What are the positive and negative character traits of Mr. Wakefield?

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Hawthorne, as narrator, relates the outline of a bizarre story he'd read in a magazine or a newspaper. The man, who he chooses to call "Wakefield" leaves his wife on some errand, claiming it may take a few days to a week. The man then resides one street away, watches his wife and his home in seclusion, and does not return for twenty years. When he does return, he walks back into his original home and to his wife as if he's been gone only a week. He becomes a companion to his wife once again, but following this long absence, he can not return to his old life because it and his wife have changed irrevocably. He is therefor still an outcast even though he has returned and allegedly become "a loving spouse till death." 

Putting aside Wakefield's literal self-banishment from his life, let's consider this in terms of some moral. He still lives in the vicinity of his wife and home. It is as if he has not really physically left her but in terms of their relationship, he is absent. Since Hawthorne invites us (readers) to form our own interpretation of Wakefield's bizarre twenty-year trip, we might consider this other interpretation. He remains in the vicinity but is absent in his wife's eyes. He is like a husband who has ceased showing his wife any consideration, affection, attention, care, and love. In other words, he has left her alone. It is a selfish move and we can only speculate why he's done this. 

Recall that when he leaves, he gives his wife one last "crafty" smile. This seems quite devious. In his self-imposed exile, he (Hawthorne supposes) constantly considers returning but never does (until the twenty years is up). Hawthorne calls him "feeble-minded" for staying away. This "being absent" becomes a habit. One interpretation on this selfish theme is that when a person stops showing actual affection and/or reciprocal interaction with a spouse, this insularity (selfish withdraw into one's self and away from others) can become habitual. Just as showing love can become a good habit, withholding affection can become a bad habit. In this respect, Wakefield is fiendishly selfish and has become accustomed to his self-imposed loneliness. 

It is therefor hard to find any positive or redeeming qualities about the man. At best, one might sympathize with the man because he disappears so effortlessly even though he is only one street away. Perhaps, this was a social experiment that he undertook in order to see if and how much he would be missed. Upon discovering how little he is missed and how easily he slips into anonymity, we might sympathize with him. In this respect, there is a sympathetic aspect to Wakefield and others like him who might feel unnoticed and unremarkable in a complex, fast-moving modern world. 

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