The Wives of The Dead is one of Hawthornes less remembered stories from a sequence of early tales he wrote in 1832. The story takes place in early eighteenth century Massachusetts Bay. Mary and Margaret are the two main characters, they are sister in laws who are drawn closer together because both their husband die within two successive days. However the story is not as simple as the plot. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses his lengthy visual descriptions to create a symbolic and almost supernatural background. If the story is read rapidly the reader may make the mistake of thinking its simply exploring the nature of a woman’s grief. However buried beneath the deceit’ of the narrator, lay the details that reveal the true meaning of the story. Like all of Hawthorne’s writings the story does not lack complexity. As the story advances readers are forced to ask the question of whether the story deals with dreams or reality. A question that is often asked but never holds the value that Hawthorne places in it in this story. The issue can be major or insignificant that’s why Hawthorne says “The following story, the simple and domestic incidents of which may be deemed scarcely worth relating” (Hawthorne968). “The Wives of The Dead” illustrates the importance of distinguishing between reality in life and the nature of reality in dreams.
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Hawthorne writes “The Wives of the Dead” in the third person omniscient viewpoint. This allows him to tell the story from a godlike perspective. Elements that the main characters might not or can not be noticed are pointed or to the reader. Because of the circumstances in the story, Hawthorne uses this style so the reader has an idea of what is going on while the main character has stepped out of the room or turned away. In this stories case this style is used to give the reader information or an overview about what is going on while the character are sleeping. In third person omniscience, the reader can get the story from Margaret and Mary’s point of view. This style makes the story more interesting because both characters are blind to something the other one knows. In “The Wives of the Dead” the visitors that both Margaret and Mary get are unknown by one or the other character. They are unwilling to tell the other about the news they receive about their husbands. The blindness of both parties causes tension between both characters that only the reader is aware of. The narrator will also do several things other than telling the story. Things such as sometimes commenting and judging characters or events like saying one of the sisters is “mild, quiet, yet not feeble character”(Hawthorne960). This form of writing also gives the narrator the ability to give misleading or even dishonest details. The narrator does this to make distinguishing between reality and unreality more difficult. Hawthorne provides clues to help distinguish the reality that may be hidden beneath dreams or the dreams that may be hidden under the reality.
The first of the two sisters that may or may not have been dreaming is Margaret. She was the first of the two sisters to receive a message that their husband is not dead is Margaret. Margaret is the sister who is of the “lively irritable temperament”, she does not dream her visit because it happens before she falls asleep (Hawthorne969). Mary falls asleep first while “Margaret became more disturbed by feverish, in proportion as the night advanced with its deepest and stillest hours” (Hawthorne970). She does not fall asleep before her visits because her grief greatly disturbed her still. The visitor is a “friendly innkeeper of the town” who is known by Margaret (Hawthorne970). Further validation comes from Goodman Parker’s account of having received the news of Margaret’s husband. Margaret receives word from “an express” the “tiding of the frontiers” (Hawthorne970).Goodman Parker states “He tells me we had the better in the skirmish you wot of, and that thirteen men report slain are well and sound, and your husband among them”(pg. 970)Nothing seems too miraculous or disputable that would indicate a supernatural aspect of a dream. After Margaret’s visit she goes to Mary’s room to tell her what has happened. She decides not to tell he because she does not want to further ber sadness. Margaret says “Shall I waken her to feel her sorrow sharpened by my happiness” (Hawthorne970). After deciding not tell Mary, Margaret notices “a look of motionless contentment was how visionless as if her heart, like a deep lake”(Hawthorne 971).
The reason Mary could or could not have been dreaming are the brief details describing her face before she fell asleep and the description of Stephen. The narrator describes the look on Mary’s face as “motionless contentment” which suggests that she has made peace with the death of her husband(Hawthorne969). If she had made peace with the loss of her husband she would not be as likely to fall asleep with the wishful thinking that her husband may still be alive. Her actions before she goes to bed suggest she is trying to move on. Mary “began to recollect the precepts of resignation and endurance, which piety had taught her”(Hawthorne971) .Therefore, Marys dreaming that her husband is alive is possible but unlikely. If she had looked happy while she is asleep it will be okay to assume that she was dreaming that her husband was alive. However, there are many clues that suggest her visit is a dream, but not necessarily her dream. When Mary awakes ” for a little time, slumber hung about her like a morning mist”(Hawthorne971). She is clearly in a state where she can easily fall back to sleep without realizing. When her visitor begins to knock on the door, “she listened with imperfect consciousness” and she does not answer until she is clearly wide awake (Hawthorne 971). So at the same moment of the knocking, she goes from a drowsy state to being wide awake. “The pang of recollection darted into her mind” when she answers the door (Hawthorne971). Mary recognizes her visitor and describes him as a “unsuccessful wooer of her own” named Stephen (Hawthorne972). a rejected lover of Mary who comes by seeking to comfort her with information about the guy who won her over. This is the first clue that seems very unlikely. “The storm is over and the moon is out” yet when she speaks to Stepehen, she notices that he is soaked. This can just be the narrator giving misleading information, but it serves to cast doubts about if this is really happening or if it is all in her head. The status of Mary’s husband is ultimately harder to prove than that of Margaret’s, and the evidence that cast doubts on Stephen are normal inconsistencies for a dream.
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The tale has many structural parallels within it. Each wife is awakened by a visitor who has news about the survival of their husbands. After receiving the good news thy each stop themselves from waking and telling the other what had happened. They are both sleeping restlessly at one point of the story but the story does not say for sure if they are dreaming. The main deception of the story is that what happens is exactly what both characters could dream. The story presents blanketed realities; however, they are not necessarily less real only because some events are not likely. The dramatic background of the story with the “rainy twilight of autumn day” suggests and is ideal for a dreamlike world (Hawthorne968). It is not clear if one, both, or neither of the characters are dreaming. Discussing the interpretation of the events or dreams is overlooking the purpose of the story. The point is simply a caution against ignorance of the distinction between dreams and reality.
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