2.18.2005

Hey, congratulations to the Kelly Link, Tim Pratt, and the mystery person who got into Best American Short Stories!

Jeff Vandermeer responded to my last post. I ought to have posted with examples and will do so shortly.

2.17.2005

Style Is Style

I’m several months late coming to Daniel Green’s argument that style is character. He actually convinced me for the length of the article--clever bastard: Could centuries of analysis be mistaken? It isn’t the first time I’ve heard the argument though I have not heard from where the argument originated, which might aid my coming to grips with the theorist’s underpinnings. But of the theory that I’ve seen, it needs work.

First, people create new terms to describe phenomena. If style were character, we could--thank Occam and his razor--eliminate the use of either one. But we cannot because they are distinct. Then what is style? What is character? Since we use words to communicate, Green suggests that words are style and, presumably, everything you need to know about story (he limits his discussion to character, but his argument would suggest that style is also plot and theme and point of view and, well, another word for "story"). Character is the portrayal of the dramatis personae and all that defines and shapes them while style is how a story is told, not what. Words are used with both how and what, confusing Green's point. As the how of a story, style merely lays a patina over how the story will be interpreted--which is not unlike POV in its effect although POV is the storyteller’s [potential] bias while style evokes the mood. Style can influence how the reader sees character (and plot, setting, POV, theme, etc.), but it cannot substitute for it.

Second, if style were character, a story could not have one style, or it would only have one character (unless the style is evoked entirely in the voice of one character or POV--but this phenomenon has another term already called “voice,” the mix of style and point-of-view).

Third, if one writer had a superior style to another, then the character(s) of the superior style should also be superior.

Case History #1: Compare Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to his To Have and Have Not. The former has a superior style and a bland protagonist. The latter Hemingway admitted he spent less time on (it shows in overall story/theme as well as in style) and the primary protagonist is far more intriguing. [More on To Have and Have Not later, which I read to compare to Geoff Ryman's Air, or Have Not Have--no relation as it turns out, but interesting to talk about, nonetheless.]

Case History #2: The characters in Zadie Smith’s Autograph Man are banal (quirky, yes, but ultimately uninteresting--presumably purposefully to illustrate the story's theme brought out in the finale) up until the entrance of the elusive Kitty Alexander. How could that be if Smith’s style had not changed and were somehow inferior up until the entrance of Alexander?

Case History #3: The horror stories in question which I reviewed had interesting styles but blank-slate characters. In fact, one might make a legitimate claim that horror is more about style than any other genre including literary works and it is this very claim that H.P. Lovecraft uses to dismiss Henry James' The Turn of a Screw. So if Green's claim held water, Lovecraft or at least Lovecraft's exemplars of supernatural literature would have better characterization.

Fourth, riffing off point number two, if style were character, bringing in four authors should bring in four powerfully distinct characters, right?

Case History #4: Looking at “Green Fire” by Eileen Gunn, Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick [no longer online that I can see], we find that Gunn begins an attempt to examine the characters, but Andy Duncan--clearly the best stylist in this story--does absolutely nothing with them. So, in this example only, the weak stylist is the best character-writer while the strongest stylist is the flabbiest writer of character.

No single element makes a story. Some advocate idea or theme over all other elements, some character, some images and setting, some style, some imagination. [In the last case history, Swanwick by design had the most imagination but not the better style or character though, again, this is not meant to be a comparison of writing careers summed up in one story that they tossed off for the thrill of writing a pulp adventure, albeit more in the style of the generation preceding their protagonists.]

Some advocate politics over all elements, which I surmise to be one of Green’s legitimate complaints of certain literary theories [I'm running out of time--google Green's blog for politics or theory], and I couldn’t agree more. Terry Eagleton in Introduction to Theory shot down T.S. Eliot because Eliot didn’t share Eagleton’s politics. What a crock. I had to put the book down. How can I trust Eagleton’s judgment as a critic of art if he cannot value art’s aesthetics, flattening all works of art to a single aspect which he accepts or dismisses based on his divine knowledge of the perfect governmental approach (as Leguin said: one man’s utopia is another’s dystopia)? If a critic wants to shoot down a legitimate art, invariably he recreates an inferior simulacra to knock down. Such straw men are the perennial favorite gimmicks of politicians and demonstrate how incapable politicians are at handling or understanding politics.)

There may be a legitimate, scientific reason why critics (or politicians--I’m not including Green amongst this nefarious lot unless he considers style the end-all-be-all of fiction) flatten art to a single component like politics: Humans can’t handle more than four variables at a time. But there’s hope. There’s a way around our limitations: Do as John Gardner told us: Break the elements down and build them back up again. But in order to break them down, we have to know what they are.

