Desperate Remedies : Thomas Hardy’s First Novel

Desperate Remedies was Hardy’s first foray into novel writing, and while it isn’t nearly as good as his later work, I don’t think it was a “false start” as some suggest.  Hardy wrote his first novel to please publishers who wanted a story of sensation – and he delivered.  Desperate Remedies is full of mystery, murder, and romance.  I found myself working to unravel plot threads and thinking that I had it all figured out, only to have Hardy surprise me with some missing piece of the puzzle.

Beyond a work of sensation, Desperate Remedies contains traces of what would become Hardy’s signature elements such as fate, coincidence, class struggle, and naturalism.  While the characterizations are not as strong, the pastoral imagery not as vivid, and the writing not as lyrical as his later work, there are hints of all of those things that would become so fundamental to Hardy’s style.

Cytherea Graye pales in comparison to Tess Durbeyfield or Bathsheba Everdene, but she combines two seemingly opposing traits for which Hardy’s heroines are known – intelligence and naivety.  Like Bathsheba, Cytherea represents the height of womanhood.  She’s idealized – intelligent, innocent, graceful, and beautiful – but not flawless.

Rather than a false start, I see Desperate Remedies as a glimpse of the Hardy that was to come.  The aforementioned elements would later expand and evolve in his work, his rustic characterizations would deepen, the importance of setting would intensify, and he would learn to weasel his way around pesky publishers in order to stay true to his vision.

I wouldn’t recommend beginning an exploration of Hardy’s work with Desperate Remedies, but for the Hardy enthusiast, it’s an essential piece.

 

 

Published : 1871

Madame Bovary Part 3 : Narrative Technique

A few minor extenuating circumstances have caused more time to lapse than I’d hoped between my last post about Madame Bovary and this one.  Thoughts that were once fresh in my head have now started to fade but I still want to try and consider this one last aspect of the novel because I find it so intriguing –  Flaubert’s narrative style.  I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned narrative perspective when writing about a book, much less considered why the author chose a particular point of view.  Flaubert is even more perplexing in that he keeps switching it up, and does so rather illusively.

The novel opens;

We were in Study Hall, when the headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk.”

This seems like a pretty ordinary start.  Nothing so unusual.  The reason this opening sentence becomes mystifying is due to the inexplicable disappearance of this informed narrator, this unknown We.   I almost didn’t even notice the departure.  I think I read several pages beyond the last “we” and “us” before I thought, “Wait a minute, what happened to the narrator?”  I flipped back through the pages, scanning each one thinking that perhaps there was some monumental shift that I had missed.  There wasn’t.  This plural first-person narrator fades away from the story as unobtrusively as the fog lifts in the morning.  You can’t quite pinpoint when it happened.

I thought that perhaps the narrator might return at the close of the novel as sometimes happens in movies.   You know the sort, where a first-person narrator interjects to comment on the events of the story, sometimes with their comments peppered throughout and other times only at the beginning and the end.  But the narrator in Madame Bovary never returns and remains just as mysterious at the end of the novel as at the beginning.  I was completely perplexed as to why Flaubert would do this.   As I said, I’m not adept at analyzing an author’s choice of perspective and was a bit confounded by his motivations.

Mario Vargas Lloasa devotes quite a few pages to the narrative perspective in his criticism, A Perpetual Orgy.  He offers this:

There is no doubt about it: the person speaking has been something more than an observer: an active participant, an accessory, a character in the story.  This spatial point of view – the narrator placed inside the narrated world – a device as old as the novelistic genre itself, would seem to have been chosen for reasons of verisimilitude, to make the story more believable.  This is the case with the picaresque novel, where the hero tells the story of his life: the account takes on a greater degree of credibility in that it is a privileged witness who is offering it, someone who has firsthand knowledge: I was there, I can tell you the real story, I lived what happened.  The narration takes on the appearance of historical witness.”

-Llosa, P. 185

That quote alone doesn’t solve the puzzle, however.  An informed narrator lends credibility to the story, sure, but why the shift?  After the disappearance of the mysterious narrator, the perspective shifts to the third person.  You might think that the story then becomes completely objective, but indeed not. The narration is filled with embedded judgments.   It seems to me (and someone please offer a counter viewpoint if you think I’m wrong about this) as though the omniscient narrator (combined with free indirect speech which I’ll discuss later) that Flaubert shifts to allows him to state opinions and moral judgments as fact.  It’s plausible that Flaubert wanted to build trust with readers by opening with an informed narrator, which feels more personal and as Llosa says contributes to the reliability of the narrative.  Yet, continuing with that viewpoint would weaken Flaubert’s appraisal of society, perhaps making his criticism appear biased or easy to set aside as mere opinion.

For example, consider this statement from the omniscient narrator;

A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted.  Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law.”

-Part II, Chapter 3 (page 77 in my hardcover edition of Lydia Davis’ translation)

This was a very forward-thinking, modern thought for Flaubert to put forth.  If he had retained the plural first-person narrator, he never could have made this statement, at least not with the same authority.  If he had, his judgment about society here would be easy to dismiss.  The reader might quickly react by thinking, “oh that’s just his [the narrator’s] opinion.” But because views like these are presented from an all-knowing perspective, they seep into the reader’s thoughts with greater ease because they are presented more authoritatively.

Flaubert also employs a narrative technique known as free indirect speech.  To be honest, it took me a while to figure out how this differed so greatly from the omniscient narrator, but basically this approach allows an author to convey a character’s feelings and thoughts without the use of italics or quotes or setting it up with a phrase like “She thought that . . .”  Rather, the character’s feelings are seamlessly embedded in the text.  (If you need an obvious illustration – like I did – see the “Example” heading on this Wiki page for a comparison)  In essence, this technique allows readers to enter the interior lives of the characters without breaking up the narrative.

