Monday, September 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 139: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Wives of the Dead (#18)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Wives of the Dead" (1832) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

As one of the enshrined gods of the American canon, Hawthorne probably doesn't get all his due. You know the line: classics are books that everyone praises and no one reads. So it's great to read this early story of Hawthorne's, a story written (probably) when he was around 25. Now, we could look into the story and say, "well, there's themes of waking and dreaming--romance and realism--that Hawthorne will later deal with more fully in his novels." Or we could note that this short sketch isn't really like much of Hawthorne's stuff. There's a historical setting, but not a deeply used one (a la Scarlet Letter); and there are characters with deep emotions (though nothing as deep as "Goodman Brown").

Instead, Hawthorne is playing a structural game here, very much like an O. Henry story: two young wives are married to brothers who die in different dangerous scenarios (at sea, in the French and Indian War); and then each gets a message that her husband is really alive, which makes her happy--until she remembers how sad her sister-in-law is. Wah-wah.

Of course, Hawthorne doesn't play this for laughs the way O. Henry would. Without getting too much into these two women's lives, Hawthorne really just wants us to imagine that sentimental whiplash: sad at death, happy at life, sad for another's sadness. Which is not usually how we think of Hawthorne, but another reminder of how embedded he was with the sentimental literary culture of the time.

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