Although “The Wives of the Dead” is a story about events surrounding two widows in early eighteenth century colonial America, it is the narrator who sets the tone of the story and filters information in such a way as to shape the reader’s understanding of events. The narrator is not Hawthorne but a persona created to tell the story. Think of a persona as a mask. Hawthorne puts on a mask and tells the story from behind it. Readers must suspend their own doubt and believe the mask is a real person. The persona that Hawthorne uses as his narrator to tell the story of Mary and Margaret is one of a wise, gentleman who is nonetheless intrusive. This means that he not only reports on the action but also comments on it, evaluating events and the motives of the characters. By doing so, the narrator becomes a character himself, effectively helping to shape the tale’s meaning.
The narrator introduces himself in the opening paragraph, telling readers, “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.” This introduction suggests that the teller of the tale is modest, yet has the reader’s best interest at heart. His assumption is that because the story had interest to those in the seaport town a hundred years ago, it has interest for Hawthorne’s readers in 1830. His modesty and the fact that he is drawing from an (allegedly) historical account help him to establish credibility with readers. But he doesn’t just disappear after that. Rather, he both tells the story and he interprets it.
The first time the narrator visibly intrudes into the story is after he describes Margaret’s tossing and turning in her bed, the night she learns of her husband’s death. Feverish and bitter, she tries to decide whether or not to answer the knock at the door. It is here that the narrator interjects, “It is difficult to be convinced of the death of one whom we have deemed another self.” This puts the narrator on the outside looking in and temporarily jars the reader’s involvement in the story’s action. He explains Margaret’s feelings by universalizing them, not just showing her behavior or thoughts and letting readers do with them as they will. Hawthorne sprinkles this story with such observations. These comments have the effect of telling the reader how to respond. However, they also carry with them a kind of authority, as they help to establish the value system in which characters act, as well as establishing those of the narrator.
Hawthorne’s narrator again intrudes when Margaret decides to wake Mary and tell her of Goodman Parker’s visit. He does this subtly, and then more overtly, as he first describes Mary’s sleep and then comments on it:
“Her face was turned partly inward to the pillow, and had been hidden there to weep; but a look of motionless contentment was now visible upon it, as if her heart, like a deep lake, had grown calm because its dead had sunk down so far within. Happy it is, and strange, that the lighter sorrows are those from which dreams are chiefly fabricated.”
These are the narrator’s eyes upon Mary, not Margaret’s, and the “happy it is” comment is the narrator’s, not one of the characters. This “editorial” does two things: it tells readers that Mary’s sorrow is genuine and that it is deep; secondly, it alerts readers to consider the idea that Margaret’s sorrow is perhaps not so deep or genuine. In his study of Hawthorne’s fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Van Doren sees such narrative intrusion not only as benign but also as a virtue. He writes,
“[Hawthorne] is moved to create, and then to contemplate with characteristic tenderness—a tenderness unique in the story—the love of two girls not only for each other but for their husbands whom we never see.”
What Van Doren doesn’t contemplate, however, is the relationship between what readers think of the narrator and how they understand the events of the story. For example, the ambiguous ending asks to be read one way if readers believe that the narrator’s motivation is to relate a true story. They must believe that the visitations by Stephen and Goodman Parker actually occurred and that the husbands are, indeed, alive and well. If, however, the events are read as either a pair of dreams or as one or the other sister dreaming her episode, the narrator’s own truthfulness must be questioned, and hence any universalizing messages as well. Such questioning, rather than invalidating the tale for some critics, adds to its emotional richness. Benjamin Friedlander, for example, argues in his essay “Hawthorne’s ‘Waking Reality,’ that the uncertainty of the narrator’s character adds to the texture and emotional complexity of the story:
“However misleading Hawthorne’s initial historicizing gesture, however unsatisfying the ambiguity of his ending, Hawthorne’s handling of the sisters’ inner lives and of the shared inferiority of their dwelling stands beyond reproach, a marvelous depiction of hidden household dynamics brought to light by intense grief and extreme shifts of fortune.”
Other critics, such as Neal Frank Doubleday, writing in his Hawthorne’s Early Tales: A Critical Study, argue that to read the episodes as being dreams would be to question the narrator’s honesty. After claiming that the “narrative point of view has a subtlety which for the most part eludes analysis,” Doubleday claims that to read the ending as suggesting that one or both episodes were dreams would be to “assume an entirely dishonest narrator, a narrator who … distinctly tells us that, although Mary has been dreaming, she awakes and realizes the knocking on the door.” But what’s wrong with assuming a dishonest or naive narrator? Fiction, especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, has a rich history of unreliable and intrusive narrators, including narrators who may or may not be aware of contradictions within their own stories. Hawthorne presents the tale as if his narrator had physically been present. He not only has access to the minds and hearts of the characters but also to the setting in the absence of his characters. For instance, after Parker has given his message to Margaret, the narrator describes him walking away:
“His lantern gleamed along the street, bringing to view indistinct shapes of things, and the fragments of a world, like order glimmering through chaos, or memory roaming over the past. But Margaret stayed not to watch these picturesque effects.”
In this way, Hawthorne shifts from a focus of narrator to a focus of character. These shifts in point of view contribute to the story’s mysterious atmosphere, which Hawthorne has already worked to develop through his use of symbolic imagery, particularly that relating to light and darkness. This “gray zone,” where readers are never sure what is dream and what is reality, where the characters’ perceptions are not clearly attributed, creates a dream-like world which prepares the reader for the ambiguity of the story’s final sentence. However, in his essay “The Wives of the Living?: Absence of Dreams in Hawthorne’s ” “The Wives of the Dead,”’ Mark Harris claims Hawthorne’s dream-like setting is not meant to lure readers in, but is designed instead to warn them against confusing dreams and reality. Harris writes, ‘”The Wives of the Dead'” turns out to be not a darkly ironic treatise on the hopelessness of the wives’ dreams, but simply a caution against ignorance of the distinction between dreams and reality.”
But what is to be gained by offering such a caution, and such a banal one at that? Hawthorne, by employing an intrusive and possibly unreliable narrator, who may or may not be aware of the contradictions in his own story, manages artfully to create a landscape in which dream and waking life are fused. If readers are confused by the ending and feel a need to resolve it as either a dream or reality, they have missed the point (and the art) of Hawthorne’s story.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 2002.
Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “The Wives of the Dead,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.