Consider the lines just before the above quotation;

She wanted a son; he would be strong and dark, she would call him Georges; and this idea of having a male child was a sort of compensation for all her past helplessness.  A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion . . . “

Taking in this quotation as a whole, one could easily ask, where does the free indirect speech end and the omniscient narrator begin? Flaubert’s use of free indirect speech contributes to his social commentary by making it somehow less distinct, less explicit, and therefore more palatable.  The thoughts of the characters seamlessly blend in with the viewpoint of the narrator, often making it difficult to distinguish which is which.

This effect also serves to enhance the novel’s realism.  In my last post, I mentioned that Flaubert’s realism was different from the natural realism that usually comes to mind involving descriptions of the external world; I explained that Flaubert’s realism was more “human.”  I have since learned that there’s a term for this – psychological realism – which places emphasis on internal rather than external motivations.  Flaubert’s use of free indirect discourse propels the psychological realism of his novel while making the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of individual characters seem universal.  A thought that might otherwise have been attributed only to the Emma of the novel can now become indicative of a whole society of Emmas.

Flaubert noted in a letter dated 1852 that “the artist in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  The weaving of different narrative perspectives in Flaubert’s novel rounds out to give us that kind of ultimate all-knowing reading experience.   His combined approach also causes the narrative to almost take on the voice of a conscience.  

The source of a conscience isn’t always clearly defined; are we talking to ourselves? Or is someone talking to us?  Within the context of Madame Bovary, you could just as easily ask, is that Emma talking? Or is someone else talking through her?

In short, I think Flaubert’s carefully constructed approach with Madame Bovary makes him kind of a literary magician.  He attempted to influence the reader without attracting the reader’s attention by building trust and reliability with the first person narrator, then illusively shifting to the omniscient – the informed narrator disappears and allows the all-knowing voice to take over – like how a magician directs your attention elsewhere so that you don’t see how the trick is performed.  Thereafter, it becomes difficult to distinguish the narrator’s thoughts from the character’s, which leaves his judgments ambiguous and the tone of the novel intimately objective rather than moralizing and opinionated.  Like a magician who performs a trick with his left hand while distracting the audience with his right, Flaubert could infiltrate the minds of readers with his commentary while they are busy being absorbed by other things.

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My Other Posts on Madame Bovary: 

*Read Part 1 : Emma

*Read Part 2: Pessimism and Perspective

Jude the Obscure

Devastating.

Shattering.

Wrenching.

Soul-crushing.

And ultimately brilliant.

book imageIn his final novel, Mr. Hardy packs quite the punch.  Jude the Obscure encapsulates his most blatant criticisms of class, marriage, and religion.  It is also perhaps his most devastating portrayal of idealism shattered by the harsh hand of fate.

Having said that, I wasn’t personally as heartbroken by Jude as I was by Tess, even though Jude is the most achingly tragic story that I have ever read (or probably ever will read).  I was reading Tess of D’Urbervilles exactly one year ago and it was my very first experience with Hardy, who I knew nothing about at the time.  So I was completely unprepared for what was to come.  I think that Tess might be the only literary character that I’ve truly mourned in my adult life.

I began Jude as a much more informed woman.  With 6 other Hardy novels under my belt, I was more prepared for the inevitably harsh blow that was to come with Jude.

__________

Jude the Obscure is the story of Jude Fawley, a lowly orphan boy with mighty dreams.  Though he has a lowly upbringing, a childhood experience awakens in him the desire to become a scholar.

While I never forgot that I was reading Hardy, I was really rooting for Jude.  I was smitten by his sensitive nature (one who is careful not to step on earthworms), his longing for knowledge and books, and his desire to broaden his physical and mental horizons.  I so wanted him to succeed.  I felt angry at those who didn’t see his worth, acknowledge his gifts, or want to give him a second glance, much less a chance in life.  I hurt for him when he was let down by people or faced disappointment.  I became frustrated when he deviated (more than once!) off course.

One of the themes that stands out to me in Jude the Obscure is confinement.  Jude Fawley’s life is a demonstration of the things that confine us, hold us back, and eventually take us down.

Geographic Confinement

Jude experiences geographic confinement as he longs for the university town of Christminster.  Christminster is a town that is close enough to see from a nearby rooftop but might as well be a thousand miles away.  We feel the magnitude of his isolation as well as his longing, with this depiction of him travelling to a rooftop from where he could get a glimpse of the town that he longed for:

“Whenever he could get away from the confines of the hamlet for an hour or two, which was not often, he would steal off to the Brown House on the hill and strain his eyes persistently; sometimes to be rewarded by the sight of a dome or spire, at other times by a little smoke, which in his estimate had some of the mysticism of incense. . . Then the day came when it suddenly occurred to him that if he ascended to the point of view after dark, or possibly went a mile or two further, he would see the night lights of the city. . .The project was duly executed. . . He was rewarded; but what he saw was not the lamps in rows, as he had half expected.  No individual light was visible, only a halo or glow-fog over-arching the place against the black heavens behind it. . . “

I can just imagine young Jude straining to see from a distant rooftop, imagining all that was taking place, the interaction, the learning, the life of the city . . . but to him, it was just a hazy glow – vague, indistinct, and unattainable.

