The Inaccessible Inner Life of “Wakefield”
“All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting looking out upon, See, hear, and am silent.” –Walt Whitman
We are presented with a piece of gossip of a man named Wakefield who leaves his wife for twenty years to live in a house the next street over. If this story were workshopped in a present-day fiction writing class, it would be argued that this story has interesting elements but is not, as a whole, an interesting story-- that the story lies within Wakefield’s motivation for leaving or within the reaction of Wakefield’s wife upon the return of her presumed-dead husband, or that the point of view ought to be reconsidered in order to tell the full story. Much of contemporary fiction attempts to tell the story that satisfies the collective urge to know another human being entirely, to finally understand another person’s story. The story of “Wakefield,” however, admits in the Puritan vein that the story we all want to know is actually unknowable, and can only be imagined. Through examining the whims of others in fiction, the meaning that can be extracted, however universal it may seem coming from the voice of the narrator, is in the end a projection out of our own selves.
“Wakefield” is not about the narrator, the curious plotline, or even about Wakefield himself. “Wakefield” is about the telling of these things. The first sentence presents the entire plot of “Wakefield,” obtained from “some old magazine or newspaper,” stating from the beginning that the story that follows is not only based on heresy but is, in fact, entirely heresy itself. Why would a reader continue reading when the ending is spoiled in the first line and the story is admittedly invented? The hope of the narrator in his imagining of Wakefield’s story is the underlying sense that there is meaning behind the actions of the stranger Wakefield, “a pervading spirit and moral, even should we fail to find them, done up neatly, and condensed into the final sentence,” and the reader is invited to join the narrator in his expansion upon the story.
The narrator utilizes the collective first person in order to draw the reader closer to his story, addressing his audiences with phrases such as “Let us imagine,” as though we can somehow know the narrator in viewing another’s story through the narrator’s mind. The reader ideally...