Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

In "Wakefield," a middle-aged man who has both a "quiet selfishness" and "a peculiar sort of vanity" leaves his wife for twenty years, living one street away so that he can regularly spy on her. He learns that once a person leaves home, they become changed forever, so that home...

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In "Wakefield," a middle-aged man who has both a "quiet selfishness" and "a peculiar sort of vanity" leaves his wife for twenty years, living one street away so that he can regularly spy on her. He learns that once a person leaves home, they become changed forever, so that home can never feel the same as it used to. He becomes the "Outcast of the Universe." Many people have wondered how the people in their lives might respond if they suddenly disappeared or died, and Wakefield learns a rather unfortunate truth: while he is missed for a while, life does go on, and people must go on with the business of living, even in his absence.

Wakefield seems somewhat gratified to learn that his wife becomes quite ill after his disappearance:

Dear woman! Will she die? By this time, Wakefield is excited to something like energy of feeling . . .

Knowing that his absence has affected her so dramatically seems to please him, to awaken some excitement in him. However, as the narrator says, eventually the "crisis is over; her heart is sad, perhaps, but . . . it will never be feverish for him again." His "good" and "decent" wife must move on, and she finds a way to do so. Eventually, she develops the "placid mien of settled widowhood."

To this end, the narrator says, "Poor Wakefield! Little knowest thou thine own insignificance in this great world!" Wakefield constantly worries that he'll be seen and reported by his wife or his former servants, and he fails to realize the simple truth that no one is paying that much attention to him. We see his vanity in his belief that he will be noticed. He becomes an outcast from his own home relatively quickly. He doesn't quite realize it, but what he experiences

is caused by the comparison and contrast between [his] imperfect reminiscences and the reality [of his life and home].

It evidently does not occur to Wakefield that "home" will never feel quite like it did before he left it. He has changed, as a result of his leaving, and life has gone on without him. In a manner of speaking, he can never go back to the place he left, because his perception of that place is forever altered.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

The structure of “Wakefield” is quite simple. An unusual event, a husband’s self-imposed absence, is expanded into a brief moral allegory, a type of story Hawthorne often employed. By claiming in the first paragraph that he took the initial incident from an old newspaper, he lends an air of reality to the strange event. Continuing to address the reader directly, Hawthorne welcomes him or her to an excursion into the remarkable anecdote, for an unusual incident often produces ideas worth considering, he claims. He concludes the introduction with an idea that points to the theme at the end of the story, giving the effect of a neatly wrapped package.

Throughout the story, Hawthorne uses a technique of prompting and leading the reader’s reactions concerning what is happening with the characters. When Wakefield vacillates in deciding to return home, Hawthorne comments, “Poor man!” When Mrs. Wakefield falls ill after her husband’s disappearance, the author injects, “Dear woman! Will she die?” The effect is that the reader is always conscious of the author’s presence and of his guiding the reader’s thoughts. This effect is strengthened by the numerous moralizing passages interspersed throughout the story. The author states early that unusual incidents such as the one on which the story is based have a “moral”; he then scatters didactic passages throughout the story as well as stating the clear moral message in the conclusion.

One characteristic of most stories that is virtually lacking in “Wakefield” is dialogue. Even the parting scene, in which Wakefield leaves his wife for the supposed journey, is not dramatized. Instead, Hawthorne describes everything for the reader, sometimes preparing for the next event with a phrase such as, “Now for a new scene!” Occasionally, Wakefield’s thoughts are expressed within quotation marks, but these passages are as close as Hawthorne comes to using dialogue. Thus, the loneliness of Wakefield’s situation is emphasized. By breaking all of his ties with his former life for the sake of a foolish whim, Wakefield condemns himself to the life of an outcast. From the climactic scene near the church in which his wife fails to recognize him, Wakefield clearly can never return to his old life. The following events and the lack of dialogue all convey the fact that Wakefield is permanently separated from the social fabric of life.

“Wakefield” shares several characteristics of the classic fable. The results of a single incident are investigated in a relatively brief narrative of about six pages. The characters do not have complete names and are not roundly defined. Mrs. Wakefield is the stereotypical widow, and Wakefield is motivated by a single obsession. Especially reminiscent of the fable are the didactic tone, the reader’s constant awareness of the author’s presence, and the author’s insistence that here there is “much food for thought.” Everything in the story is designed to make that thought clear, and it is flatly stated in the concluding paragraph.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoehr, Taylor. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

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