Social and Economic Confinement

Jude is confined by social conventions, more specifically by the institution of marriage.  His intellectual ambitions are first thwarted when he meets, and eventually marries, the intoxicating Arabella.  He is love-struck by her and almost immediately abandons his studies in favor of spending time with her.  The following happens on the very first night of their marriage:

“A little chill overspread him at her first unrobing.  A long tail of hair, which Arabella wore twisted up in an enormous knob at the back of her head, was deliberately unfastened, stroked out, and hung upon the looking-glass which he had bought her.

‘What – it wasn’t your own?’ he said, with a sudden distaste for her.

‘O no – it never is nowadays with the better class.’”

This is one of the first hints that marriage and life with Arabella are not going to be what they were cracked up to be.  Hardy seems to be demonstrating that things are not always as they appear.

__________

Eventually Jude breaks down the geographic barrier and moves to Christminster, finding work as a stonemason while trying to get back on track with his educational ambitions.  He has an epiphany one day, suddenly feeling that what he needs is a scholarly mentor.  He sends requests to five professors at the university – and gets a response from only one, who tells Jude essentially that he is part of the working class, and part of the working class he should remain.

During this time, Jude is beckoned to recite a bit of Latin in a pub attended by the lower classes.  He does so, much to their amusement.  Here, we see Jude reduced to nothing more than an amusing sideshow.  He’s neither wealthy nor educated enough to gain respect among the university crowd, yet he also stands out among the lower class.  Jude is an outsider.  Try as he might, he doesn’t fit anywhere.

Having no voice among the educated community that he so longs to belong to, he scribes a message on a public wall:

“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you; yea, who knoweth not such things as these?” – Job xii 3.

Even that desperate declaration is fleeting, impermanent, and may very well go unnoticed — It is written with chalk.

Fate and Self-Confinement

Jude is also confined by the cruel hand of fate which, as Hardy says in A Pair of Blue Eyes, doles out its cruelties with “lawless caprice.”  Yet, it is not just matters of the external world that detain Jude.  He is also limited by himself, his essential nature – his own flawed, human, messy, untimely desires and inclinations lure him off his path and lead him astray over and over again.

Poor Jude.  Jude was an idealist in a time that was not ripe with idealism.  It reminds me of a quote from Amelie, one of my favorite French films,

“Times are hard for dreamers.”

Times were definitely hard for the dreamer, Jude.  Part of what adds to the sadness of his plight, is that Jude realizes this very early on.  In Chapter 2, he reflects, “Growing up brought responsibilities,” and “Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought.”  Jude sees, experiences, and reflects on the disparities of life, and yet he does not give up.  He has such hope!

What truly amplifies the ache of this novel is that the things that Jude desires are always within his line of vision, but just beyond his reach.

. . .sigh . . .

image of thomas hardy

Thomas Hardy

I always feel a little frustrated when I sit down and try to put forth and preserve my thoughts about one of Hardy’s novels, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more frustrated than I have with this one.  There are so many things that can be cited and discussed.  I’ve only cracked the surface.  I feel as though I have said both too little and too much all at the same time.  I’ve written what amounts to 2½ pages and yet I feel like something’s missing.  There’s so much more.  I never quite feel as though I do Hardy justice.   So it’s frustrating – but it’s also what I love about reading his work.  It’s complex, and deep, layered and insightful.

Jude the Obscure marks the completion of my reading of Hardy’s major works.  I now look forward to moving on to some of the minor ones as well as his poetry.  I feel relieved that there’s more to come and I’m not at the end of his body of work.  But when I do get there, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.  I’ll just start again. . .

*****

Published: 1895

My Rating: ***** 5/5

*****

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Published: 1887

My Rating: ****1/2, 4.5/5

book imageThomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, is a nearly perfectly balanced novel.  It’s not so melodramatic as The Mayor of Casterbridge, nor is it as tragic as Tess of D’Urbervilles.  The plot revolves around a group of woodlanders living in a village called Little Hintock.  Grace Melbury is a frontrunner among the protagonists along with her two love interests Giles Winterborne and Edred Fitzpiers.  When the novel opens Grace has just returned home after a long absence at school.  Though she has been promised to the rustic Giles, her newfound education and eloquence make the match seem less suitable.  Her well-intentioned, though often unwise, father eventually sets his sights on the new and more refined village doctor, Fitzpiers, as a better match for Grace.

As is usual with Hardy, the ill effects of fate wreak havoc on the lives of these characters.  What is most prevalent in The Woodlanders is the fatalistic force of the past upon the present.  Some additional themes and questions explored by Hardy concern marriage, the effects of the class system, and whether or not the rustic can harmoniously coexist with the modern.  As always, what keeps Hardy’s novels from being unbearably grim is his expressive and powerful prose coupled with his exceptional characterization.   Hardy also doesn’t fail to deliver a healthy dose of suspense.  Towards the end of the novel I thought I was sure what the outcome would be and then Hardy surprised me with yet another twist in the plot.

While reading Woodlanders, what stood out most to me was the isolation.  The seclusion throughout this novel is both physical and emotional.  The manner in which Hardy conveys that sense of isolation is nothing short of incredible.  This is the sixth novel that I have read by him and I never cease to be amazed at how eloquently, stylishly, and profoundly he can convey an image, a thought, or an idea.  For instance, consider this passage from the first page:

“The physiognomy of a deserted highway expressed solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools.  The contrast of what is with what might be, probably accounts for this.  To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the edge of the plantation into the adjoining thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.”

Almost every time I read that I get goose bumps.  Hardy’s manner of communicating solitude here evokes so much emotion and encapsulates so much more power than merely saying, “An empty highway is a lonely place.”  The feeling builds up like a crescendo, much like the novel as a whole.

