What central ideas might Hawthorne be exploring with the themes in "Wakefield"?
"Wakefield" has an unusual structure. Hawthorne begins by telling the whole plot in a single sentence.
The man, under pretence of going 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.
Hawthorne then goes on to philosophize about this incident, which he claims to have read about "in some old magazine or newspaper . . . told as truth." He pretends that neither he nor any of his readers would ever consider doing such a thing.
We know, each for himself, that none of us would perpetrate such a folly, yet feel as if some other might.
But the fact is that many of us, including Hawthorne himself, have fantasized about doing something similar to what was actually done by Wakefield. We identify and emphasize with Wakefield. He is actually experiencing what psychologists call a "fugue state," not unlike those experienced by the girls in Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It seems like a natural human desire to want to escape from the treadmills most of us find ourselves on. Here is a apposite poem by William Butler Yeats:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles
Nine bean-rows I will have there, a hive for the
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace
comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where
the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day.
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats said that he wrote the poem after reading Thoreau's Walden, a famous work in which the American author describes how he escaped from the rat race and lived alone with nature. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe has been a favorite with readers for many years because it appeals to the fantasy of getting far away from the world. Another book on the same subject, which is not so well known but worth knowing, is George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, a journal in which he tells about the pleasures of being absolutely alone and doing absolutely nothing.
One of Henry James' best short stories is "The Great Good Place." Obviously autobiographical, it tells about a man who has realized his ambition of becoming a successful and highly regarded writer and has lost his own soul.
Then he knew again as well as ever that leaving was difficult, leaving impossible--that the only remedy, the true, soft, effacing sponge, would be to be left, to be forgotten.
Hawthore concludes his story by imagining that Wakefield finally decided to return to his home after twenty years and warns the reader that actually indulging in a fantasy about opting out of the rat race can be dangerous.
. . . by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a man who loved solitude and introspection.
For more than twelve years after graduating from Bowdoin, he spent most of his days and nights in a room in his mother’s home, patiently writing pages and pages of manuscripts, many of which he burned.
Many middle-aged men experience an urge such as Hawthorne attributes to his character Wakefield. They suddenly realize that they are getting old and that they have never really found themselves or enjoyed themselves or have ever been in love, but have gotten trapped in a loveless marriage and a routine job which make them feel emotionally dead. A good comparison with Hawthorne's "Wakefield" is James Thurber's best-known story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Thurber's hero does not actually go into hiding, but he escapes into a fantasy world at nearly every opportunity. This phenomenon has been called "male menopause" and "middle-age crisis," among other things. Perhaps it has always existed, and perhaps Hawthorne was the first writer to point it out. Georges Simenon, the famous French writer, used the escapist theme in some of his novels and short stories. Here is an example from his novel Monsieur Monde Vanishes:
He was a man who, for a long time, had endured the human condition without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware. He had always been a man living among other men and like them he had struggled, jostling amid the crowd, now feebly and now resolutely, without knowing whither he was going. And now, in the moonlight, he suddenly saw life differently, as though with the aid of some miraculous X-ray.
Another good example of the phenomenon of middle-age crisis in literature is John Cheever’s excellent short story “The Country Husband.” A similar theme is seen in another Cheever story, “The Swimmer.”
Hawthorne ends his story with the moral he has promised at the beginning. That moral is:
Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.
Wakefield’s condition can be seen in O. Henry’s popular story “The Cop and the Anthem.” The character he calls Soapy must have been a member of respectable society at one time, but he finds that when he wants to return to it he has lost his place forever. The same is true of George Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie. Hurstwood knew what he was letting himself in for when he stole money from his employers and ran off with young Carrie Meeber. He was starting on a downhill path that eventually changed him from a prosperous pillar of the community into a vagrant who survived by panhandling on the streets of Manhattan and who finally committed suicide in despair.