Friday, April 30, 2010

The Wives of the Dead

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches

Nathaniel Hawthorne probably wrote “The Wives of the Dead” in 1829, when he was twenty-five years old. The previous year, he had just published Fanshawe, his largely neglected (and largely unsold) first novel, and he hoped to follow up with a collection of his stories, but the effort came to naught. It wasn’t until the end of 1831 that “The Wives of the Dead” appeared, with three other Hawthorne pieces (all without attribution), in the 1832 issue of The Token, a holiday gift annual. He subsequently included the story in his third major collection, The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852).

In the story, the wives of two brothers learn that both men have been killed abroad on consecutive days. In their grief, “sleep did not steal upon the sisters at one and the same time”; one woman slumbers while the other is awake. Far more than the tale of the grief of two widows, “The Wives of the Dead” deals with the “waking dreams such as Hawthorne explored again and again in fiction and in sketches like ‘The Haunted Mind,’ ” notes scholar Arlin Turner, and the ambiguity of the boundaries between the widows’ dream-worlds and their realities leaves readers wondering how much of the story the two women experienced and how much they imagined.

(Note: “the first wife of Zadig” is a reference to the hero of Voltaire’s Zadig, who, doubting the fidelity of his wife, has the news of his death announced and sends a friend to seduce her.)

The following story, the simple and domestic incidents of which may be deemed scarcely worth relating, after such a lapse of time, awakened some degree of interest, a hundred years ago, in a principal seaport of the Bay Province. The rainy twilight of an autumn day; a parlor on the second floor of a small house, plainly furnished, as beseemed the middling circumstances of its inhabitants, yet decorated with little curiosities from beyond the sea, and a few delicate specimens of Indian manufacture,—these are the only particulars to be premised in regard to scene and season. Two young and comely women sat together by the fireside, nursing their mutual and peculiar sorrows. They were the recent brides of two brothers, a sailor and a landsman, and two successive days had brought tidings of the death of each, by the chances of Canadian warfare, and the tempestuous Atlantic. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for making this and other stories available on-line. They're wonderful in themselves, of course, but they also provide a welcome introduction to the LOA's invaluable series. Please do not go away!

Teresa Lafferty said...

Lovely! Thank you very much for posting such precious writings! A great treasure, indeed!

Roberta SchulbergGoro said...

If Hawthorne were still alive, I would suggest he continue the story for at least a few more lines. It's not clear whether "she woke up" is meant to be open-ended or whether he thought a happy ending was self-explanatory. It seemed an abrupt cut-off, a literary let down for a piece that was all absorbing until the last sentence.

But thanks to STORY OF THE WEEK for making it available to readers.

Anonymous said...

These stories are well appreciated!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Roberta. It isn't clear what Hawthorne was trying to say. What exactly did it mean when she awoke? Why is it that one sister slumbered while the other was awake? did either one actually tell the other of the news? Were the news true that their husbands were actually alive or were they just a dream created by grief?