Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by 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.
The link between this story and the problems of modern life is established at the outset. The narrator states that he only remembers the outlines of this story as reported in an old magazine or newspaper. Learning of this episode through the media rather than through conversations with others highlights the depersonalization of modern life. The narrator’s own anonymity underscores this reality, as do his references to the loss of individuality as the narrative proceeds. … The narrator… does everything he can to undermine any sympathy that the reader feels for Wakefield, for if his character and situation seem reasonable, then the unbearable aspects of modern life must be acknowledged” (46).
…The reader learns little about [Wakefield] other than details that pertain to his disappearance or his attitudes toward what he has done. No mention is made of his employment or how he maintains his livelihood during his disappearance. He interacts with no one, save the chance encounter with his wife. Ironically his anonymity and isolation are greater than before he disappeared (47).
The narrator refers to him as the “hero” of the story, but the qualities he ascribes to him are anything but heroic. His attributes include sluggishness, lack of imagination, “quite selfishness,” and a “cold, but not depraved or wandering heart” …. Wakefield easily disappears in the crowd, an ordinary man. The narrator even mocks him by calling attention to his insignificance (47). … A creature of habit, Wakefield shifts from one routine path in life to another. His new existence offers no greater excitement than did the old … (48).
Is this a story of a midlife crisis, since Wakefield is at the “meridian” of life? He desperately wants to be noticed, to stand out from the background of at least his family’s daily activities. He does not look for a new love and during his absence remains faithful to his wife. He does, however, choose to watch how “widowhood” and his disappearance affect her. … Has Wakefield’s life reached a quiet desperation that makes any reaction, even worry and suffering, better than no reaction from others? The narrator refrains from pursuing this question, just as he refrains from any conjecture regarding what occurs when Wakefield returns ( 48).
The narrator emphasizes the importance of routine, of “systems” that provide people with security and a sense of place in their daily lives. Especially in a modern, urban environment, this may be the only source of identity, as individuality is undermined by “the great mass” that makes up city life. Hawthorne uses the narrator’s own need for security and acceptance to raise questions about their cost. He invites the reader to consider how one’s place in the world is determined by connections to others as well as by physical location and cultural conditions (48).