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Serendipity: Flitcraft and Wakefield

Hawthorne’s Wakefield

The scene takes place in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is describing a case from his past to Brigid O’Shaughnessy while the two are waiting for Joel Cairo to show up. Following is a slightly abridged version by Robert B. Parker:

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned….

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand…. Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right….

“Here’s what had happened to him. Going to lunch, he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It took only a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was that the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had gotten out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of woman that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Now this passage set my mind to thinking. There was another story with a similar plot that was written approximately a hundred years before. In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne had released a short story called “Wakefield” and subsequently published it in his collection entitled Twice-Told Tales. It’s worth taking a look at, and you can find it by clicking here. The two stories end quite differently, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

This is the first of what I trust will be a continuing series of things that surprise me in the course of my reading and traveling. Now it could be that Dashiell Hammett knew the Hawthorne story and copied elements of it, but somehow I don’t think so.

The above drawing of Wakefield, the hero of the Hawthorne story, comes from a Spanish blog called eldesconsciente.