Hardy suggests that the vacant highway is lonelier than the dale or the pool because the highway is suggestive of civilization but doesn’t deliver.  A man may not have ever thought to be lonely if he remained gazing into a pool, but by stepping over onto the highway, he suddenly realizes that he’s alone.  Likewise, this image and the thought that follows it correlates with the isolated existence of several characters in The Woodlanders, but the character who stands out to me in this regard is Grace Melbury.  Having been educated and having experienced the finer things in life, when she returns home to the woodland, she realizes what she’s missing in a way that would have never occurred to her if she had not left home.

The more I read Hardy, the more acutely aware I become of his painterly prose.  The introduction in my 1986 Penguin Classics edition points to the effect of Impressionism on Hardy.  I love this thought that was related from his journal:

“I don’t want to see landscapes, i.e. scenic paintings of them, because I don’t want to see the original realities – as optical effects that is.  I want to see the deeper reality underlying the scenic, the expression of what are sometimes called abstract imaginings.  The ‘simply natural’ is interesting no longer.”

I am grateful that Hardy was so astute at communicating his inspiration and intention as I often feel the brilliance of Hardy much more than I am able to articulate it.  What he expresses above speaks to one of his most amazing abilities as a writer.  Experiencing his work is often very much like looking at a painting.  Not just a pretty picture of mountains and stream – but the kind of painting that incites an emotional reaction.  That’s why Hardy’s lengthy descriptions of the landscape don’t become boring or exhaustive.  He’s not just laying out the details of the landscape; he’s letting you know what it feels like to be there.  What sets Hardy’s descriptions of the natural world apart can perhaps be illustrated by comparing two distinct landscape paintings.

The first is from American painter Bob Ross:

ross painting

You might say that this painting is “pretty,” you might comment on the nice colors, or relate that the composition works well – but looking at this painting does not give you any real sense of what it feels like to be there.  Though precise in its detail, it’s emotionally flat.  Were I asked to describe it I might say, “It’s a nice mountain, a still stream, and some evergreen trees.”  Accurate, but not particularly gripping.

Compare that with this next painting by J.M.W. Turner (of whom Hardy was apparently a fan):

turner painting

Instantly, upon gazing at this painting we can feel the power, the grandeur, and the turbulence of the scene.  It almost feels dangerous.   You certainly don’t walk away from this painting just saying, “It’s a mountain.”  What the first painting merely states, the second communicates.  There is the transference of emotion and thought.  The Turner painting is infinitely more visually interesting.  I could look at it 10 times longer than the former without getting bored with it.  The fact that the image is less distinct only serves to add to the interest.  I can leave this painting, come back to it later, and see something different in it.  Though you might say that the Ross painting is more realistic, the Turner, in its obscurity, feels truer.

And so it is with Hardy.  He thought that what was left in obscurity was just as important and powerful as what was described in detail.  He does not just paint flat pictures that are bogged down with rigid and unimportant details.  He describes the natural world in such a way that you don’t just see it, you feel it.    The scenes, natural and otherwise, that he constructs are specific and intentional in their composition, detail, and emotion.  He is truly an artist with words.

_________________________

The Mayor of Casterbridge

book imageby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1886

My Rating: **** 4/5

When a book begins with a man auctioning off his wife while in a drunken stupor, you know it’s going to be a real humdinger.  The whole scene is cacophonous and chaotic, if you can imagine a slovenly drunk man, stumbling around calling out bids for his wife in between lamenting his lot for marrying so young and having his ambitions ruined by marrying a simple-minded woman.  At first, I almost laughed because I didn’t think that such a thing would seriously occur.  But it did occur.  Immediately after the sale is complete, the man becomes struck with the reality and the finality of it, as though he too thought it wouldn’t really happen — that it was all a big, cruel joke that he had played on himself.  Following this realization comes one of the most achingly beautiful passages in the novel:

“Is she gone?” he said

“Faith, aye; she’s gone clane enough,” said some rustics near the door.

He rose, and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load.  Some others followed, and they stood looking out into the twilight.  The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the willful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place.  In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey.  Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet.  The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed.  To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium.  In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.”

Wow.

A man callously sells off his wife with a harsh disregard of her as a fellow human being and then goes to the door of the inn where he is met with the natural world in all its calm radiance, where even the animals are managing to show more affection for each other in that moment.

But before you can jump to any hard and fast conclusions about the state of things, Hardy quickly reminds us of the impermanence of the conditions of the natural world.  All is fleeting, and tomorrow the the scene may reflect the exact opposite.

As an interesting side note – the act of selling one’s wife may seem barbaric to our modern ears but an essay by Philip Allingham that is published on the Victorian Web states that the practice was not unheard of among rustics as a way of ending marriages that had gone sour.  Hardy says as much when he says at the beginning of chapter four that there have been “numerous other instances” of such transactions.

illustration

Image from Victorian Web

The main protagonist is this man who sold his wife, Michael Henchard.  When the deed is done – when he comes to the sobering realization that it cannot be reversed – Henchard vows not to take another drop of alcohol for 21 years and then he heads for Casterbridge to start anew.  He does improve his standing considerably but Henchard is never happy.  When he’s poor he is unhappy and when he’s rich he is unhappy.  When he’s alone he is unhappy, and when he’s married, you guessed it, he is unhappy.  Towards the end of the novel he finally obtains something to increase his happiness but even that becomes marred by a selfish act that puts a permanent suspicious cloud over what he’s obtained.   Michael Henchard seems almost cursed to loneliness no matter what his circumstances are.  As a result, the tone of the novel can mostly be described as melancholy and sorrowful.