2.10.2005

Modus Operandi

"You will find most books worth reading are worth reading twice."
-- John Morely

BBC recently attributed to Oscar Wilde the quote, "If a book isn't worth reading twice it isn't worth reading once," though this site claims Scooter(?) said it. Famous, infamous, or unfamous--whoever said it said wisely.

"[A]ll aspects of a film are based on formal, structural principles, and meaning as well as emotion is always communicated by structure.... Meaning or emotion does not exist without a form to communicate it. We never simply 'know' something."
--Robert Kolker, Film, Form and Culture

"Break up the larger story into its components, make sure you understand the exact function of each component (a story is like a machine with numerous gears: it should contain no gear that doesn't turn something) and after each component has been carefully set in place, step back and have a look at the whole."
--John Gardner

On our local public radio came a musician who spoke of teaching the next generation of musicians. Her rationale was that (I wish I had the direct quote) if you teach them, they will understand the form and be able to pass it on. The interest now infused in Language poetry may be due in large part to Ron Silliman's blog (his work can be found here).

All of this quoting is simply pointing the direction of this blog. I used to feel it important to be coyly speechless about art as Robert Frost or Robert Altman, but wouldn't it be better to explain art so that more could participate? The more who can participate, the higher the odds are that the arts will be funded for the future. Mystical, elitist attitudes about art and understanding it bore me, so I plan to dig deeper into texts (probably no deeper than I dug into "Wakefield," etc.). This means I'll be spoiling plots and sleight-of-hand, but would the story be worth reading if talking about it ruined it? (Maybe particularly well-crafted plot-driven stories, in which case I'll be as indirect and coyly phrased as possible.)

Jeff Vandermeer recently blogged one of his best commentaries on Haruki Murakamis. He asks, "Are there books we under-appreciate through no fault of the author's, but because our own imaginations as readers are not up to the task?" Maybe essays of more depth will help us get to a place where can appreciate them as opposed to reading good art because it's somehow mystically good for us. Spinach is too, but would you eat everything you were told was good for you if you didn't know how? If we aren't able to explain what we say we appreciate, do we truly appreciate it?

Where no Trekkie has gone before

Jed Hartman pointed out new Star Trek episodes online.

2.08.2005

Links

Gwenda Bond points out Stephen King's 12 tips for being a writer.

Rue D notes the wild stories homeless children of Miami tell.

Alan DeNiro had two interesting blogs: one on scrapping what doesn't seem to be working, another criticizing criticism. In the latter, I'm less interested in the speculating of motives but the approach: "The problem is that he really doesn't have any clue what Language poetry is, and never defines it; it's something rather specific." This kind of reacting positively or negatively without defining what you love or find wrong is symptomatic throughout the literary spectrum of discourse. DeNiro's implied advice is a page from a book I hope to follow in the future of this blog.

I'll read it more thoroughly later, but the Richard Tayson article does define language poetry as "a lack of narrative, a rejection of closure, an emphasis on textuality, and extreme attention to the material physicality of the shape and sound of words (or even letters) at the expense of...," etc.

My take on Language Poetry will be months down the road, but while I admire the new approach to language, I'm not convinced of its purported political purposes (hence, months down the road). DeNiro makes fun of Tayson's view of Whitman through hacker-speak: "Whitman is so 1337." I had to look up "1337" which is supposed to be short for "elite" although DeNiro may have had another definition in mind. (Explore the Urban Dictionary--very cool). Whitman, however, was the opposite of elite. He tried to embrace all of the culture at once--the broad sweep of his lines and the wide scope of his lens: from the technology of locomotives to nature's blade of grass to bear-hugging all of the nation's inhabitants in simple language. He sought to bring poetic language further towards the common man. In this sense, Language poetry does not follow the Whitman tradition as it estranges the language from the common man (which does not necessarily connote it is not poetry). The only way to test the Whitman supposition for certain is to take Whitman and language poetry on the streets and do a blind, randomized taste-test.

Zadie Smith on Writing

"I think the writer’s responsibility is to tell the truth. The aim is to try and tell the truth — any kind of truth. It can be a very tiny truth. Truth means not that you read the book and think, "Ah, yes, I make a cup of tea exactly that way." It’s not that. It has to be truth without generalization, without cliche, and without simplification."

The interview is somewhat antagonistic, but there are a few other interesting ideas after the ice is broken.

I also thought these two separate interviews came up with an interesting contrast. From Random House:

Q. When you write the beginning of a novel, do you already have the ending in your head or does it only become clear after journeying with the characters?

A. Yes, I need to know what the end of the story is before I begin a novel. By the time I start to write the novel I don't want to still be inventing the story; I want to be thinking only about the language or the next sentence, and the sentence after that. The process of imagining a whole story takes a year or eighteen months. I always begin with who the characters are and how and when their paths cross and recross.


