Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many Hawthorne characters destroy themselves, or others, by some unusual action that separates them from the mainstream of life and eventually destroys their human ties. Aylmer in “The Birthmark” seeks scientific success and an abstract ideal, but in the process he kills his wife. Wakefield, more or less on a whim, abandons his domestic tranquillity and is doomed to a solitary life. When he finally wishes to return home, he discovers that the only home prepared to welcome him is the grave. The outline of the story, which Hawthorne claims in the first paragraph to have borrowed from a newspaper, he changes in the end to convey his belief that the breaking of human ties is evil and irrevocable. The man in the news article, he says, returned after twenty years to the bosom of a loving wife and became a loving husband until death. Wakefield, however, by the end of the story is an outcast of his own making.

Wakefield’s sins are his changing, for selfish reasons, the course of another person’s life and his withdrawing, for no good reason, from his established relationship with his wife and with society. Of all people, his wife is the one in whose life he should actively participate. Instead, he removes himself and coldly observes. By breaking his ties with his wife, his home, and the customs of his former life, he separates himself from everything that binds him to humanity and to life itself—hence Hawthorne’s references to him as dead or as a ghost...

(The entire section is 515 words.)