In true Hardy fashion, there are a number of coincidences peppered throughout the novel, and there are times when the plot is driven by Chance.  However, Michael Henchard is not so much a man abused by Fate as he is completely responsible for his own downfall.  There is a strong note of personal responsibility in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Though Henchard improves his lot after his drunken heinous act, he still cannot escape the treacherous dealings of his past.  Again and again, he pays for his mistakes.

Despite all of his misgivings, Hardy does not set Henchard up to be disliked by readers.  I had an incredible amount of sympathy for his plight and I think that Hardy intended this.  Michael Henchard is a complicated man.  He is hard, aggressive, selfish, and spiteful.  Yet, he’s also a man who can be thwarted from violent action because of being moved by music. He reconsiders a vengeful act when he hears a song that touches his heart.  He is a man who needs human contact and affection but he doesn’t know what to do with it once he’s got it.  He often abuses those who offer it.  It was painful to watch this lonely man attempt to remedy his situation only to further debauch it, with one mangled act or interaction after another.

Henchard is both emotionally unsound and a force of nature.  He is a moody man who is ruled by his moods.  In a moment he can flip-flop between acceptance and bitter resentment.  Henchard is certainly not one-dimensional.  He embodies the sort of complexity that makes Hardy’s characters true to life.  The intricacies of Henchard’s nature reflect Hardy’s personal view of character and personality as expressed in his book Life and Work:

“I am more than ever convinced that persons are successively various persons, according as each special strand in their characters is brought uppermost by circumstances.”

So perhaps every man has grievous flaws that could bring him to his end given the right set of circumstances, when Chance collides with human nature.   This notion is strongly manifest in Michael Henchard and it also speaks to the complexity of man in general.  As in life, characters like Henchard cannot be boxed in with general characterizations.    The gentle person is not always yielding and mild; the rough person is not always hard and unfeeling.  No one is completely good or evil.  Life and people are too complex to be contained within generalities.

That’s what I most love about Hardy.  I love the depth and the intricacy of his characterizations.  I love that nothing is ever cut and dry, black or white, good or evil.  I love that Hardy can take a man like Michael Henchard and ask you to understand him better and sympathize with him.  Those sympathies don’t change the tragic end that Henchard meets, but it does leave your heart a little softer towards him.  Like The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye, the elemental force of Henchard’s nature dooms him to a life on the fringes of society.  These are characters that just don’t seem to fit anywhere.  They are too extreme; society hasn’t made a place for them and their natures are too wild and nonconforming to ever be deemed socially acceptable.   Through his characterizations, I believe that Hardy expresses a deep sympathy towards the likes of Michael Henchard and Eustacia Vye.  Yet, their fates also reflect a harsh reality.  Hardy was not an idealist.  He doesn’t depict these characters as reformed, nor are the communities that they inhabit reformed in order to accept them.

As I concluded in my review of The Return of the Native, the outcome of The Mayor of Casterbridge reflects a survival of the fittest.

Middlemarch : Reactions and Thoughts

book imageby George Eliot

Published: 1872

My Rating: ****1/2 – 4.5/5

This ended up being a much longer post than I intended.  I thought about breaking it up into multiple posts, but instead I decided to just divide it into sections.  The first section is my reaction to the experience of reading Middlemarch followed by my thoughts about the book’s themes.

REACTIONS

As I labored through the first 150 pages or so of Middlemarch, I mentally prepared myself for a long and arduous journey.  I began to see it as the kind of book that I might once have set aside in favor of something less demanding.  But I knew from page one that for better or worse, quitting was not an option.  Middlemarch is hailed as the quintessential Victorian novel after all; I knew I had to finish it.

Looking back on those initial feelings as I began the novel, I liken it to being an outsider at a town party where everyone is already engaged in familiar interactions and you’re just wandering from encounter to encounter.  Not knowing what’s going on, you’re sure to be confused, a bit bored, and even put off at first.  But over time, and with a little effort, personalities start to emerge, characters take shape, voices become clear, intentions are manifest.  That’s exactly how I felt reading Middlemarch, which incidentally is the name of the English town where the novel takes place.  Beginning Middlemarch is very much like being new in town.

With a plentiful cast of characters, far-reaching detail, and several intertwining plot threads, there is much that can be taken away from this immense novel.  I’ve never felt so completely overwhelmed when approaching the task of composing my thoughts about a book.  Who should I talk about?  What should I focus on?  Though it was published in 1872, the novel takes place the early 1830s, just before the start of the Victorian era.   Eliot sheds light on many facets of life at that time, from politics (both local and national) to “modern” medicine, all the while injecting insights into marriage, gender roles, class distinction, and education.  I am also faced with a broad scope of ideas that were no doubt lost on me, for lack of understanding.

THOUGHTS

modern library cover

Image on the Cover of my Modern Library edition

In short, three concepts stood out to me;**(see note)

1. Shattered idealism

2. Prosperity and fulfillment

3. Community Perception

Idealism

Idealism leads many characters in the novel to make substantial mistakes that cost them their happiness.  With these characters there’s a great divide between what they envision and what becomes reality.  Perhaps idealism is considered an acceptable trait of youth; with time and experience, some shed idealistic notions in favor working with reality and others do not.  In Middlemarch, there is a noticeable contrast between the fates of those who let go and those who don’t.

