Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story ‘‘The Wives of the Dead'' was first published in 1832 in The Token, an annual, along with three other stories, ‘‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "The Gentle Boy,’’ and ‘‘Roger Malvin's Burial.’’ Hawthorne had tried, unsuccessfully, to publish the stories as a group in 1829. ‘‘The Wives of the Dead’’ was subsequently republished in other magazines such as Democratic Review under the title ‘‘The Two Widows.’’ Hawthorne included the story in his 1852 collection The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales. He named them "twice-told'' because each tale was first told in a periodical or gift-book. Set in the eighteenth century in a Bay Province, Massachusetts, seaport, the story concerns two sisters-in-law, who have just been informed that their husbands have died—one drowned in the Atlantic when his ship capsized, the other killed in a "skirmish" in Canada. The story details the women's responses to news of their husbands' deaths and, later, to news that they are, in fact, still alive. Although it has not received the degree of critical attention that some of Hawthorne's other stories have such as ‘‘The Birthmark,’’ ''Rappaccini's Daughter,'' and ''Ethan Brand,’’''The Wives of the Dead’’ is considered important because it is an early work that embodies the kind of dream world for which Hawthorne's stories have become known. In fact, one of the controversies surrounding the story is whether the events portrayed are actually dreams of the main characters. Critics often point to the story's last sentence as proof of this interpretation and to illustrate Hawthorne' s characteristic use of ambiguity. In addition to exploring the borders between appearance and reality, the story delves into themes such as the relationship between thinking and feeling, responses to loss, and familial guilt.
In the first part of ‘‘The Wives of the Dead,’’ the narrator assures readers his tale is ‘‘scarcely worth relating,’’ then proceeds to tell it in detail. A hundred years ago, in the early eighteenth century, two "young and comely'' (attractive) women in a Massachusetts seaport town married brothers and set up house together. In ‘‘two successive’’ days, they learn of their husbands' deaths: one is lost at sea, while the other is killed fighting the French and Indians in Canada. The British battled with the French for control of North America at this time, and colonists from the Bay colonies often fought on the Canadian frontier. Though many townspeople turn out to offer their sympathy, the women want to be left alone to console each other.
After the mourners leave, Mary, the more practical and disciplined of the pair, prepares dinner, but Margaret, distraught and bitter, cannot eat. The two go to bed, and although Mary falls asleep easily, temporarily forgetting her loss, Margaret remains awake, in a "feverish" state, gazing at the living room both couples had shared and grieving the past. Hawthorne uses imagery of light, in terms of the hearth and the lamp, to suggest the warmth of the past and the coldness of the present.
While trying to sleep, Margaret hears a knock at the door and, reluctantly, answers it, taking the lamp from the hearth with her. Goodman Parker, a neighbor and innkeeper, brings news that Margaret's husband is, in fact, still alive. Speaking of a messenger who recently stopped at Parker's house on his ride through town with news of the frontier, Parker tells Margaret, ‘‘He tells me we had the better in the skirmish you wot of, and that thirteen men reported slain are well and sound, and your husband among them.’’ (The phrase ‘‘wot of’’ means ‘‘know of." "Goodman" was a common name in the American colonies and appeared in other Hawthorne stories (e.g., ‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’). Margaret is elated, but decides not to wake Mary and tell her because it might change the way Mary feels towards her. She returns to bed and to ‘‘delightful thoughts,’’ which sleep transforms into "visions."
Mary awakens from a ‘‘vivid dream,’’ hearing ‘‘eager knocking on the street-door.’’ Like Margaret, she takes the lamp from the hearth and opens the window, which had been left unhasped. A former suitor of Mary's named Stephen, a sailor, tells her that her husband survived the shipwreck and is alive and well. Hawthorne uses irony when he names the capsized ship Blessing. Initially thinking he had come to win her back, Margaret is appalled, and the narrator writes that she ‘‘was no wit inclined to imitate the first wife of Zadig,’’ who is a wealthy man in Voltaire's story, ‘‘Zadig's Nose.’’ (A day after Zadig fakes his death, his wife takes up with another man.) But Mary, like her sister-in-law, is overjoyed when she hears the news that her husband is alive. However, she resists waking Margaret, fearing the news would only compound her own sorrow. The last line of the story is ambiguous. That is, it is unclear whether Margaret suddenly awoke when Mary touched her, or whether Mary awoke to her own tears, and Stephen's visit was a dream.