What is the meaning behind Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wakefield

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Answered by: Chanel, An Expert in the Classic Literature - General Category
What is the meaning behind Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wakefield

Or, as the author stated “What sort of man was Wakefield?” Certainly, he was a man torn between his familial obligations and desire for freedom. Dwelling close enough to home to keep watch on his wife, but far enough to develop himself. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield” exposes how family relationships suppress individual freedom in American society. Furthermore, its central character Wakefield is the epitome of a conformist mind, awakening, and breaking free of the social construct, only to be haunted by his family ties, until he returns.



Wakefield is a man without identity, conformed to family life and society. He is interdependent, and participates in group identity, in which individual thought, originality, and imagination have no place. His conformist mind is evidenced by the following passage:

“He was intellectual, but not actively so; his mind occupied itself in long and lazy musings that tended to no purpose, or had no vigor to attain to it; his thoughts were seldom so energetic as to seize hold of words. Imagination…made no part of Wakefield’s gifts (pg 131).”



A self-reliant man has active, vigorous, energetic and imaginative thoughts. Wakefield is the opposite of a self-reliant individual. We also find that Wakefield has a mind that is “never feverish with riotous thoughts, nor perplexed with originality.” He is not a “doer of eccentric deeds.”

The term eccentric exemplifies those individuals most remembered in history, those men and women who were led by their hearts and singular opinions, not by familial obligations, and social expectations. According to Emerson, those men included the likes of Socrates, Jesus, Newton and Galileo; these men were misunderstood by society because they possessed qualities that were individualistic. Emerson states, “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed, does not (pg 136).”

Thus, Wakefield attends to his responsibilities as a husband and moves on through time in this manner; however, he will never move forward as an individual, on an intellectual and spiritual level. His responsibilities as a husband impede him from discovering who he is as a person outside of the family. It appears that a long time ago he resigned the search for himself to the obligations of family life. Yet, one day Wakefield awakens and the energy, vigor, originality, and imagination that were lost in conformity return and prompt him to take a journey. A venture he cannot explain to himself, but one he feels he cannot attempt at home.

Although, Wakefield cannot define what it is he has set out to do, we recognize that he desires independence, individuality and self-reliance. The attainment of which could not be satisfied in family life because individual values are not in accord with family values. Moreover, family life requires you to suppress your individual development and beliefs and do what is best for the family, which normally is in accord with what is best for society as a whole. Interdependence drives the family and society, not dependence.

Hawthorne states that Wakefield has a cold but not depraved heart, suggesting that family life provides a level of comfort he needs (social comfort) and another which he has not discovered (individual comfort.) The latter is what he seeks and is the first form of comfort we all desire. His heart is cold because he has neglected his innermost feelings, and thoughts. He has allowed the energy of his being to erode in the comfort and conformity of family life.

Wakefield's departure from home expresses that he is not satisfied with his life. As stated by Emerson, “Discontent is the want of self-reliance.” Furthermore, Wakefield has not put his “heart into his work;” thus, he is not “relieved nor gay (Emerson 121).” Instead, Wakefield’s work has consisted only of his obligations to his wife, not himself. Thus, what he has done otherwise gives him “no peace.” While he attains the individual freedom he unknowingly desires, he struggles with familial social expectations and his own attachment to the material and social comforts of home. For twenty years, society and his heart are at odds, one whispering in his ear to go home, the other telling him to remain free.

Social conformity and his place in society as a husband have a strong hold on Wakefield as proven by the paranoia he experiences upon leaving home. It seems that while in the streets of London his conscious is following him telling him that he will be noticed, advising him to go home, that he has an obligation to his wife. Upon returning home, he begins to view his bed as foreign and a waste because he sleeps alone. Years immersed in family psychology and social standards, have taken their toll.

He worries that his absence will adversely affect the functioning of his family and disrupt society. However, he does not realize that conformity makes one small in the great scheme of things. Furthermore, that caring for himself is much greater than his role as a husband. If he were aware of that, it might have been easier to let go. Wakefield is also a victim of dependency. Hawthorne states that he feels “inadequate,” presumably because of the social and emotional comforts of family life he lacks in his new life. However, going back will only provide him with half his heart's desire.

As time moves on, we happen upon Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wakefield; he is a new man, who now looks “inward,” not outward at those around him, and is defined as a “remarkable man.” He has rejected his social responsibilities and made his individual freedom the primary concern. By doing this, he has achieved the ultimate freedom, but also risked losing his function in society. His role as a husband provided him with social, emotional, and material security and in the end, he returns to this role for those reasons.

Hawthorne notes that Wakefield's return to his wife could have only occurred at an “unpremeditated moment.” I believe he’s implying that this moment would have only occurred when Wakefield had finished his journey, not when he had chosen to go back. The fact that Wakefield does go back suggests that to an extent people do need the social and emotional interdependence of family. Furthermore, the family is crucial to the survival of society. It is the foundation of society, giving rise to every other social institution.

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