Department of English
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century
(photo in public domain; wikimedia commons)(courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield,” set in London, seems remarkably modern with its stark narrative as well as its subject of a man’s escape from marriage and the routine of his life. It surprises not because of the man’s decision to leave, but because he escapes by moving only a few blocks away, taking on a disguise so that he can carry on with life and also keep an eye on his former house and on his wife. The story ends with one final surprise: Wakefield decides, on a sudden whim, to return to his house and wife after an absence of twenty years. Exploring dark spaces in ordinary lives is common in Hawthorne’s works, but in this story Hawthorne adds the voyeurism of Wakefield which has a strain of cruelty as the husband watches his wife who is plunged suddenly, she believes, into widowhood.
Young Goodman Brown also bids his wife goodbye to go on a journey, and he, too, is cruel to his wife. His cruelty, however, is not in extending his journey so long that Faith thinks he is dead, but rather in the way he treats her once he does return. Furthermore, Brown is newly married and full of marital bliss when he departs; Wakefield, on the other hand, is in “the meridian of life; his matrimonial affections, never violent, were sobered into a calm, habitual sentiment…” (291). Like Faith, who seems to sense the danger of Brown’s journey and pleads with him to stay, Wakefield’s wife is “partly aware of a quiet selfishness, that had rusted into [her husband’s] inactive mind—of a peculiar sort of vanity…of a disposition to craft…--and, lastly, of what she called a little strangeness, sometimes, in the good man” (291).
Hawthorne wrote “Wakefield” in 1835, and it was first published in the New England Magazine in May of that year and was included in Hawthorne’s first collection of stories in 1837. Hawthorne frequently made use of material from newspapers in his stories, and in her article “The Solitude of Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield,’” Ruth Perry quotes Hawthorne as saying that he encountered the story on which “Wakefield” is based “in some old newspaper or magazine” which Perry believes might have been Gentleman’s Magazine, one of many periodicals housed in the Salem Athenaeum which he read (par. 1).
Brenda Wineapple argues that Wakefield is “a drab, undistinguished, and unexceptional man” but also “an artist—the artist as crafty nincompoop—severed from the world…” (86). Wineapple adds that “even as he castigates Wakefield, Hawthorne colludes with him, relishing an ordinary man’s extraordinary caprice” (86). And it may just be that relish of the possibility of an ordinary man escaping his routine that exerts such a strong appeal to the reader even as it is also the story of the alienated artist.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. NY: Library of America, 1996.
Perry, Ruth. “The Solitude of Hawthorne’s Wakefield.” American Literature, 49.4 (1978)
Durham: Duke University Press, 613-6. JSTOR
Wineapple, Benda. Hawthorne: A Life. NY: Knopf, 2003.