Hawthorne: The Tension Between Individual and Community
The 19th century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous literary work is The Scarlet Letter, which dramatically illustrates the tensions between the individual's desire for love which is in opposition to the community's social constraints and faith-based ideals. But Hawthorne's short stories like "Wakefield" and "The Ambitious Guest" also highlight this tension. In these short stories, Hawthorne suggests that all individuals have a desire for independence and to some extent to live outside of social constraints but there is also always a simultaneous desire for community and companionship that cannot be overcome. Of the ambitious guest it is said: "The secret of the young man's character was a high and abstracted ambition. He could have borne to live an undistinguished life, but not to be forgotten in the grave" (Hawthorne 300). Ultimately, both Wakefield and the ambitious guest strive for individualistic lives marked by distinctions but end their existences in futile, thwarted ways.
The story of "Wakefield" is actually told as a speculative tale in which Hawthorne as the unnamed narrator wonders how possibly the imagined figure of Wakefield could have created a subterfuge during which he would live near his wife but not see her: "The man, under presence 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 for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years" (Hawthorne 1). The narrator imagines the character and the motivation of the man: "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 would keep his heart at rest, wherever it might be placed" (Hawthorne 1) In other words, the desire to be unfaithful to Mrs. Wakefield was not part of his motivation.
The narrator takes the voice of conventional morality, calling Wakefield a fundamentally foolish man: "The crafty nincompoop takes to his heels, scared with the idea, that, among a thousand such atoms of mortality, her eye must have detected him. Right glad is his heart, though his brain be somewhat dizzy, when he finds himself by the coal-fire of his lodgings" (Hawthorne 2). However, by identifying with him, he also suggests that there is a common resistance within all human beings to the conventional boundaries of their existence. Wakefield clearly desires a way out of his marriage, but he is not brave enough to actually leave it and instead dwells in a kind of in-between world.
Wakefield's motivations are never explained. This gives the story an eerie, almost mysterious quality that it would otherwise lack, if Wakefield simply abandoned his wife due to a mistress. He also does not seem to be testing her in any manner and watches her suffering from a distance with a kind of detached fascination. Once again, this illustrates Wakefield's complex motivations and desires: he wishes to be a part of society yet also to retain his individualism and to stand outside of it. He also seems to wish to be married and not to be married simultaneously. Wakefield's feelings about his plight are more ambiguous than that of "The Ambitious Guest," who simply desires fame, but both protagonists clearly want an escape from their present circumstances and are unsure about how to secure it.
Hawthorne also suggests Mrs. Wakefield herself at times doubts whether her husband is dead, indicating that she herself might have perceived trouble in the marriage "But, long afterwards, when she has been more years a widow than a wife, that smile recurs, and flickers across all her reminiscences of Wakefield's visage" (Hawthorne 2). Just as her husband engages in a fantasy life, so does she: "In her many musings, she surrounds the original smile with a multitude of fantasies, which make it strange and awful; as, for instance, if she imagines him in a coffin, that parting look is frozen on his pale features; or, if she dreams of him in Heaven, still his blessed spirit...
The divide between the husband and wife is dramatically and compellingly illustrated in this exchange: the wife and the husband both seem to be having relationships with people whom are not there; the wife imagining her husband dying in a dramatic fashion, even while she subconsciously suspects he is still alive because of that smile. The husband still fantasizes he has a wife, even though he cannot bring himself to return to her until it is nearly too late. Like "The Ambitious Guest," he lives in a fantasy world where he desires a larger and more expansive life than his current existence but is unable to realize his dreams in reality.
"Wakefield" dramatizes the fantasy that many people have, namely the desire to be present at their own death. Wakefield can watch people's reaction to his absence yet he is always there, essentially living his old life without risking anything. He has no responsibilities and no social obligations. He can simply exist -- but he can still satisfy the need for companionship by looking at his wife. Even Hawthorne, the narrator creating a purely speculative fiction, admits that he cannot conceive of what it is like to live Wakefield's existence. "Would that I had a folio to write, instead of an article of a dozen pages! ...We must leave him, for ten years or so, to haunt around his house ... Long since, it must be remarked, he has lost the perception of singularity in his conduct" (Hawthorne 3). Hawthorne says he wishes he had more room to write but in actuality there is no reason he cannot write more: the main thing that inhibits him seems to be the inability to fully understand and identify with such a 'singular' individual. Wakefield has even become a stranger to himself; his actions become normal to him, and he does not fully remember how or why he embarked upon such a decision. Once again, this is because his desire is so complex -- to be a part of society yet also distant from it.
Wakefield symbolizes the alienation people feel from their fellow human beings; the titular "The Ambitious Guest" likewise symbolizes the tension between people's desires for individual distinction and the pull of community standards and security. The guest admits that he has done very little with his life but he has great aspirations: "as yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth to-morrow, none would know so much of me as you." His ambition is in stark contrast to the family with whom he stays over the course of the narrative. "It is better to sit here by this fire," says the young daughter, "and be comfortable and contented, though nobody thinks about us" (Hawthorne 302). The family is portrayed as a group of the individuals with no expectations from life, who want nothing more than the world around them. "A slate gravestone would suit me as well as a marble one" says the father, but the stranger misses his point, stating "it is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man" (Hawthorne 303)
The end of the story seems to mock the guest's ambitions. Eventually, there is a rock slide and all of the inhabitants of the home are completely buried, including the guest. "The victims rushed from their cottage, and sought refuge in what they deemed a safer spot -- where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction" (Hawthorne 306). However, while the humble family is remembered because of the tokens they left behind them of their lives, the guest is not because his body is never recovered and he left nothing behind. This suggests the value of community versus the value of individualism, given that the guest's overly individualistic perspective ultimately did not result in him leaving a monument of any kind. His ambition was solely directed for himself, not helping others or for something greater than himself and as a result, the author suggests, he died a selfish death.
Some sort of social life is necessary and without it people will not be remembered after they die, it will be as if they never existed. However, Hawthorne is also acutely conscious of the fact that there seems to be a deep need for individualism and if it is not satisfied than people will lash out, either passively like Wakefield does in his absence, or like the ambitious guest who openly challenges the complacency of the residents of the home where he stays. It is also worth noting that by simply going along with how things have been done…
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Ambitious Guest." Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches.
The Library of America, 1982: 299-307
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Wakefield," 1-4.