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, . . . Read More
Hawthorne sets his story in the early eighteenth century in Massachusetts’ Bay Province, and his two principle characters, Margaret and Mary, learn of their husbands’ fate through men who visit them at their home. As one can imagine, news traveled slowly more than three hundred and fifty years ago. British censors kept a tight grip on what could be printed, and attempts to disseminate information that was not sponsored by the British government was forbidden. In 1690, for example, the governor of Massachusetts shut down Benjamin Harris’s independent newsletter, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, almost immediately because of its perceived threat to power. The first successful newspaper publisher in the colonies was William Campbell, postmaster of Boston, whose News-Letter was launched in 1704 to keep people in the Bay Colony apprised of world events. This changed to the Boston Gazette . . . Read More
“The Wives of the Dead” is an American romance. The term “romance” emerged during the Middle Ages and often referred to stories with farfetched plots and exotic settings, involving knights and their quests, and chivalric behavior. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term became synonymous with stories emphasizing emotion and subjective experience. Classical romance includes intricate plots, mistaken identity, random events, and separated lovers, most of which Hawthorne’s story contains. American romantics, especially Hawthorne, occasionally digressed from the traditional formula and incorporated Gothic features such as ghosts and the supernatural into their writing. The romance, however, should not be confused with the romantic movement, which literary historians date from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. In their treatment of original subjects, their focus on . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
In the first part of “The Wives of the Dead,” the narrator assures readers his tale is “scarcely worth relating,” then proceeds to tell it in detail. A hundred years ago, in the early eighteenth century, two “young and comely” (attractive) women in a Massachusetts seaport town married brothers and set up house together. In “two successive” days, they learn of their husbands’ deaths: one is lost at sea, while the other is killed fighting the French and Indians in Canada. The British battled with the French for control of North America at this time, and colonists from the Bay colonies often fought on the Canadian frontier. Though many townspeople turn out to offer their sympathy, the women want to be left alone to console each other. After the mourners leave, Mary, the more practical and disciplined of the pair, prepares dinner, but Margaret, distraught and bitter, cannot eat. The two go . . . Read More
Fitzgerald wrote his short story “Winter Dreams” while he was drafting The Great Gatsby, which became one of the most celebrated novels of all time. The two works share several thematic and stylistic elements as they each center on a young man from a modest background who strives to be a part of the exclusive world inhabited by the woman he loves. A close comparison of the two works will reveal that while The Great Gatsby becomes a more complex and penetrating critique of the pursuit of the wealth and status, the short story stands on its own as a compelling portrait of a man who is forced to face the illusory nature of his “winter dreams.”
There are strong similarities between Jay Gatsby and Dexter Green. Although Dexter, unlike Gatsby, came from a middle-class background, (his father owned the “second-best” grocery-store in his town), he subscribes to the same American dream as does Gatsby, who grew up in poverty. Both spent their . . . Read More
The Jazz Age
In the aftermath of World War I, American society went through a period of dramatic change. Traditional beliefs in God, country, and humanity were shaken as Americans faced the devastation of a war of this magnitude. The feelings of confusion and dislocation that resulted led to a questioning and often a rejection of conventional morality and beliefs. In the 1920s, Americans recognized that an old order had been replaced by a new, freer society, one that adopted innovative fashions in clothing, behavior, and the arts. Fitzgerald called this decade the “Jazz Age,” which along with the “roaring twenties” came to express the cultural revolution that was then taking place.
During this era of Prohibition, Americans experimented with expressions of personal and social freedom in dress, sexuality, and lifestyle. Women cut their hair and wore shapeless “flapper” dresses that gave then an . . . Read More
fFitzgerald employs a third person omniscient narrator in “Winter Dreams,” but with an innovative twist. The narrator almost becomes a separate persona in the story, as he occasionally steps back from the plot and speaks directly to the reader, giving his critical perspective on the characters or on the action. Fitzgerald borrows this technique from Joseph Conrad, who, in works like Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, creates the character Marlow, a seasoned sailor who narrates the story of the main characters through his sometimes subjective perspective. Fitzgerald perfected this technique in The Great Gatsby in the character of Nick Carraway, the naive Midwesterner whose task it is to pin down the enigmatic Gatsby for his audience.
In “Winter Dreams,” Fitzgerald does not name his character, but his presence is felt nevertheless. The first time his voice emerges is at the opening of Part II, where he . . . Read More
Dexter’s vision of success involves a pursuit of the American dream of wealth and status. As Fitzgerald traces Dexter’s movement toward this goal, he becomes, in essence, a social historian of his generation, chronicling the dreams of the men and women of the 1920s who saw unlimited opportunities in the new century. Even as a teenager, Dexter dreams of success. While working at a local golf course, he fantasizes about becoming a golf champion and winning matches against the wealthy men for whom he caddies, or dazzling them with his expert diving exhibitions. Later, his dreams involve his movement up into the wealthy class where he would be rich enough to marry Judy Jones. She becomes the embodiment of his “winter dreams” of a glittering world with endless glamour and promise.
Dexter eventually gains wealth and status due to two qualities that are inherent in the American character: hard work and . . . Read More