“Wakefield”, Nathaniel Hawthorne

16 Jul

I’ve been tripping myself up overthinking how to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”.  Auster has cited Hawthorne’s short stories, this one in particular, as an influence on Ghosts, the second book in the New York Trilogy.  Because of how important Hawthorne was to Auster’s development as a writer, I saw it as my responsibility to read his short stories “Wakefield” and “Fanshawe” before I started Ghosts and The Locked Room, respectively.  Unlike “William Wilson”, these Hawthorne stories seem to have a level of renown among scholars that writing even a cursory blog entry seemed like a task of no small intimidation.


“Wakefield” traces the experience of a man who departs his wife’s company for twenty years.  He takes up residence in an apartment within visible distance of his old home, dresses in a ragged disguise, and watches his wife from his bedroom window during the time he has absented himself from her.  He even passes her on the street, and she almost seems to recognize him.  Long after she has assumed he is dead, sold his belongings, and taken up the life of a widow, he returns to his homestead.


This might amount to a huge spoiler, except that Hawthorne reveals all of this in the first paragraph of the story.  In the next 25 pages, he explores the man’s experience apart from his wife, watching her with a sense of longing and taking on disguises to avoid discovery.


Though Hawthorne reveals the story’s full trajectory at its start, the conclusion has a sense of ambiguity, as Wakefield stands on his doorstep awaiting his wife’s reaction when she sees him for the first time in twenty years. Wakefield’s ascetic, solitary existence touches upon a theme running through Auster’s work.  Additionally, one line in the story – “He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life” – reminded me of Auster’s observation about his father’s married life in “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, that Sam Auster was a lifelong bachelor with an interlude of family life.


I found “Wakefield” for free in the Amazon Kindle store.   It’s also available online in several places, including Project Gutenberg.


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