Along with her sister-in-law, Mary, Margaret is one of the wives referred to in the title. Both are “recent brides,” and still “young and comely”; that is, attractive. She has a “lively and irritable temperament,” and is bitter, virtually inconsolable, about her husband’s death. She declines eating the meal Mary offers her, saying, in reference to God, “Would it were His will that I might never taste food more.” She cannot sleep and stays up listening to the rain, looking at the hearth and the furniture in the living room the two couples shared, grieving her loss. When she hears a knock on the door, she answers it with apprehension, saying to herself, “I have nothing left to fear, and methinks I am ten times more a coward than ever.” Agitated, she screams at Goodman Parker, asking him what he wants. When Parker tells her that her husband, in fact, was never killed in the skirmish in Canada, and is alive and well, Margaret can scarcely contain her joy. However, she does not wake Mary, feeling that “her own better fortune had rendered her involuntarily unfaithful.” Benjamin Friedlander, in his essay “Hawthorne’s “Waking Reality,” writes, “This guilt, Margaret’s feeling of unfaithfulness, pierces the story’s dreamy surface, allowing a revelation of hidden desires—perhaps even a revelation of adultery.” Margaret returns to sleep, her dreams now happy “visions,” deciding to tell Mary the news in the morning.
Mary is the more pious and more practical of the two sisters-in-law, level headed, with an even temperament, and the character with whom Hawthorne begins and ends the story. After the other mourners have left the house of the sisters-in-law, Mary prepares a meal, encouraging Margaret to be grateful for what they still do have. She sleeps peacefully until she is woken in the middle of the night by the knocking of a former suitor, Stephen, a sailor who brings her the news that he saw her husband on a ship the day before, alive and well. At first she thinks that Stephen is taking advantage of the situation and has come to seduce her, but when she hears his news, she is happy. As Stephen leaves, Mary watches him “with a doubt of waking reality.” In his essay, “Hawthorne’s ‘The Wives of the Dead,'” John McDermott interprets this line as meaning that Mary’s meeting with Stephen is a dream, and John Selzer, in “Psychological Romance in Hawthorne’s ‘Wives of the Dead,'” notes that Mary “simply means to substitute for her lost husband…. Her dream appears, then, as a wish fulfillment to fill the void in her heart.” Mary cannot bring herself to tell Margaret about her good news, for she fears Margaret would “awake to thoughts of death and woe,” which would only be compounded by Mary’s happiness. Mary is unaware that Margaret herself had received news earlier in the night that her own husband was also still alive. Before going back to bed, Mary straightens Margaret’s blankets to protect her from the cold. As she does, “her hand trembled against Margaret’s neck, a tear also fell upon her cheek, and she suddenly awoke.” The meaning of the story rests on this last line of the story. It is left unclear whether Mary awakens Margaret or wakes herself up with her own crying.
Goodman Parker is “a friendly innkeeper of the town” and the man who brings news to Margaret that her husband, whom she thought had died fighting the French and Indians in Canada, is still alive. The narrator describes him as “a man in a broad brimmed hat and blanket-coat” and as an “honest man.”
Stephen, Mary’s former suitor, whom the narrator describes as a “rejected lover,” brings her the news that her husband is still alive. He is described as “a young man in a sailor’s dress, wet as if he had come out of the depths of the sea.” After he comes home from a voyage, his mother tells him the bad news about Mary’s husband. Stephen rushes to assure Mary that her husband is still alive, saying that he saw him on a brig the day before, and that same brig will be in port by daylight. The narrator describes him as a “generous seaman.”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 2002.