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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

Wakefield

Introduction to "Wakefield"

Material prepared by:
Terri Whitney 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)
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century (photo in public domain; wikimedia commons) (courtesy of wikipedia)
 

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 Magazinein 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.

Works Cited

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.

Literature Related to "Wakefield"

Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century 
(photo in public domain; wikimedia commons)
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century (photo in public domain; wikimedia commons) (courtesy of wikipedia)
 

 

  • In the January 2008, the New Yorkermagazine published a story entitled "Wakefield" by E. L. Doctorow which is a contemporary take on Hawthorne’s story. It lacks the sparseness of Hawthorne’s tale, adding characters and events, and it makes some changes in the setting (a suburb of an American city rather than London, and Wakefield moves not a few blocks away, but to the attic in his garage), but it follows the main story line and explores the theme of “leaving the system.”
Full text of "Wakefield" by Nathaniel Hawthorne 

Criticial Commentary Relating to Alienation in "Wakefield"

Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century 
(photo in public domain; wikimedia commons)
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century (photo in public domain; wikimedia commons) (courtesy of wikipedia)
 

  • Excerpt relating to Hawthorne’s "Wakefield" from The Cambridge Introduction to Hawthorne by Leland  S.  Person (49-50) (courtesy of Cambridge University Press) In this excerpt, Leland S. Person compares Wakefield to Rip Van Winkle as both men desire to see the effects one’s absence has on those one leaves behind. He also points out the lack of motivation Hawthorne gives to Wakefield for his departure from his home and observes that this is similar to the ambiguity of motivation of Reverend Hooper when he dons his veil in "The Minister’s Black Veil."

  • Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorneby Melissa McFarland Pennell (46-48) (courtesy of Greenwood Press) In this excerpt Melissa McFarland Pennell discusses the mysterious character of Wakefield and the theme of identity and how that identity is shaped by one’s connections to others.

  • Excerpt from Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple (86-87; 100) (courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf) In this passage from Wineapple's 2003 biography of Hawthorne, she speaks of Wakefield as alienated artist and also as a kindred spirit of Hawthorne.

  • Excerpt relating to Hawthorne’s "Wakefield" from "Wakefield’s Second Journey" by Robert F. Weldon in the winter 1977 edition of Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, issue 1, (69-74). In this excerpt Robert F. Weldon discusses Wakefield as the quester experiencing a midlife crisis who, though "he may return home...will always be ‘the Outcast of the Universe’" (74).          
  • Full text of "Wakefield"

Websites Related to "Wakefield"

 

Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century 
(photo in public domain; wikimedia commons)
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century (photo in public domain; wikimedia commons) (courtesy of wikipedia)
 

 

  • NPR program interviewing Doctorow (Neal Conan, “Talk of the Nation,” May 1, 2003)

Lectures and Articles Related to "Wakefield "

Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century 
(photo in public domain; wikimedia commons)
Lower End of Regent Street as seen from Piccadilly Circus, London, first half of 19th century (photo in public domain; wikimedia commons) (courtesy of wikipedia)