“Thomas Hardy,” by Penny Boumelha (2005)

Hardy is the beginning and end of many different literary traditions: last Victorian and proto-modernist, rural idyllist or social-problem novelist, last bear of folk0tale or champion of feminist and working-class heros. Despite the variety, Boumelha discerns in Hardy a consistency which she labels the “multiplying eye,” which isn’t so much counter-focalization, multiple narrators or the Eliotic obtrusive narrator, but “the play of narratorial distance, between close focus on unique nature of the moment for the individual and the long view of cultural history…[the] sense of the individual human life as the meeting point of a set of intersecting histories: the slow proceses of evolution, family traits, social traditions, material inheritances of privilege and dispossession, community histories, legends and precepts, all come together in the complex and vivid particularity of the moment” (256).

Many of Hardy’s novel dramatize the failure of inherited wisdom (in the form of proverbs, liberal education, religious training) to successfully negotiate the complexity of reality. So Clym in Return of the Native finds that the progressive social ideas acquired in France (the possibility of life before luxury) fail to compel the fellow inhabitants on the death; Sue attempts to rewrite scripture in order to frame a social world that she can never quite control or shape, while Jude drunkenly quotes the Nicene Creed in a pub, etc. Jude as a whole is an overt critique of the meritocratic logic of the Bildungsroman.

That this “past” wisdom is always “past”–that is, too late or belated–plays out in the persistent belatedness that plagues and motivates the plot dynamics of his novels. Tess was originally called “Too Late Beloved.” Missed connection, delays, missed opportunities, etc. Many of the plots takes the form of a main character trying to leave behind or overcome a past that will not remain buried. Characters function within a law of eternal recurrence out of which they struggle to assert an identity that could strongly assert something more linear, progressive, accumulative, productive, safe. At best, novels like Tess and Far from Madding Crown end with muted satisfactions, exercises in qualified expectations and “impotentiality.” In Tess, therefore, the inherited past of “books” is not something that characters always attempt to take on; rather, Tess seems to be playing out the logic of older books, caught in a repetition of tropes and plot maneuverings that chip away at her uniqueness.

Stability of perception is withheld from the reader. Much like Eliot never allows the reader to sit in judgment for too long (cf. Causabon and Bulstrode), Hardy toggles between affective identification and detached judgment. This is because the characters themselves seem to elude the stability that would make a relationship of judgment possible. These novel shave room for the all of the shadows of former selves that compose any given character or place. Reducing a character to an object of scorn, desire, affection or admiration is therefore a complicated process rather than a definitive and timeless choice.


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