Friday, August 10, 2012

Three by Hardy

The Novels of 
Thomas Hardy

I have enjoyed reading and rereading Thomas Hardy's novels since I was in my teens. In thinking about them I can only suggest that from the first reading I was impressed with Hardy's ability to create a complete believable setting where the characters interacted not just with one another but with the world in which they lived. That world was a rural Victorian one, but it resonated with my own somewhat rural experience even though it occurred more than one hundred years earlier.

The Mayor of Casterbridge (Penguin Classics)The Mayor of Casterbridge 

“…happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”  ― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is a classic tragedy. Subtitled "The Life and Death of a Man of Character", it is set in the fictional town of Casterbridge (based on the town of Dorchester in Dorset). The book is one of Hardy's Wessex novels, all set in a fictional rustic England. In this Victorian precursor to the modern novel Hardy creates a character, Michael Henchard, who dominates the story just as his tragic flaw dominates and defines his own character, dooming him to a difficult, even tragic, life. Hardy is able to delineate a searing psychological portrayal of Henchard as Mayor, father, and friend; who fails in each of these roles due to his inability both to control his emotions and to communicate with those he (sometimes) loves. As always with Hardy, the novel beautifully portrays the Wessex society; particularly the architecture and surroundings of the town of Casterbridge. In this novel Hardy reaches the beginnings of his maturity as a novelist.

The Return of the Native   The Return of the Native 

“Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native

I have enjoyed reading and rereading this novel since I was in my teens.  Thomas Hardy created in The Return of the Native a tale of passion and tragedy on Egdon Heath located in his fictional Wessex. Egdon Heath itself is the first "character" introduced into the book. The heath proves physically and psychologically important throughout the novel: characters are defined by their relation to the heath. Among them is Eustacia Vye whose desire to lead a life elsewhere is dashed when she marries Clym Yeobright (the Native) upon his return from Paris. The pair represents the archetype of two people caught up in their passion for each other and conflicting ambitions. For Clym, the heath is beautiful; for Eustacia, it is hateful. The plot of the novel emphasizes just this kind of difference in perception. What impresses me upon rereading this is the intricate plotting of Eustacia who throughout the novel is weaving a web of deceit with the aim of enhancing her own life. Her hubris knows few bounds and is exacerbated by her lack of understanding of those in whose lives she has intervened. She raves, "How have I tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! I do not deserve my lot! O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world! I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control! O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all!"(Book 5, Chapter 7) This lack of understanding is an example of the importance of misconception in the novel which is not limited to the character of Eustacia. Ambiguity builds as the novel progresses and the main characters remain obscure for the reader. When The Return of the Native was first published, contemporary critics criticized the novel for its lack of sympathetic characters. All of the novel's characters prove themselves deeply flawed, or--at the very least--of ambiguous motivation. What I found redeeming about the novel was the way Hardy brings the lives of this couple and their friends and families alive through detail that reinforces his penetrating portrayal of the community on the heath.

The final section provides some hope for the future, tempering the otherwise bleak landscape of the novel. This was Thomas Hardy's first great novel and he would follow it with bleaker tales this is the one that I return to when reminiscing of the joy of reading Thomas Hardy's novels.

 Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Tess of the D'Urbervilles 

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Her travails begin when her family is in need and decides to seek help from relatives by the name of d’Urberville. They send Tess to ask them for help. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.
Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'. Tess’ baby symbolizes Tess’ bad circumstances and innocence in the sense since this baby was innocent having done nothing wrong, but it was punished by society for coming from such an evil act. Having been raped, Tess was also innocent of the crime, but she was still punished and pushed aside by society.
This book deals with the oppression of an innocent girl. Most of the consequences she faced were not consequences of her own actions which makes this story somewhat of a tragedy in that sense giving the book a mood that you can try to make for yourself a good life, but you do not determine your own outcome.
Hardy uses a lot of imagery and describes the scenery in great detail. While each individual sentence may not be difficult to understand, it is the way the various sentences fit together to form a whole picture which separates him from other authors. His evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power.


Parrish Lantern said...

Jude the obscure is my personal favourite.

James said...

I've also enjoyed reading Jude.