From Masterpiece Theatre:

White Teeth is such a vivacious, anarchic story. Did you know how it was going to end when you started it?

No, I don't think so. I just finished a short story and I don't always know the ending when I start. I know it up to the middle, and the rest of it is a bit like pedaling downhill. If you don't get panicked it's fine.


The ideas are not completely contradictory, but one wonders if it has to do with the interviewing technique--if the interviewer/ee feel at ease.

2.06.2005

25% off book at Borders coupon (through Thursday 2/10/5)

2.02.2005

Eating their Dust

Two of my Clarion classmates have made a huge splash this year already:

Stephen Woodworth's second novel, With Red Hands, debuted at #25 on the NY Times bestseller list. His first, Through Violet Eyes, made it into three book clubs: Doubleday, Literary Guild, and SFBC (as a Featured Alternate).

Margo Lanagan won an Aurealis award for her collection, Black Juice, four stories of which were recommended by Locus.

Our instructor, Gwyneth Jones, is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award.

(And here I get excited when I finish writing a whole scene.)

Woo-Hoo! I'm rich!

Finally, after all the Paypal phishing scams [if you don't know what phishing is, read this now] via Australians and Europeans (according to the links of their redirect websites, that is), I'm finally getting the promise of money in return for the theft of my identity. It's not quite as kooky as the story about the deposed African ruler with a pot of gold in his backyard that he needs my money to dig up, but it must do the trick. (At least this scam gives the thread of a story. It has an official term: 4-1-9.)

Subject: Attn: Bequest Beneficiary
From: "Law Office"



ATTENTION:

Sir

NOTIFICATION OF BEQUEST .

This is sequel to your non response of our earlier letter to you on behalf of the Trustees and Executors to the Will of late of Hon Engr.Billy Scotts(KSM),I wish to notify you that you were listed as a beneficiary to the bequest of the sum of Five Million One Hundred Thousand US Dollars in the codicil and last testament of the deceased. The late Engr. Billy Scotts until his death was a former Managing Director and pioneer staff of a big construction company Julius Berger BV in the Netherlands. He was a very dedicated Sufis and a great philanthropist during his life time.


Late Hon. Billy Scotts died on 9th February 2004 at the age of 68,He was buried on the 23rd of February. Late Hon. Billy Scotts even though he was an American living and working in Holland as a foreigner he requested before his death that he be buried here in his words, "I regard here as My home and the people as my people". He said that this token is to support your ministry and help to the less- privileged. I hereby request that you forward any proof of identities of yours, your current telephone and fax numbers and your forwarding address to enable us file necessary documents at the High Court of Justice probate division for the release of this bequest of money.

Congratulations.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Van De Groot

PS
For the purpose of confidentiality, please send your
response to : lawoffice63@netscape.net

2.01.2005

New Aimee Bender tale

Lit Haven just published a new Aimee Bender tale called "Night."

1.31.2005

House of Flying Daggers

After some discussion with my movie-watching companion, I thought I would be a lone voice of dissent, but it appears a number of critics were unsatisfied with their movie experience while I, on the whole, was.

The movie opens with a song and dance, intimating the extensive choreography to follow. After the blind Mei is nearly raped for turning on a young man while dancing, Mei must perform an echo dance to halt execution. Laws of gravity are defied to set us up for more of these small breaks in reality (also, daggers stop spinning to reorient themselves), but the choregraphies grow visually more aesthetic as the film progresses.

The film's plot reverses the Robin Hood story, as Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor and infiltrates the enemy. Here, the enemy plans to infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers, with plenty of plot twists along the way. The story does transform into something of a Shakespearean love-triange tragedy that ends up on a sappy note (a critic or two complained of the love story, but they need to watch a character more carefully throughout). Some of the ludicrous reality breaks are eventually explained away (a character does something that indicates all the charcter has needed done was a farce), so wait patiently. But someone appears to die, arises after a lengthy period of time so that lovers can die in each others' arms. There were probably other, more convincing ways of achieving this effect.

Still, if you haven't seen this, like your love and violence liberally mixed, and prefer battles of choreography to battles of bedlam, this is a must-see.
Jonathan Strahan seeks what you think the past century+ fantasy stories have been.

1.26.2005

SF Movie to Watch

"In Triple M's system of governance, humans are assigned a market value that rises and falls based on how much regulated sex they have."

Hal Hartley sure knows how to intrigue with one sentence of description (Wired).

1.25.2005

Scamming the Scammers, Character Maintenance

February Wired

It'll be made available online soon enough, but this issue lists possible recipes to be made aboard a human mission to Mars based on the foods they will be growing.

Donnie Darko, director's cut is forthcoming, as is the 1982 anime, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke fame.

