“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 the psychology of the individual, and their use of symbol to point to a reality beyond the physical world, American writers such as Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all shaped the American romantic period.
Ambiguity is a literary device, often a word or phrase signifying multiple meanings. Poets and fiction writers use it to create possibility and mystery. The ambiguity of Hawthorne’s story rests on the final sentence and the meaning of the words “her” and “she.” Depending on which woman the pronoun refers to determines, in large part, what part of Hawthorne’s story can be read as a dream.
Undergirding the ambiguous ending is the story’s symbolic imagery. Imagery is symbolic when it suggests or stands for something other than what it is. For example, Hawthorne’s image patterns of light versus darkness echo the degree of separation or togetherness the sisters feel toward each other, and also their changing emotional complexions. Of particular significance is the lamp, a conventional symbolic image used to suggest insight and understanding, and the hearth, a symbol of home and domesticity.
The story is organized symmetrically around pairs. Two sisters-in-law of two brothers learn in two successive days about the deaths of their husbands. They then have almost identical experiences during the night, each awakened by a messenger bearing good news about her (supposedly dead) husband. Each takes a lamp from the hearth to address her visitor at the window while the other is asleep, and each declines to wake the other, though for different reasons. This symmetrical structure allows Hawthorne to contrast the women’s characters, showing how each responds differently to a similar experience.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 2002.