Hawthorne’s story illustrates how a person’s response to death and loss reveals true character. Both women mourn the loss of their husbands. However, Mary’s “mild, quiet, yet not feeble character” and her faith enable her to endure the emotional torment of her husband’s death with more equanimity than Margaret. She prepares a meal and sets the table soon after the mourners leave, and tries to help her sister-in-law calm down. Margaret, on the other hand, of a “lively and irritable temperament,” cannot accept the loss and remains bitter, dwelling on the past and taking no comfort in her faith. Later, Mary drifts into sleep with relative ease, while Margaret stays awake “groan[ing] in bitterness.” The motivation of each in not waking the other after hearing their respective news reflects their characters. Margaret is more worried about how Mary’s response would diminish her own joy, saying to herself, “Shall I waken her, to feel her sorrow sharpened by my happiness?” Mary, on the other hand, is more concerned with the pain that Margaret would feel if Mary told her about Stephen’s news. “My poor sister!” she thinks to herself as she looks at Margaret, “you will waken too soon from that happy dream.”
Reality and Appearance
“The Wives of the Dead” is both a story about two widows and a meditation on the nature of reality, asking readers to question the dreamlike quality of their waking life and the reality of their dreams. Hawthorne’s setting creates a world in which things are never as they appear because appearance itself rests upon the volatile emotional state of the two primary characters, through whose eyes the story is told, and upon the trustworthiness of the narrator, whose honesty is in doubt. The bulk of the events take place at night, and the narrator repeatedly emphasizes what the characters can and cannot see. In bed, Margaret, agitated and unnerved, sees the lamp throw “the shadows of the furniture up against the wall, stamping them immovably there, except when they were shaken by a sudden flicker of the flame.” This image calls to mind Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a dialogue in which the Greek philosopher argues for the existence of a higher reality than the one human beings experience with their senses. Hawthorne employs other visual symbolic imagery such as the lantern, the hearth, morning mist, and windows to emphasize the relationship between truth and seeing, sight and insight. For example, after Goodman Parker reports to Margaret that her husband is still alive, the narrator says that Parker’s lantern “gleamed along the street, bringing to view indistinct shapes of things, and the fragments of a world, like order glimmering through chaos.” Such a description embodies Margaret’s response to the good news.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 2002.