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In the Wake of Hawthorne's "Wakefield": Breaking the Habit of Cohabitation and Ennui Redux in Daniel Stern's "Wakefield" and Andrei Codrescu's Wakefield

by Mark Dunphy, Lindsey Wilson College, Columbia, KY 42728

“But habit is the great deadener”—Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (59)
“Habit and routine have an unbelievable power to waste and destroy”—Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes

Two contemporary writers, Daniel Stern and Andrei Codrescu, have appropriated Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” in terms of title, the story’s motifs and the title character’s motives, and in Codrescu’s case, even the title character’s eponymous name. In Daniel Stern’s story “Wakefield,” from his 1990 collection Twice Upon a Time, the narrator, Burk, meets his wife, Geneen, for lunch in Boston while he is between flights. During lunch, he tells his wife the story of “Wakefield” and how “He just walked away from his wife, from his home” (55). Geneen thinks that “the crazy thing” about the story is how Wakefield “stayed around the corner, secretly [. . .] for almost twenty years” (55). Burk then tells the reader, but not Geneen, how some of his wife’s habits bother him: “Burk never enjoyed her habit of saying ‘aha.’ Like her habit of occasionally not completing sentences, letting them float” (56).

Burk goes on to relate the various prime scenes from “Wakefield” to Geneen: “He goes out to spy on his own house from a distance—but out of habit he ends up almost at the door. He panics and beats it to the corner. From there he turns back and looks. And here—he looks back at the house—and it seems different to him” (61).

Geneen responds: “Well, of course. It’s all going to be different for him from now on. He’s stepped out of the loop. The loop. Everybody’s in the loop, one loop or another. Once you step out—you’re out” (61-2). As the narrator of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” notes in the story’s penultimate and final lines:
Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe. (88-89)
Indeed, “Once you step out—you’re out”—as Melville’s Bartleby and Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” also well know.

Eventually, as Burk notes, directly quoting from Hawthorne’s 1835 “Wakefield,” that Wakefield “lets time pass; before he had thought, ‘I shall return in a few days,’ but now he thinks, ‘in a few weeks.’ And so ten years pass” (62). And “Buck continues, “For a long time he has not known that his conduct is strange. With all the lukewarm affection of which his heart is capable, Wakefield continues to love his wife, while she is forgetting him” (62-3). As Burk continues reconstructing the “Wakefield” narrative for his wife, Geneen becomes upset and tells Burk: “Actually, it’s one of the cruelest, ugliest stories I’ve ever heard. It’s full of fascination and sympathy for this wild man and not one word of concern for his wife” (65).

Hawthorne’s story precipitates a brief argument as to whether or not Geneen and Burk should buy a summer house on the Cape—Geneen wants to, but Burk does not. After their argument, Burk tells his wife that “maybe” Wakefield’s “wife doesn’t understand him,” to which Geneen responds, “You mean she can’t figure out computer lingo” (67). Burk travels the world “selling computer systems” (69) but once had hopes “of becoming the first professor of Artificial Intelligence at Yale, of making a zillion dollars in international import-export” (64).

Towards the end of the story, Burk realizes that it has been the same habit of cohabitation that may drive him to the similar impulse and fate that has driven Wakefield from his home and wife. Burk had up to now been

[f]aithful to his wife, like Wakefield, perhaps, from lack of energy or imagination. How many such ordinary, mildly disappointed souls had stood there caught up for a moment in the promised pleasure of playing a small joke on their destiny, a game of escape without the terror of loss. The game of walking out, for a while; the game of vanishing, but not forever, to heighten the way others thought about them, to change the way they thought about themselves, just for a moment. The impulse— that was the Wakefield moment. (69)

The ultimate epiphany—the Wakefield moment-- to Hawthorne’s story and for Burk’s life

as he now knew it was not the particular circumstance: not anxiety over a troubling child, the wasting of a talent or a change of profession, or a struggle with a wife about the cost of a summer house. No! Burk saw it clearly at that moment as if the snow were writing it on the neon-tinged black sky behind the blizzard, clear to read. It was life with others, life itself; the game of grownup. Geneen had it right – it was living in the loop. It was all there in the last lines of the story—lines he had deliberately not read to her. . . by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to the fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield he may become, as it were, The Outcast of the Universe. (69)
“Hell,” as Jean Paul Sartre notes in No Exit, “is other people.”

Wakefield, the eponymous anti-hero of Andrei Codrescu’s novel, Wakefield, published in 2004, resembles Burk in his peripatetic journeys in that he, too, travels the world, except as a travel writer, and he now primarily spends his time by traveling throughout the United States as a motivational speaker--but as one who leaves his audience less motivated after he speaks. He boosts that his current motivational lecture business is “[t]errific” because “[t]here is a shortage of nonpositive points of view” as “[s]ome shrewd CEOS [are] quietly seek out realists, even pessimists, to temper the aggressive good cheer” (12). One can infer that perhaps like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, the reason the perambulating characters of Stern’s and Codrescu’s stories do not relate to their wives, or ex-wife in Wakefield’s case, is because they find the marital relationship to be, finally, a bore.