It is no longer hip to write or dictate books. Now, if you want to hang out with the cool kids, you have to blog your book. Have Wired writers, Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow, been updated on the wired-tired-expired cool-meter? Other stylishnesses include putting on your shirt without putting your head and arms through the normal openings first and making a backpack out of pantyhose.

Consistency: Round-Up--Last Post

I predicted that the difference in perception would hinge on science and, lo, it did. I suspect, while it's nothing to wake Sigmund Freud from his slumber to analyze, we all have hidden or buried philosophies supporting our views, but it's difficult to speculate what, without getting to know all the characters better.

Jeff Vandermeer offers his view on character consistency.

Daniel Green has a few interesting posts on the purpose of literature: Love the text for the text only (kind of New Critic in tone--though I may be oversimplifying, yet it's hard to tell from just this) and similarly, more thoughtfully if not as forcefully wrought, reality in literature. These may in some ways be seen as challenging this view of character consistency. However, it is tiresome defending the plasticity of science from those who see it as rigidly black/white. Look at human beings. Are they built from nature? (Yes.) Are they simple? (No.) I'm all for reading the text as a text, but as they are written by human beings, they cannot escape being influenced by the culture of human beings. I'll talk a wee bit more about science when discussing Cheney's possible difficulty with the idea as presented.

Hal Duncan, who is said to have a first novel forthcoming from Tor UK, joined in the fun. The more the merrier. Unfortunately, he read Matt's commentary first and assumed I was enforcing some kind of stereotyping of characters: "A character study of a fascist might attempt to make that character 'consistent' by showing them as a psychopath." But later, in the comment section, after reading "Wakefield" and my take, he seems to see better this view of character consistency. After all, one can still be consistent with one's self even if he isn't rational, i.e. a character doesn't know why he almost OD'd on pills. It gives the character an imperative to understand himself. For whatever reason, we cannot see ourselves without distortion, so we readers have to, as Salman Rushdie said, step out of the frame and examine the picture. If our character who OD'd chose not to examine his actions, his narrative could simulate another kind of foolish Wakefield, living moment to moment, thinking only of where he'll place the next foot, never considering that the next step may lead to his demise--so that the doomed man's consistently not living the examined life.

I can also imagine someone desperate to break the rule, writing out a whole melee of characters who develop one characterization then suddenly develop a wholly different personality for no reason. At best, you could come up with an idea story, neglecting character, and at best distancing (and at worst alienating) your readers from the material. It'd be a novel experiment but limited in scope, ability, and interest.

***

Recap of the story

I responded to Gwenda Bond's no-rules rule by saying that there are rules, they're just not anal-retentive ones. Matt reponded by turning my rule of internal character consistency into something rigid and inflexible and by giving some examples that break (not bend--most rules can be bent) the rule. I replied that science isn't rigid at all but describes the wide range of earth's complexity and after dissecting Wakefield, found the character well motivated and consistent to himself. At first Matt bought my reply, but then decided he's still not convinced after I said that it is not society's norm for character but the character's norm which is bound by its genes and changing environment.

(Side note: Again, it is not what society defines oddness of behavior but what is odd for that character. Alan DeNiro points out Coyote as breaking the rule when in fact Coyote is so consistent, he's an archetype.)

***

Keeping it between the ditches

This is always chancy, but I'm going to speculate that what may be bothering Matt is that he doesn't consider himself at the whim of genes and environment. Maybe he thinks I'm suggesting we have no free will. I'm not. Consider genes and environment as ditches on one's wide road. The genes ditch is normally not very steep, but the environment one can be. The environment ditch might crossover and force you to drive into the gene ditch, i.e. you might never want to kill someone, but you might be goaded into doing so. However, for some, the gene ditch will be too steep and they'd rather die than kill.

(But then you can ask, Was the desire not to kill drilled in by society (environment) or one's natural inclination? The question, however, is irrelevant to this discussion.)

***

Nature as author

Nature does a lot of experimenting with life. Consider them first drafts, the vast majority of which get tossed in the trash. But those lucky success stories succeed for a reason. Something in the environment was conducive to its existence. Science magazine recently reviewed a book that did nothing more than explain the design of teeth. There may be much randomness involved in creating life but its existence is allowed to succeed for a reason.

***

Final Ethical Consideration

What's my buried philosophy? I worry that we may allow characters to become unknowable, so that we cease attempting to understand: be it understanding selves or the other. Certainly we have enough people fighting wars because the other is unknowable.

Links

Weird Trailers for Forthcoming Movies

From Crispin Glover

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask

(links via Rue D and Boing Boing)

***

Cheryl Morgan is the transom for rectifying of wrongs done to Tolkien. I already shared my thoughts on this though I've been meaning to put out a statement on the strength of Moorcock's argument (by the way, the article's title wasn't mine and perhaps set the wrong tone).

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.