Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Wakefield” has an unusual form: It is part story and part essay. The author does not try to conceal his presence, as is usually done by fiction writers for the sake of achieving greater verisimilitude, but actually invites the reader to participate with him in creating the story and deducing a moral. Instead of aiming at suspense, Hawthorne gives the whole plot away in one sentence: “The man, under pretence of going on a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years.” The form resembles a musical composition in which the theme is stated at the beginning and then embellished with variations until it is recapitulated at the end. The story is a masterpiece: It demonstrates Hawthorne’s imagination and artistic skill. It also has a haunting effect, like a beautiful but elusive melody.
“Wakefield” is not only a psychological study but also a sociological study. How is it possible for a person to be swallowed up so completely by a big city that he is able to live undetected for twenty years within one block of his wife’s residence and never bump into any of the friends who believe him to be dead? That he would wish to do it at all is strange enough, but the fact that this story is regarded as one of Hawthorne’s finest creations shows that many readers are able to identify with Wakefield....
(The entire section is 509 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Wakefield is a middle-aged man living in London, in a comfortable home with his wife of ten years. He has an “inactive mind,” a peculiar “vanity,” a “harmless love of mystery,” a certain “selfishness” and “strangeness.” One October evening, he tells his wife good-bye before leaving by coach for a journey into the country. Knowing his love of mystery, she does not inquire into the details of his trip. He tells her not to be alarmed if he does not return for three or four days but to expect him on Friday evening. She later recalls the “crafty smile” on his face as he departs.
Instead of going on a journey, he takes an apartment on the next street with a vague plan of observing the effect of his absence on his wife. Alone in the apartment, he seems to realize the inanity of what he is doing. However, as time goes by, he is overcome with curiosity about the effect of his disappearance. Vanity lies at the root of his project. He watches his house to see how life proceeds without him but is fearful of being recognized. Consequently, he buys a red wig and unusual clothes to effect a disguise. Three weeks after his disappearance, Wakefield observes a physician entering his house; he knows that his wife is ill, but he tells himself that he must not disturb her at such a time. He expects that she may die and even seems to desire subconsciously to harm her. He cannot bring himself to return. When his wife recovers, Wakefield is vaguely aware that an “almost impassable gulf” separates him from her and from his former life. In due time, Mrs. Wakefield settles her husband’s estate and proceeds with her life as a widow....
(The entire section is 674 words.)