*Spoilers begin here*

Dorothea Brooke: Dorothea is smart and hopes to do great things.  She renounces much and gets a little carried away with self-denial.  She becomes enamored with and ultimately marries Edward Casaubon when she learns that he is working on a research project that will end with writing “The Key to all Mythologies.” She idealizes this pursuit and also believes that her marriage to Casaubon will advance her own understanding and give her a part in his intellectual quest.  Those surrounding Dorothea see that it is an ill-suited match but this does nothing to change her mind about the life that she imagines with Casaubon.  Dorothea almost immediately awakens to the fallacy of her fantasies once she’s married.  She dutifully presses on in her marriage but remains discontented.

Rosamond Vincy: Rosamond is a woman very concerned with appearances and status.  She marries Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor in town, believing that he has aristocratic connections.  Rosamond, like Dorothea, ignores the more realistic advice of others regarding the marriage.  Even though his career is not lucrative, she envisions a life of high society due to Lydgate’s pedigree.   She is sorely mistaken when she discovers (after marriage, of course) that he has arrogantly distanced himself from his family to forge his own path; therefore they are not there to help when Lydgate meets with financial trouble.  Rosamond becomes miserable and resentful at the prospect of losing her status and her possessions, which she seems to have a greater regard for than she does for Lydgate.

Tertius Lydgate:  Lydgate is a young doctor with progressive ideas about medicine and treatment and is very interested in conducting his own research to discover the fundamental tissue of life.  He rejects the common practices of traditional doctors in favor of modern methods that he hopes to advance.  (He also does not like to dispense prescriptions, which was the only way that doctors made money since they were not paid for their time).  He married Rosamond for her beauty and social graces and because he thought that she would be a genteel wife.   When he meets with financial hardship, he briefly carries the delusion that their love for each other will be enough to carry them through the difficult times.  When this notion does not fly with the materialistic Rosamond, Lydgate becomes frustrated as their marriage plunges ever deeper into disillusionment.  To keep her satisfied Lydgate abandons his personal ambition in order to build a successful practice and gain the wealth needed to appease his wife, but that was never enough to really win her love.  Rosamond proves herself to be scheming and manipulative and Lydgate pays dearly for not realizing this sooner.  Lydgate also leaned on idealistic appearances instead of considering who would be most companionable to him.

***

The downfall of these unions built on idealistic notions stands in contrast to the fates of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy.  Mary is practical and is not riddled with egotistic delusions of grandeur.  She has captured the heart of Fred Vincy, though at the beginning of the novel Fred is unstable and acts unpredictably.  He is well-intentioned but has some trouble finding his path and getting his footing.  Had Mary acted under the influence of romantic and impractical fantasies of what *might* be, she may have hurried into a union with him only to face disappointment and hardship, which may have no doubt permanently marred her affection for Fred.  Instead she waits.  Mary is very astute and self aware and though she admires Fred she acts sensibly, knowing that she needs a partner who is on solid ground.  In the meantime, Fred faces many obstacles to stability.  Yet, he doesn’t wallow in the misery of hopes deferred.  He adjusts his expectations.  He doesn’t lament over what isn’t, but works with what is.  Fred does eventually find his footing and he and Mary make a successful match.

Prosperity and Fulfillment

In the finale of Middlemarch we read that some of Eliot’s characters find material success and/or experience contentment, but the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Lydgate dies a prosperous man, but believing himself to be a failure because of having to abandon his life’s work and passion.  Rosamond technically gets what she wants materially and externally, but we are given no indication that this brings her any sense of personal fulfillment.  Fred, on the other hand, doesn’t get rich but is supremely happy and content with his humble life and a woman that he loves.    Mary’s sound reason and patience in waiting for a stable partner (contrasting with Rosamond’s hope for a wealthy partner) pays off as we learn that “Fred remained unswervingly steady.”  In the end, the both Rosamond and Mary get what they were after, but that doesn’t mean that they were both happy and fulfilled.

Dorothea forsakes material prosperity when she chooses to marry Will Ladislaw after Casaubon’s death.  Yet, she never regrets giving up her wealth.  Her release of prosperity actually leads to greater fulfillment.  She approaches her second marriage with greater maturity.  She is more cognizant of her internal needs.  When she married Casaubon, she was preoccupied with doing great deeds whereas her marriage with Ladislaw is marked with great love.  Whereas Rosamond is arguably too self-infatuated, perhaps Dorothea looked too far outside of herself in the beginning to the point of lacking self-awareness.  Conceivably, this contrast demonstrates that contentment arises from striking a balance between the two; happiness can no more come from self-denial than it can from self-indulgence.  And prosperity does not = fulfillment, nor does fulfillment = prosperity.

Community Opinion

In Middlemarch, the often shallow opinion of the community does not always fairly and accurately reflect the deepest truth.  To site one example, when Lydgate becomes enmeshed in a scandal, having witnessed the situation firsthand, readers believe in Lydgate’s innocence.  Yet, in his reality the truth is inconsequential because even truth will not change perception.   Even if his name is cleared, the damage to his reputation is irreversible.  In contrast, readers will recognize Rosamond’s true nature and her vanity, however, we learn that Lydgate’s associates envied him for having a charming wife and no one ever believes her to be less than amiable.   Such discontinuities and ironies are possibly meant to enlighten the reader to understand that communities should be more sensitive to individual natures rather than strictly adhering to unifying social norms and appearances.

************

Concluding Thoughts

Eliot explores some of the same ideas explored by Thomas Hardy; chance vs. autonomy, the individual vs. society, human nature vs. social standards.  However, Eliot takes a more didactic approach.  This is evident with statements like the one that concludes the novel;

“{F}or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This overt statement and others like it convey that Eliot wants readers to come away from Middlemarch, having learned a lesson.  In fact, she wrote in a letter dated 1859,

“If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

Eliot’s morals, though, are not demoralizing.  They do not rigidly conform to social standards nor do they rely on religious dogma.  As she said, art should enlarge men’s sympathies; she does not say that it should elevate their religious and social convictions.

