1.23.2005

Hawthorne's "Wakefield"

Hawthorne is morally a hard man, which doesn't mean he's cruel or unfair but perhaps a little harsh. His words are whips to ne'er-do-wells, but finishing "Wakefield" and finding aspects of his descriptions that closely mirrored my experience with depression, I only now realized that these harsh words weren't against other people but himself. There's no way he could have captured depression without knowing himself (especially in his day, when medical responses to melancholia or hysteria were the equivalent blood-letting for patients who needed blood: locking them away--medicine in my experience still has some distance to travel to fully grapple with the subject). Hawthorne isn't castigating what he hasn't felt firsthand. Let's briefly peer into his life before lifting the lid on "Wakefield" (my apologies to the New Critics, but blame Malcolm Cowley's introduction to The Portable Hawthorne for validating my ideas).

Hawthorne's father died when Nathaniel was only four. At nine, a foot injury kept him confined to the house. Depression is a disease of hopelessness so deep it's not worth trying. For some, this may come through a number of tragedies or losses. Consider if you had an accident that prevented you from acting for two years. Would you be eager to step out and take risks? Might you not withdraw?

Cowley writes:

Another paradox is also connected with his solitude and self-absorption. Hawthorne was reserved to the point of being secretive about his private life [I'll emphasize this in the Wakefield text below], and yet he spoke more about himself with greater honesty, than any other American of his generation.... [M]ost of his stories... are full of anguished confessions....

Mr. Bullfrog's [a character from "The Vision of the Fountain"] predicament was like the one in which Hawthorne had involved himself during his Salem years: in a sense he was married to his own image, for which--if his tales are a trustworthy guide--he felt an attachment that was physical as well as moral. Moreover his self-absorption had come to have a sinister meaning for him.... [H]e had wandered alone into the forest of his mind and had suddenly found himself in the midst of a witches' sabbath.

Hawthorne had descended into a sort of underworld, as many great artists do at some stage of their lives. For various reasons--sometimes a moral fault, sometimes a physical infirmity or a violation of accepted standards--they are cut off from other human beings, left face to face with themselves, and given an unbearable sense of their own separateness.... a prison that had no visible bars.... Eventually he came to resemble one of his own characters, Gervayse Hastings of "The Christmas Banquet," who considered himself the unhappiest of men [One might consider one's self the unhappiest of men in a stiff-upper-lip culture that frowned upon not readily visible conditions, allowing between one in five to one in three other like-sufferers to go unnoticed]. "You will not understand it," Hastings told his rivals in misery. "None have understood it--not even those who experience the like...."

Sophia made [Hawthorne] an admirable wife, cheerful in their early hardships, respectful of his daily need for solitude, always regarding him as the sun around which she returned.... The fact is that his life turned outwards after 1842 ["Wakefield" was written in 1835] and... he cured himself of his self-centeredness, became active in his world.


These experiences mirror much of the tale in "Wakefield" (note--albeit minor and perhaps only coincidental--how each character mentioned has the same two syllables and inflection: Wakefield, Hawthorne, Hastings, Bullfrog). Had Hawthorne been more aware of the constellation of symptoms, the character might have been more carefully motivated although he is well enough motivated even if those motivations are somewhat obscure to Wakefield himself. It may also be that other readers notice aspects unfamilar to my experience. What's important is that Hawthorne catalogued the reality [or nature] he was aquainted with--no matter how little sense it made. Still, fully cognizant or not, Hawthorne would have undoubtedly been just as harsh for sins committed against others.

Let's put Hawthorne's life in the background while we analyze Wakefield.

The very title indicates a need for waking from an inward, mental slumber--asleep in the field when one ought to be working. The next thing to notice is that we are actually quite distant from the protagonist of Wakefield. The narrator sits in the parlor with us pontificating judgement over a pipe of tobacco. We get to hear of the clear tenor of his disapproval in no uncertain terms: "[N]one of us would perpetrate such a folly."

So who is Wakefield? (All bold emphases mine.)

He was now in the meridian of life; his matrimonial affections, never violent, were sobered into a calm, habitual sentiment; of all husbands, he was likely to be the most constant, because a certain sluggishness [note all these references to laziness which is how depression can appear to the uninitiated outsider; but in this story, it's also a laziness of mind not to think about the final effects of one's actions] would keep his heart at rest, wherever it might be placed. He was intellectual, but not actively so; his mind occupied itself in long and lazy musings, that ended to no purpose, or had not vigor to attain it; his thoughts were seldom so energetic as to seize hold of words. Imagination [that is, imagination to know how his actions would affect his wife], in the proper meaning of the term, made no part of Wakefield's gifts. With a cold but not depraved nor wandering heart, and a mind never feverish with riotous thoughts, nor perplexed with originality [what this indicates is more of the same, yet it isn't the normal cruelty that motivates Wakefield but a lack of imagination to see that far ahead to the inevitable effect; but also by not making Wakefield cruel, Hawthorne swivels his finger to his reader: you're not cruel, no, but neither is he: are you anticipating the effects of your actions?], who could have anticipated that our friend would entitle himself to a foremost place among the doers of eccentric deeds?


