Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield” is not particularly dramatic or bizarre. There are no great crimes, supernatural occurrences or unusual spiritual dilemmas, though there is a more subtle moral element at work. Originally written in the 1830s – as part of Hawthorne’s story collection, Twice-Told Tales – the author says that the narrative has its roots in “some old magazine or newspaper” he had read. So it likely belongs to the pre-Victorian London of Charles Dickens’ youth (the famous English novelist penned his early works about the same time as Hawthorne’s stories).
While Wakefield’s delinquency is not exactly horrific, the fact of absenting himself from his wife and taking up secret lodgings for 20 years “in the next street to his own house” strikes one as both perverse and capricious. Wakefield is described as sly and scheming in a lethargic manner. He is the sort of person whose daydreams eventually get the better of him and in that seemingly small decision (which he almost does not make) he “exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever” in the universe.
Hawthorne touches on the recurring temptation that most of us have. It’s the desire to step outside our lives. It may be motivated by morbid curiosity. Perhaps it is due to laziness, boredom, or selfishness – or a combination of all those things. We are lucky if we don’t follow Wakefield’s example. While the protagonist’s disappearance involves a relocation of no more than a few hundred yards, the psychological gulf thereby created is immense.
It is this spiritual and atmospheric aspect that I enjoy most about Hawthorne’s tale. The London of “Wakefield” is full of a gloomy charm. And it is appropriately autumnal at this time of year. The action begins in the “dusk of an October evening.” And in the moments prior to Wakefield’s return, we read: “It is a gusty night of autumn, with frequent showers, that patter down upon the pavement, and are gone, before a man can put up his umbrella.” There is undoubtedly something about the chill and dark of fall that lends itself to the pensive meditations of Hawthorne’s story, unlike the bright and extroverted temper of warmer months.