At the beginning of the story, Hawthorne/the narrator refers to a story he read once in a newspaper or magazine about a man who leaves his wife for 20 years but lives, all this time, only a block away from her. The man observed his wife often, and only returned after his affairs had been settled and memory of him had passed. He simply returned home, resumed life, and served as a faithful husband for the rest of their lives.
One October evening, a man named Wakefield tells his wife that he is going on a journey, and will be back for supper on Friday. Instead of going on a journey, however, he ventures only to an apartment one street away. In the morning, he considers his next step, realizing that his purpose is not well defined. He is curious about what is happening at home in his absence, and wonders what will come of the matters in which he was once the central figure.
He walks by his old house, but feels strangely disconnected from it, as if he had been away for a long time, and it had changed in his absence. He begins to live a separate life, purchases a disguise and grows determined to stay away from his home until his wife is “frightened half to death”. On multiple occasions he passes by his house, watching her grow paler and paler. One day, a doctor visits the home; from afar, Wakefield wonders if his wife will die. But, she recovers, and once again Wakefield believes that she will no longer long for him. Ten years pass.
One day, Wakefield and his wife, now both in old age, pass one another on the streets of London. Their hands touch and they look into each other’s eyes, but the crowd carries them away. His wife continues walking into church, although she pauses to look back at the street. Wakefield, on the other hand, runs back to his apartment, and cries out that he is mad. Life has passed him by.
Finally, twenty years after his departure, Wakefield is taking his customary walk toward his old house when he sees a comfortable fire in the second floor and the figure of his wife. The warmth of the house seemed starkly contrasted to the rainy, windy road on which he walked. Wakefield walks into his house and resumes his old way of life.
Hawthorne/the narrator leaves the reunited couple at the threshold, and suggests that: "Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system" and "by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever".
Hawthorne takes a true story, summed up in the beginning paragraphs, and attempts to analyze the subject through the fictional character Wakefield. He tries to uncover the thoughts residing in the head of a man who ran away from home for twenty years.
Although Wakefield’s actions are indeed out of the ordinary and few men may actually practice such strange actions, the fear of replacement and idea of running away from home is a common childhood fantasy. Indeed, Wakefield’s actions make him seem like a child, running away from home just to see how much his wife will miss him. He “finds himself curious to know the progress of matters at home - how his exemplary wife will endure her widowhood…how the little sphere of creatures and circumstances in which he was a central object will be affected by his removal”. A sense of childish narcissism and selfishness tint these words; Wakefield sees himself at the center of many lives, and desires to see how his disappearance will affect those around him. His selfishness borders on cruelty as he actually wishes to disturb his wife; even after witnessing her fall ill, he still refuses to return home.
Some authors have characterized his wish as a “deep wish we all have occasionally: to be invisible, to observe the events of the world without the contamination of one’s presence”. In Hawthorne’s time, wandering the streets of London “unnoticed and unknown” was a very real possibility. Isolation is therefore both a desire in the hearts of all men and a reality that some, if taken to these drastic measures, can achieve.
But, removing oneself from society comes at a cost – Wakefield loses his individuality, melting into the streets of London. And, a man who turns away from social responsibilities may find that he is, indeed, replaceable. As Hawthorne writes, “stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever”.
At the end of the story, it seems as if Wakefield reenters his home and carries on with life. Readers, however, can only speculate as to what becomes of Wakefield – whether he is happily received by his wife, or lives forever in solitude – after his lengthy absence.