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Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wakefield has an unusual form: It is half story and half 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 reminded at the end. The story is
a masterpiece: It demonstrates Hawthornes 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
wifes 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 Hawthornes finest creations shows that many readers
are able to identify with Wakefield.
What kind of man is Wakefield?
Howthorne says that Wakefield was not violent and that he had a
tendency of inertia. He was intellectual but used his mind for "lazy musings."
And his thoughts "were seldom so energetic as to seize hold of words." So, he
was a nonviolent, lazy, boring man in the middle of his life. Given that he tends
to be lazy and unmotivated, this makes it strange for him to decide to leave the
comfort, familiarity, and repetitive nature of his family and daily life.
His wife had noted a "quiet selfishness" in him. She also noted a
"strangeness." A lazy, selfish man decides to leave home in order to see how his
wife will get along without him. The narrator adds that there is a kind of vanity
to this. In other words, Wakefield wants to see how his absence has affected his
wife. One might pity Wakefield as he (Wakefield) realizes how the world gets
along fine without him. But his absence does take a toll on his wife. And his
selfish project of self-banishment should be criticized for this. His experiment is
selfish. Watching his wife learn to deal with his absence does not affect him
enough to return. He seems to lack sympathy and a genuine concern for his wife
and others.
Themes and Meanings
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. Wakefield 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 and became a loving husband until death. Wakefield,
however, by the end of the story is an outcast of his own making.
Wakefields sins are his changing, for selfish reasons, the course of another
persons 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 itselfhence Hawthornes references to him as dead or as a ghost.

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