*****

I feel certain that this is the longest review I’ve ever written.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that I was overwhelmed, yet, I still feel as though there is so much that I haven’t given due credit to.  My appreciation for this novel grew by leaps and bounds the more I studied it.  If it is in any way indicative of Eliot’s other work, then I may grow to love her as I have grown to love Hardy.  Middlemarch is a feast for the mind!

***

**Note: I would assume that this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.  The themes mentioned should in no way be considered definitive.  A look into more scholarly criticism on Middlemarch would likely identify different themes.  These are merely the ideas that stood out for me.

***

Sources Consulted:

  • George Eliot: Middlemarch (Landmarks of World Literature) by Karen Chase

A Halloween Inspired Book Review: Dracula

book imageby Bram Stoker
Published: 1897
My Rating: ***** 5/5

I’d like to begin this post by saying that I do not read modern vampire books nor do I watch vampire movies. I share this so that you will know that my reverence for this book does not in any form or fashion stem from the vampire mania that has infiltrated our bookstores, theaters, and TV screens.

However, I thought this was a fantastically eerie and sinister book! I think that if I had read it without knowing anything about Dracula or vampires from the many references in popular culture, I would have been truly scared by it. The idea of vampires has been completely rehashed and overdone lately, but in spite of the resulting familiarity I still found this to be an enthralling book.

Dracula is an “epistolary” novel. In other words, we experience the tale through a series of journal entries from the point of view of different characters with a few news articles also thrown in. At first I was apprehensive about this format, thinking that it would make the story feel disjointed and choppy. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually added greater depth to the novel, with the advantage of getting a first-person account from various different perspectives. The entries are sequential, with each new entry picking up where the last one left off, so there isn’t the confusion of different characters retelling the same event twice.

It’s been called a “sensation” novel and I suppose that it is, however that doesn’t mean that it’s chock full of one blood curdling, fear inducing, bone chilling scene after the next. The terror builds up slowly and emanates from the brooding atmosphere and the rising fear, suspicion, and anticipation of the characters. Stoker takes time to set the stage and build on the tension before letting loose the horror.  The conclusion was not quite as dramatic as I might have expected but it still came to a satisfying finish.

Now for a little history on the vampire:

The first vampire story to be printed in England was by John Polidori in 1819. While Polidori was vacationing with the likes of Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, the group entertained each other during a bout of bad weather by reading ghost stories aloud. They challenged each other to produce a story that was scarier than the ones that they read. For Shelley, what resulted was the popular Frankenstein. John Polidori, in effect, produced a short story simply titled, “The Vampyre.”

Stoker was also inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (which I plan to read next Halloween) about a female vampire. It was published some 20+ years before Dracula, in 1872.

movie poster image

Early Italian Horror Film

Dracula has also worn some pretty interesting covers over the years. Many of these are displayed in The New Annotated Dracula, edited by Leslie Klinger. In addition to exhaustive annotations, the book also features many vampire-inspired images in print and in film, from movie posters to early illustrations. The look of the book is quite nice; however, the notes are so meticulous that they often span several pages before returning to the original text. Therefore, I preferred to use it only as an occasional reference while I read a non-annotated edition.

My favorite cover image (and incidentally the only older image from the book that I could find online) is this 1916 edition:

The Return of the Native

book imageby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1878

My Rating:  ****1/2 – 4.5 / 5

The Return of the Native is a sublimely complex novel.  At the end of it, the first thought that ran through my mind was, “Well now I need to start over.”  As I sit in front of my computer now, writing about it feels more than a little daunting.

The book opens with an extensive description of Egdon Heath, which sets the tone for this incredibly atmospheric novel and with descriptions such as this one, bestows on Egdon a pulse and a personality all its own:

“Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend.”

egdon heath image

from Victorianweb.org

This novel is populated by four central characters.  The “Native” is Clym Yeobright who returns to Egdon Heath after pursuing the fanciful life in Paris as diamond salesman.  Eustacia, who has a strong desire to escape Egdon Heath and embark on a life of adventure, makes Clym the object of her affection before she ever lays eyes on him.  She is carried away by the mere rumors of his fantastic life.  Once she identifies Clym as her ticket to escape, she forgets her former lover Damon Wildeve, who instead becomes engaged to Thomasin, Clym’s cousin.  I’ll leave it at that as the plot details continue to get more and more convoluted.

There is a strong sense of nature versus society in this novel; the calculated expectations of society against the disorderly tendencies of human nature, which are also contrasted and reflected in the unruly and ever-changing “character” of Egdon Heath.

It’s interesting that Eustacia, who longs to escape her surroundings, is also perhaps the most in harmony with the wildness of her environment.  She embodies the irrational forces of human nature, the inherent and instinctive characteristics that refuse to conform to social normality.  Her character demonstrates what happens when a nature dominated by instinct clashes with socially acceptable behavior.  Eustacia is never fully accepted anywhere, she never experiences contentment, and her life is fraught with abrasive relationships.  She is a woman with an extraordinary nature who just doesn’t seem to fit into the ordinariness of life.

(Please note: possible spoilers ahead)

Eustacia’s diametric opposite is found in Diggory Venn.  Venn, though a somewhat minor character, is an interesting one.  He appears and disappears at such opportune times in the story that he’s almost like a ghost. Even the country dwellers look at him as an almost mystical person.  Due to his profession, his skin is stained red; the color typically associated with passion or anger, suggestive of being ruled by some strong emotion.  However, Venn is the most level-headed one of bunch; it is only his appearance that is bizarre.  His actions denote reason over passion and he acts in the best interests of others.  He becomes neither disconsolate nor enflamed when he doesn’t get what he wants in life.  Much like Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, he accepts his fate and makes the best of it.

