Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835
by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835
Nathaniel Hawthorne has few peers in the development of the modern short story. In fact, no short story writer produced work of the same caliber, complexity, and form earlier than Hawthorne. Some of his best stories were published as early as 1830, and among them are stories prototypical of the form. Hawthorne's stories typically deal with appearance and reality and make use of symbols of guilt, isolation, secrecy, and excessive pride, or hubris, and of various manifestations of what has been called the conflict between head and heart or emotion and intellect.
"Wakefield," collected in Twice-Told Tales, is not one of Hawthorne's best stories, but it is a fascinating one. It falls into the category of the "what if" story, which seems to have been a favorite of Hawthorne. In "Wakefield" the query is, What if a man went away for a few days, leaving his wife of 10 years, stayed away for 20 years, and then returned to his wife, who thought him long since dead?
Hawthorne poses the question as the initial challenge. What kind of a man could engage in so freakish a mode of marital delinquency? Not only does Wakefield leave, but he goes just one block from his house. The action, Hawthorne states, is a folly of purist originality and is, therefore, worth thinking about. Readers, Hawthorne suggests, may consider the matter on their own, or if they prefer, may "ramble" with Hawthorne to seek clues, speculate about motives, and perhaps arrive at a conclusion.
The story begins with the question "What sort of a man was Wakefield? We are free to shape out our own idea and call it by name." Thus, from the very beginning Hawthorne merges fact and fiction. It matters not if what we say corresponds to any facts we discover, for the truth is in the telling. "Wakefield" is a creation that operates in a make-believe world. But this does not matter since the truth we seek is not so much related to the facts of the experiential world as to point of view and what Hawthorne refers to as the proper use of light and shadow for distancing effects. In "Wakefield" the narrator never allows readers to forget that the man we are speculating about is our own creation and that we call him Wakefield.
The narrator invites us to agree with him that Wakefield is a man of no particularly singular attributes. He is intelligent enough but has no intellectual curiosity. He is fond enough of his wife but not so devoted to her that he cannot play the trickster. He is not exactly eccentric, but as his wife has noticed, there is something strange about him. He keeps petty secrets hardly worth revealing. Knowing his love of secrecy, she does not question him as to where he is going, nor does she protest when he says that he may be gone three or four days. He thinks, however, that he will perplex her by staying away a week. As Wakefield leaves, his wife gets a momentary glance of a slight smile upon his face. Years afterward she recalls his visage and imagines the face and expression in a coffin or in heaven. But she mostly doubts that he is dead, even though all evidence points to the fact. In his musings, however, the narrator has jumped ahead of himself and must hurry to catch Wakefield. It develops that there is no hurry, for Wakefield has gone but one street away. He is sure that he will be noticed, but he is not. No one looks for him.
Occasionally stopping his narrative, the narrator provides advice for Wakefield, warning him of his own insignificance and telling him to go home, for once he opens a gap in his wife's affections, it will always be there. But Wakefield finds himself caught in a morass similar to the one he was in before he left home. He has moved from one "system" to another and taken up similar habits. Curiosity has several times carried him to his old house, but he flees before he is noticed. He finally becomes so habituated to the new system that he is powerless to act. Meanwhile, the narrator points out that Wakefield's affection for his wife remains. He is faithful to her, but her affection for him has probably disappeared over the years she has thought him dead.
To this point summary narrative has provided the entire story of Wakefield's drama. "Now for a narrative scene," the narrator announces, again emphasizing his own role as showman, as puppeteer. For there is, the narrator admits, a certain inevitability in what has occurred. It is as though, once started, the train of events cannot be stopped. The red wig that Wakefield assumes becomes a substitute for his wife, and he refuses to return though his feet often carry him in the direction of his former home. Some 20 years pass, and on his customary walk in the cold and rain past his old house Wakefield chances to see his wife sitting inside by a warm and friendly fire.
The picture of comfort is too much. "Shall he remain outside?" The narrator answers for Wakefield: "Wakefield is no fool." He enters his old abode, expecting his wife to be as she was, and he enters with the same crafty smile he left with. But Wakefield really is a fool if he expects to take up where he left off. His wife has had a separate life too nicely tuned without him.
"Wakefield" is a strange story about a character who exists in no real story, about a change that is no real change, about a new system no different from the old, and about a situation more silly than tragic. Can alienation ever be its own excuse? Can one ever escape a social bond, even the most prideful?