Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835
The magic trick:
Combining plot with observational detail with social commentary
“Wakefield” is one of those stories that makes you want to go write stories. It’s got the brilliant setup – Wakefield, we are told, left his wife one day and spent the next 20 years living, unbeknownst to her, one street over from her house. It’s got the larger commentary – Wakefield’s existence feels invisible and meaningless in the bustling city. And it has the nuanced observations we look for in our literature – the way Wakefield’s wife notes a strange, sly look on his face the day he vanishes.
It’s all here. What more could you ask for?
And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.
Had his acquaintances been asked, who was the man in London, the surest to perform nothing to-day which should be remembered on the morrow, 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–and, lastly, of what she called a little strangeness, sometimes, in the good man. This latter quality is indefinable, and perhaps non-existent.
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