Download Wakefield Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Wakefield Summary

This is the story of Mr Wakefield, a husband and a father of three children. He is a reserved man and one that seems to love his family given that he has been married for 10 years. Therefore, the events that follow are a mystery to most readers. One October evening, Mr. Wakefield decides to wear his drab coat and his hat and takes an umbrella and decides to leave his London apartment claiming that he is going to the countryside. He gives Mrs. Wakefield a kiss and tells her not to be alarmed in case he doesn't return after 3 days. His wife looks at him suspiciously as he walks away but doesn't take the remark too seriously. Interestingly, Mr. Wakefield goes and rents another apartment just across the street from his and decides to observe how his family reacts to his disappearance. At first, it seemed that he was only going to stay there for more than a week, but weeks turn to months, and months become years. He keeps the charade going for twenty years, making excuses and avoiding confrontation. Finally, he decides that he is going to go back home as if he never left for 20 years. Just as he is about to walk in, the author cuts the story and engages the readers and characters directly.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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. Hawthorne is writing about the loneliness and alienation of modern life, one of his favorite themes.

Civilization was becoming more and more complex, and the individual was gradually being swallowed up. Hawthrone does not say how Wakefield managed to live for twenty years without any income, but presumably he would have transferred funds to a bank account held under an assumed name. In earlier times it would have been impossible for most people to survive without interacting with others; however, one of the features of modern civilization is that each individual tends to be a separate and interchangeable component of an enormously complex social machine.

In addition, the story reflects Hawthorne’s personal loneliness and addiction to solitude, which remained with him even after he was married and had fathered three children. Many of the people who knew him best, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, described him as cold and aloof. Only Hawthorne’s devoted wife, Sophie, seemed to understand her husband’s true nature, which was shy, sensitive, and idealistic. Hawthorne’s, and his character Wakefield’s, sense of being totally isolated while surrounded by thousands of people may have been relatively unusual in the first half of the nineteenth century, but it is commonplace today. It is one of the reasons there...

(The entire section is 1,402 words.)