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!