"Wakefield" begins with an account of an actual event as reported in a newspaper or magazine. Because the story makes the narrator feel a sense of wonder and sympathetic identification, he thinks it deserves thinking about, suggesting that the reader may make up his or her own story to account for the event or else follow along with the story he makes up. The basic problem of inventing a story about a man who left his wife for twenty years with no explanation is of course to provide an explanation; motivation is the key issue in this story.
However, to provide a realistic explanation, such as the man left to be with another woman or because he could not stand living with his wife--explanations which might easily be understood--is to write a slice-of-life story of everyday reality. Hawthorne, however, is drawn to the story precisely because of its disruption of everyday reality. The first task for Hawthorne the storyteller is to invent a character for Wakefield that might lay the groundwork for such an act. What Hawthorne imagines is a character who does not think things out, does not sympathetically identify with others, is self-centered, and is prone to crafty, self-serving behavior. Of course, Hawthorne reasons backward from the known act to arrive at these traits, creating a mind-set that would account for an act that has no discernible purpose.
After establishing character motivation, Hawthorne invites the reader to imagine with him Wakefield's carrying out the mysterious act. To serve as an emblem of Wakefield's own personality and mysterious motivation, Hawthorne creates Wakefield's crafty parting smile and imagines it imprinted on Mrs. Wakefield's mind during the next twenty years.
Hawthorne imagines that although Wakefield must have taken this "singular step with the consciousness of a purpose," he cannot "define it sufficiently for his own contemplation." Hawthorne's own explanation of the act, typical of allegory, is general rather than specific. He is interested in events with a universal meaning, not events that can be accounted for realistically. Thus, he imagines the reason for Wakefield's initial act is vanity, the perverse need to create a reaction, to focus attention on the self--paradoxically to assert himself by absenting himself.
However, it is not only Wakefield's initiating act that must be accounted for, but also his inability or refusal to break out of the act. Hawthorne says that if he were writing a long book, he might be able to explain how an influence beyond human control "lays its strong hand on every deed which we do, and weaves its consequences into an iron tissue of necessity." However, since he is writing only a short "article," he simply asserts that Wakefield becomes frozen in his own gesture.
Just as there is no meaningful explanation for Wakefield's leaving and remaining gone for so long, there is no conclusive reason for his return. When he does go home, it is for no other reason than that a shower "chances" to fall. Hawthorne says that the moral is that it is dangerous to step aside for fear of losing one's place in life forever. However, "Wakefield" is more interesting for its illustration of the way Hawthorne transforms a mere event into a meaningful story.
Tomorrow: Conrad's "The Secret Sharer"