he has yet to repay his (full) debt, which gives Mother Rigby control over him by means of one word that's only to be whispered. He's positively terrified upon hearing that word, but does what he must, even if that includes sacrificing his own daughter.
  • Devil's Job Offer: Mentioned. Rigby's neighbors believe that a tattered but once luxurious coat Rigby possesses belongs to the "Black Man" and that she keeps it for him to easily slip on whenever he has business in the area. Since she uses the coat for Feathertop, that's unlikely to be the case.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Mother Rigby, who, among others, murdered her husband and is a nightmare sadist, doesn't need Feathertop to be a good person, but all the same she's delighted (and moved) by just how tender and honest he is.
  • Familiar: Dickon, who serves Mother Rigby without question, although all he's tasked to do is to refill or light her pipe. He is implied to be a demon due to the pipe being lit with coals from Hell. He is The Ghost and either The Voiceless or The Speechless, because while he's constantly talked to, he never says anything back and the narrator himself admits that all he can perceive of Dickon is the tasks being fulfilled.
  • Flying Broomstick: Feathertop's spine is Rigby's former flying broomstick. Incidentally, it doesn't appear that Feathertop himself can fly.
  • Functional Magic: Type Device Magic for Mother Rigby's pipe, made from meerschaum and amber and painted with demonic figures that dance around, has magical properties because it's in contact with Hell. On her command, it is lit with a coal plucked straight from the down-below fires by her familiar Dickon. It's exact range of possibilities isn't addressed, but the one important to the story is that it brings Feathertop to life and gives him human form when it's inserted in his "mouth". From then on, he's required to use it to maintain his life and look.
  • Glamour Failure: There are three instances. The first two occur when Feathertop walks into town and immediately becomes the person everyone talks about. Everyone sees him as glamorous, exotic, and regal, except for a dog and a young boy. The dog takes a sniff of Feathertop and then flees, while the boy only mumbles something about a pumpkin. The third instant is stretched between Polly and Feathertop and revolves around a large mirror owned by the Gookins. Firstly, Polly practices her lady-isms in front of the mirror in preparation of being introduced to the handsome Feathertop, only to be shown how artificial she's being. Still, she and Feathertop hit it off well, but only until Polly glances to the mirror once more and sees Feathertop's reflection as a scarecrow. She breaks down, prompting Feathertop to look too and see the truth of who he is beneath the magic.
  • Heroic BSoD: Both Polly and Feathertop break down when they see his true self in the mirror.
  • Hillbilly Moonshiner: Hinted at. Mother Rigby lives in the countryside and she mentions obtaining some of the clothes she uses for Feathertop from a Native American in return for a gill of strong waters.
  • The Ingenue: A description of Polly has no need for more than four words: "pretty and horribly naive".
  • It Amused Me: Feathertop was meant to be a scary scarecrow, but because Mother Rigby was in a good mood she reasoned it to be better and more rewarding to make him aesthetically pleasing. To this end, she dressed him in the finest clothes she had around that were only collecting dust anyway. It's when she takes a good look at her creation that motherly affection sets in and on a whim she decides to bring him to life. And then on a whim she decides her puppet should hook up with the daughter of a man who owes Hell a favor.
  • Item Crafting: An entire paragraph is spent on what items Mother Rigby uses to make Feathertop. A (flying) broomstick serves as the spine, while a meal bag stuffed with straw brings volume to the torso. A disabled flail becomes one arm and a pudding-stick loosely tied to the broken rung of a chair the other. The right leg is a hoe handle and the left a random stick pulled from the woodpile. Lastly, a withered pumpkin filled with feathers is picked for the position of being the scarecrow's head. It's give a blue knob as nose.
  • Meaningful Name: There's a grand three reasons listed as to why Feathertop received that particular name. For one, he wears a hat with a rooster's tail feather pinned to it. For two, his pumpkin head is filled with feathers. And for three, his wig, which was the late Goodman Rigby's, is of the feathertop style.
  • Mercy Kill: Rigby considers reviving Feathertop after his suicide, but decides against it because he has already made it clear that being what he is is not going to work for him.
  • Missing Mom: Nothing is shared about the identity or whereabouts of Polly's mother.
  • Nice Hat: Before bringing him to life, Rigby decorates her scarecrow with a hat she pins the longest tail feather of a rooster to. It is one of the reasons she later names him Feathertop.
  • No Name Given: This being a pre-1900 North American story, none of the three elderly characters have a given name. They're Mother Rigby, Goodman Rigby, and Master Gookin.
  • Nightmare Weaver: One of the powers ascribed to Rigby. She likes to hand them out and then sit down and enjoy her victim's agony.
  • Pinocchio Syndrome: Subverted, because there never was a possibility of turning Feathertop into something more human than an illusion and so he never did the "I want to be a real human" thing. His quest was more along the lines of "I don't want to live as a non-human" and so he told his mother and committed suicide.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Mother Rigby could have easily made Feathertop one of the scariest scarecrows mankind has ever seen, but this particular scarecrow was meant for her own corn patch and she wouldn't want that messing up her view.
  • Pumpkin Person: Feathertop has a withered, somewhat shrunken pumpkin as his head.
  • Self-Deprecation: From the narrator: "Shall I confess the truth? At its present point of vivification, the scarecrow reminds me of some of the lukewarm and abortive characters, composed of heterogeneous materials, used for the thousandth time, and never worth using, with which romance writers (and myself, no doubt, among the rest) have so overpeopled the world of fiction."
  • Sleazy Politician: Mingles with Corrupt Politician, in that politicians are several times made the target of an unflattering comment regarding either their competence or honesty.
  • So Proud of You: With the exception of his immediate genesis, which went too slow for Mother Rigby's taste, she's done nothing but praise him for his beauty, his choice to call her "mother", and his kind heart. As she puts it: "I hold myself a better witch than yesterday, for thy sake."
  • Tall Tale: The "unreckonable amount of wealth" Rigby gifts Feathertop to make him the equal of his fellow men are a gold mine in El Dorado, ten thousand shares in a broken bubble, half a million acres of vineyard at the North Pole, a castle in the air, a chateau in Spain, and the salt within a ship she personally made sink.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Subverted. Feathertop always knew he was a scarecrow, if perhaps not what he exactly looked like. But due to all the gifts and confidence bestowed on him by his mother and the admiration of the townsfolk, he momentarily forgot. Looking into a mirror while in the middle of Becoming the Mask to see himself for the first time was a shock he didn't recover from.
  • Wicked Witch: Mother Rigby is one, being described as "one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England". Although for the most part she isn't actively evil, she's incredibly dangerous, fickle and impulsive, and holds a negative view of people. But she also thanks her familiar for his service and genuinely wants the best for Feathertop.
  • Widow Witch: Mother Rigby went Til Murder Do Us Part on her husband, Goodman Rigby, by either strangulation or slitting his throat. The reason for this isn't given and it seems like they'd been married a good number of decades before she killed him.