Wakefield makes a Faustian bargain with the Devil in the “Prologue” of the novel. The Devil in the novel’s first line tells Wakefield that that he has “come to take you. You don’t have any reason to live” because Wakefield, too, like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, has also “become, as it were, The Outcast of the Universe” (Hawthorne 89): “Okay,” the Devil informs his subject, so you’re a loner. No loved ones, no next of kin, no pets. Nothing to live for but a few bad habits” (1). After some arguing between the two, Wakefield pleads with the Devil; “Couldn’t you give me another chance? I’ve had this feeling for a while, you know, like I went wrong somewhere, like maybe I should have lived a different life” (2). The Devil agrees to give Wakefield another year of life if he is able to discover a “true life” for himself (6). Although Wakefield realizes that “[a]ll he needs to beat the Devil is some imagination—the epigram for the novel is taken from Hawthorne’s story—“Imagination, in the proper meaning of the term, made no part of Wakefield’s gifts”—he also

[r]emembers a downside of his deal with the Devil. In his year of grace, nobody’ll notice that he’s gone. How could that ever have seemed attractive to him? If nobody misses you, you might as well be dead. Wasn’t that partly why the other Wakefield, the man in Hawthorne’s short story, left home? To see if he would be missed? It was vanity; the guy wanted to feel important. (30)

When Wakefield flies to a Midwestern town called Typical to give another Motivational, or rather anti-motivational speech to another corporate client, he momentarily contemplates getting an “authentic life” by living a typical suburban existence, but he

[h]ears the Devil laughing. “This is what you got me out of bed for? I’m supposed to give you a reprieve for becoming a frigging cliché? If suburban bliss was the ‘authentic life,’ I’d never collect anybody. There are millions of normals out there, all of them ‘authentic.’ I don’t even deal with them, we’ve got cleaning crews for their kind, they scoop them up by the millions” (40)

Wakefield then realizes, that like himself,

The Devil [too] is easily bored. But what could he really have against so-called normality? The “normal” family, is, after all, the source of what the Devil enjoys most: anxiety, mental illness, violence, evil thoughts, fear, and social unrest. What the Devil hates are attempts to escape the quotidian horror of ordinariness. (41)
Wakefield recalls “Baudelaire’s curse on boredom: ‘Habitually we cultivate remorse, as beggars entertain and nurse their fleas” (47). Baudelaire has also noted: “Boredom is pain spread through time” (qtd. in Freeman, A9). It is boredom, not money, that is really at the root of all evil. It is not only the spouses of the leisured class but also the spouses of creative people who wear
that bored, desperate, neurotic, on-the verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown look that the spouses have in soap-operas. Well, the reason for this despondency is the unconscionable number of times they’ve heard their mates say the same thing over and over. It is the same with spouses of scientists and poets. It is the same with all creative people. Yes, honey, I know, you said that already. (63)

Wakefield realizes that people nowadays “are quickly bored and they demand greater and greater imagination in their content. Matter of fact, the only certainty driving the economy is the certainty that boredom at faster and faster rates is inevitable” (75). In another quasi-motivational speech, Wakefield announces that he has “created the School for the Imagination” in order to counter the new disease afflicting America and Americans: “TBS (Terminal Boredom Syndrome)” (79). Wakefield realizes that Americans have perpetually craved diversions from their prosaic lives for centuries; Americans can always be characterized by their addiction to entertainment, no matter how ludicrous and fraudulent it might be because entertainment provides an escape from their pedestrian daily life. Contemporary American life

was a time of tent revivals, just like in the mid-nineteenth century. Snake-oil salesmen and gurus of every stripe were making bundles appealing to the crowds. Putative paradises achievable through patented formulas were conjured from thin air and made instantly available. America was rolling in money and not a inconsiderable portion of that gravy slopped generously into bowls of smooth talkers and charlatans. Wakefield read some history and found that his own age was very like the Jacksonian era before the Civil War. At that time everyone from mesmerists and channelers of the dead to writers like Mark Twain were raking in the chips. It was about that time, too, that Hawthorne’s Wakefield decided to drop out. Nineteen-nineties America was just as enamored of bathos and fantasy as Jacksonian America had been. (105)

As the narrator notes: “A big problem with the world now is that it is prosaic, it lacks a link to magic, it is unimaginative [. . .]” (128). Even for the Devil, it has “all [been] too easy after watching thousands of predictable humans doing predictable things for eons” (133).

At another corporate conference, Wakefield meets the Swedish Culture Minister who is presenting a paper on the need for portable houses because “these structures are an answer to the most vexing problem of contemporary life: boredom. Here you can move your house, exchange view with your neighbors, or take the whole thing with you for a weekend of fishing in the country. Sweden has beautiful lakes” (165).

For his last motivational speech invitation Wakefield travels to California where a billionaire has asked him to speak at a dinner party. When he arrives in the town perched along the Pacific Ocean, “[h]e wonders if l’ennui can exist in this jewellike beach town sparkling gloriously on a sunny morning. Bored, bored, bored, ma petite” (207). He realizes that the town’s citizens are bored even here in this seemingly idyllic place because “[b]efore the new economic boom this had been a place with rough characters about, dim bars, working girls, anarchist bookstores. None of that remains: no flophouses, no indigents, no winos, no whores, no sailors—pretty boring” (217).

At the end of the novel, Wakefield returns home and ends where he begins: Alive but alone. The Devil tells Wakefield: “Your case has been shelved, for the time being. There’s been a big deal brewing and I’ve been called up. Don’t know when we’ll talk again” (288).The last lines of the novel read: “He heads home, to read. What else could a silence-loving man do in a hammer-wielding world?” (288). Perhaps what Wakefield is re-reading is Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” since so much of Codrescu’s novel is so indebted to Hawthorne’s story.

Works Cited
  • Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1982. 1954.
  • Codrescu, Andrei. Wakefield. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2004.
  • Freeman, John. “Coming of Age, with All That Pain.” Book Review of I Have the Right To Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim. July 28, 2007. Louisville Courier-Journal. A9.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Wakefield.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: Selected Tales and Sketches. Ed. Hyatt H. Waggoner. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 1966. 1950.
  • Lubac, Henri de.Paradoxes.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit.
  • Stern, Daniel. “Wakefield.” Twice Upon a Time. Houston: Rice U. P., 1996. 1992.

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