Not long ago there was a story in the news about a woman who turned up a decade or more after mysteriously disappearing. Her husband and children had come to believe she was dead, but here she was alive all this time a few hundred miles away. She’d left on a whim, when some passing travelers invited her to join them on the road to Florida, and she never contacted her family. Similarly, my great-grandmother’s father walked out on his wife and daughters, though he went in the opposite direction. It was the early 1900s and he supposedly marched off to hunt gold in the Yukon, never to be heard from again.
Behavior of this sort holds no appeal for me personally. I am a homebody and a family man. The theme of sudden, unannounced departures recurs with some frequency in my reading, however. I recently read Georges Simenon’s Monsieur Monde Vanishes, about a man who leaves one morning for his office in Paris but who boards a train for the Mediterranean instead. My favorite H.G. Wells book, The History of Mr. Polly, involves something similar. ‘Wakefield,’ one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, follows the same pattern.
Some high school student or college freshman could write a term paper comparing the French, British, and American treatment of the theme. Monsieur Monde seems to be after something like integrated personhood. Mr Polly, in a way, wants romantic heroism. Both involve the creation of new social ties. Hawthorne’s story is the most disturbing, I think, because Wakefield seems to want nothing. He is swallowed up in utter isolation. “By stepping aside for a moment,” Hawthorne writes, “a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever… He may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.”