Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story ‘‘The Wives of the Dead'' was first published in 1832 in The Token, an annual, along with three other stories, ‘‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "The Gentle Boy,’’ and ‘‘Roger Malvin's Burial.’’ Hawthorne had tried, unsuccessfully, to publish the stories as a group in 1829. ‘‘The Wives of the Dead’’ was subsequently republished in other magazines such as Democratic Review under the title ‘‘The Two Widows.’’ Hawthorne included the story in his 1852 collection The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales. He named them "twice-told'' because each tale was first told in a periodical or gift-book. Set in the eighteenth century in a Bay Province, Massachusetts, seaport, the story concerns two sisters-in-law, who have just been informed that their husbands have died—one drowned in the Atlantic when his ship capsized, the other killed in a "skirmish" in Canada. The story details the women's responses to news of their husbands' deaths and, later, to news that they are, in fact, still alive. Although it has not received the degree of critical attention that some of Hawthorne's other stories have such as ‘‘The Birthmark,’’ ''Rappaccini's Daughter,'' and ''Ethan Brand,’’''The Wives of the Dead’’ is considered important because it is an early work that embodies the kind of dream world for which Hawthorne's stories have become known. In fact, one of the controversies surrounding the story is whether the events portrayed are actually dreams of the main characters. Critics often point to the story's last sentence as proof of this interpretation and to illustrate Hawthorne' s characteristic use of ambiguity. In addition to exploring the borders between appearance and reality, the story delves into themes such as the relationship between thinking and feeling, responses to loss, and familial guilt.
The Wives of the Dead Summary
In the first part of ‘‘The Wives of the Dead,’’ the narrator assures readers his tale is ‘‘scarcely worth relating,’’ then proceeds to tell it in detail. A hundred years ago, in the early eighteenth century, two "young and comely'' (attractive) women in a Massachusetts seaport town married brothers and set up house together. In ‘‘two successive’’ days, they learn of their husbands' deaths: one is lost at sea, while the other is killed fighting the French and Indians in Canada. The British battled with the French for control of North America at this time, and colonists from the Bay colonies often fought on the Canadian frontier. Though many townspeople turn out to offer their sympathy, the women want to be left alone to console each other.
After the mourners leave, Mary, the more practical and disciplined of the pair, prepares dinner, but Margaret, distraught and bitter, cannot eat. The two go to bed, and although Mary falls asleep easily, temporarily forgetting her loss, Margaret remains awake, in a "feverish" state, gazing at the living room both couples had shared and grieving the past. Hawthorne uses imagery of light, in terms of the hearth and the lamp, to suggest the warmth of the past and the coldness of the present.
While trying to sleep, Margaret hears a knock at the door and, reluctantly, answers it, taking the lamp from the hearth with her. Goodman Parker, a neighbor...
(The entire section is 549 words.)