What did Wakefield do?

The man, under pretence of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason [that he knew of] for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity--when his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood--he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day's absence, and became a loving spouse till death.


What motivates Wakefield to leave his wife?

Had his acquaintances been asked, who was the man in London the surest to perform nothing today which should be remembered on the morrow [do we need any other motivator than to be remembered? The other adjectives describe what Hawthorne's narrator feels about this], they would have thought of Wakefield. Only the wife of his bosom might have hesitated. She, without having analyzed his character, was partly aware of a quiet selfishness, that had rusted into his inactive mind; of a peculiar sort of vanity, the most uneasy attribute about him; of a disposition to craft which had seldom produced more positive effects than the keeping of petty secrets, hardly worth revealing [see note in Cowley's quote at the top]; and, lastly, of what she called a little strangeness, sometimes, in the good man. This latter quality is indefinable, and perhaps non-existent.


Matthew Cheney infers from the last quality mentioned, strangeness: "The wife may think she knows her husband, but the narrator has doubts." But if you take another look, you'll see it is just the "latter quality [that] is indefinable, and perhaps non-existent," which is rather generous of Hawthorne's narrator: The quality of strangeness (in nature?) is perhaps non-existent. So-called oddities of behavior may be normal or consistent with that creature.

Wakefield's motivations are all short-sighted, so he has motivations--he may not be aware of them, which is one-half of his crime, the other half being not thinking about future consequences. Hawthorne's narrator even speaks of Wakefield's short-sighted motivations: "Such are his loose and rambling modes of thought that he has taken this very singular step with the consciousness of a purpose, indeed, but without being able to define it sufficiently for his own contemplation." Each step of the way, Wakefield makes new decisions (based on motivations) such as buying a wig to disguise himself from his wife: "After the initial conception, and the stirring up of the man's sluggish temperament to put it in practice, the whole matter evolves itself in a natural train."

He's blithely unaware of what effects his motivations are causing others: "his harmless love of mystery.... almost resolved to perplex his good lady by a whole week's absence." Some effects on his wife? She "make[s his visage] strange and awful: as, for instance, if she imagines him in a coffin," etc.

Wakefield "[l]ittle knowest thou thine own insignificance in the great world!" King James Bible language, no less. He thinks himself so significant--which is his vanity, his foolishness--that his absence will increase his value: "[H]ow the little sphere of creatures and circumstances, in which he was a central object, will be affected by his removal."

And Wakefild "[a]lmost repent[s] of his frolic," but does not. What motivates him not to go back home? "[H]e is rendered obstinate by a sulkiness occasionally incident to his temper, and brought on at present by the inadequate sensation which he conceives to have been produced in the bosom of Mrs. Wakefield. He will not go back until she be frightened half to death."

Again and again, Wakefield nearly leaves, "excited to something like energy of feeling [if he had used his imagination, he could have felt his wife's pain]." Later he tries wake himself up: "Wakefield! Wakefield! You are mad!" Come on. If he's aware of his crime, what's stopping him from rectifying it for twenty years?

He is "unwilling to display his full front to the world," and "an influence beyond our control lays its strong hand on every deed which we do, and weaves its consequences into an iron tissue of necessity. Wakefield is spell-bound." Are these not perfectly apt descriptions of depression? Perhaps in Hawthorne's day he saw the influence as other-worldly. Even when energy breaks the heavy spell of depression, it is too brief to be effective:

[He] throws himself upon the bed. That latent feelings of years break out; his feeble mind acquires a brief energy from their strength.... [His situation] so moulded him to himself, that, considered, in regard to his fellow-creatures and the business of life, he could be said to possess his right mind.


Here's one curious effect of time-warping that I have not heard others describe but has occured to me (albeit I was quite aware of what was happening--as incomprehensible as it continued to be):

[A]nd still he would keep saying, "I shall soon go back!"--nor reflect that he had been saying so for twenty years.

I conceive, also, that these twenty years would appear, in the retrospect, scarcely longer than the week to which Wakefield had at first limited his absence. He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life. When, after a little while more, he should deem it time to reenter his parlor, his wife would clap her hands for joy, on beholding the middle-aged Mr. Wakefield. Alas, what a mistake! Would Time but await the close of our favorite follies, we should be young men, all of us, and till Doomsday.


I have risen at five in the morning to get ready for work and found myself at eight o'clock still not ready. Before, it could take me fifteen minutes. I have told people I would review their work or write them email and suddenly it would be weeks, months later and it seemed like only the other day that I'd said I'd get to it.

And this loss of time is exactly Hawthorne's conclusion:

[S]tepping 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.


For Wakefield, Hawthorne, and William Styron, friends and family are pulling for them. Everyone's experience of this seemingly mysterious affliction is slightly different and sometimes seemingly motiveless, but causes do often exist if we are able to find them--be it genetic defects or a series of unfortunate events.