Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

One of the main themes in Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne is human alienation. The main character, Wakefield, decides to leave his family and observes them from a building within the neighborhood for two decades. Hawthorne suggests that one of the reasons for human alienation is vanity. For instance, Wakefield might...

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One of the main themes in Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne is human alienation. The main character, Wakefield, decides to leave his family and observes them from a building within the neighborhood for two decades. Hawthorne suggests that one of the reasons for human alienation is vanity. For instance, Wakefield might have alienated himself so that he could see how his family would continue living without him.

Another theme that is addressed in the story is the continuity of life. The author implies that Wakefield wanted to know what would happen to his family if he were not present. However, what he does not foresee is that life will continue with or without him. The fact that his family continues living makes it difficult for him to go back home after 20 years.

The human way of life is another theme highlighted by Hawthorne. According to the author, people in the world follow systems where most of their life is spent working and raising children. Everyone seems to be in a rush to do something. The author notes that people are so busy that they can hardly notice that someone has gone missing. He highlights this way of life by revealing how Wakefield feels like an outcast after many years of isolation, because his presence is hardly remembered.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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 and Hawthorne’s leaving him on the threshold of his house. Wakefield is physically alive, but in all other respects he is dead; though he may enter his house, he cannot reenter his old life. Although he intended to withdraw for only a short time in order to observe the effect, he remains aloof so long that he loses his position in the scheme of things.

“Wakefield” contains two concepts often found in Hawthorne’s stories—the isolation of a man from the world and the cruel attempt of one person to alter another person’s life. The “crafty” smile on her husband’s face that Mrs. Wakefield observes as he leaves reveals the beginning of his sin—deliberate estrangement from his former life and from the world. This estrangement, which initially is little more than a whim or a joke he intends to play on Mrs. Wakefield, becomes his destruction. It becomes obsessive as he watches his house and wife for twenty years, powerless to return and confess the truth of his actions. While she makes a normal adjustment to his absence, he is, ironically, trapped by his plan into becoming an outcast. Wakefield neither realizes nor anticipates how unimportant his disappearance will be in terms of the larger world. Hawthorne comments that it is dangerous to separate oneself even from loved ones, for their lives go on and one is quickly forgotten. Hence he refuses to allow a happy reunion for Wakefield and prepares the reader for the theme stated at the end of the story.

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