Of the four Hardy novels that I have now read, this is the second one that ends with some of the characters doing okay in the end (the other one being Far From the Madding Crowd).  In both cases the characters that are spared calamity share some common traits.  They are those who, regardless of both their internal desires and societal rules, act in the interests of others.  They have compassion.  More specifically, they have genuine compassion; compassion that is not governed by society’s standards nor governed by religious instruction or promise of personal fulfillment.  These characters act in the interest of others out of inherent care and concern for the welfare of another.

I read somewhere that Hardy was influenced by the ideas of Darwin and it does appear that the most unstable characters in Hardy’s novels are the ones that meet with calamity, resulting in a sort of “survival of the fittest.”  I can’t help but believe that the similarities between the surviving characters of Gabriel Oak and Diggory Venn are no mere coincidence.  Perhaps Hardy was suggesting that those who carry on the best in life do so with a combination of acceptance and compassion.  However, the characters who embody the traits that become the marks of survival, do not cultivate those qualities within themselves – it’s simply part of their natural temperament – something that is completely random, the possession of which is largely a matter of chance.

The complexity of the situations and outcomes in this novel have led me to believe, at least for the time being, that Hardy didn’t side exclusively with man or nature, society or the individual.  Rather, Hardy seems to demonstrate through the lives of his characters and their interactions with the natural and man-made world around them that life is a complex web of intersecting factors, chance events, and built-in motivations.

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes

book cover imageby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1873

My Rating: **** 4/5


A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy tells the story of Elfride Swancourt, relating her struggles in love as she juggles two very contrasting love interests.  The first is Stephen Smith, an architect who visits the remote village where Elfride lives to develop plans for a church restoration.  After he’s won her heart, he reveals that he has a burdensome secret.  The essence of his secret uncovers that he is socially inferior to Elfride, a fact that Elfride is not concerned with but her father cannot be convinced that it is a good match and will not approve their union.

Stephen embarks on an ambitious quest to boost his social standing and thereby make himself acceptable to Elfride’s father.  However, in his absence, Elfride’s heart is won over by another, Henry Knight.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is clean and smooth, though not as dense as the other two of Hardy’s later novels that I have read.  The narrative includes striking descriptions of the landscape and surroundings, which are not just superfluous meanderings, but an essential element in conveying the tone and context of events.  In my experience with reading Hardy’s novels, the setting is never just a backdrop for the story, but an integral force in the story itself.    As a naturalist, Hardy no doubt believed in environment as a strong influence in determining both the actions of the characters as well as the uncontrollable incidents inflicted on their lives.  I found this concept to be more cleanly stated in this novel, where it has felt more implied in others.  I’m thinking of passages such as this one:

“Nature seems to have moods in other than a poetical sense: predilections for certain deeds at certain times, without any apparent law to govern or season to account for them. She is read as a person with a curious temper as one who does not scatter kindness and cruelties alternately, impartially, and in order, but heartless severities or overwhelmng generosities in lawless caprice.”

There is more to this book than just the story, though the story itself is well told.  There’s a message embedded in A Pair of Blue Eyes, even if it’s not one that slaps you in the face.    Fate and nature are “impartial;” they can wreak havoc on the deserving as well as the undeserving.  A good or bad outcome does not depend on one’s morality or immorality.  Coming to a bad end, therefore, is not solely a result of one’s decency, or lack thereof.  Conversely, strict adherence to the social and moral code of the day is what ultimately brings this novel to its tragic end, thereby making a case for the indecency embedded in a supposedly moral code.  Just like in Tess of D’Urbervilles, perceptions and social stigma are held as superior to genuine love and affection; a later realized social flaw can supersede love and take precedence over one’s owns feelings and the feelings of the other, regardless of how deep those feelings might be.

On a somewhat lighter note, we can thank Hardy for our use of the word “cliffhanger,” as the term apparently resulted from a scene in this novel.  A Pair of Blue Eyes was first released as a serialized publication, spanning approximately 10 months and one of those issues ended with one of the characters quite literally hanging from a cliff.  No doubt this was a device employed by Hardy to drum up anticipation for the next issue, but it was not mere sensationalism.  While hanging from the cliff, the character finds himself eye to eye with a Trilobite, a crustaceous fossil embedded in the rock; an occurrence that winks at our impermanence and the fleeting quality of human life.

Once again I find myself in awe of Hardy’s ability to combine a “good story” with beautifully poetic descriptions of the setting and characters, which are further enhanced by great depth of thought and insight on the human condition.

***

As a side note, I rate this novel 4 stars weighted against the other Hardy novels that I have read, however, weighted against general works of fiction, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it 5 stars.

Far From the Madding Crowd

book coverby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1874

My Rating: ***** 5/5

Far From the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s fourth novel but it is the first one that sealed his success as a career writer.   In a nutshell (although I’m not sure if any of Hardy’s novels can be encapsulated in a nutshell), it’s the story of Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors.  Bathsheba is capable, accomplished, and beautiful to the point of distraction.  It’s her beauty that attracts a triangle of suitors, the first of whom is Gabriel Oak, who was at the time a farmer.  Gabriel is practical, level-headed and steady as a 100-year-old tree, but ultimately Bathsheba refuses his proposal.

Shortly thereafter, she inherits a farm, moves away, and thereby defies convention by stepping into a predominantly male role by choosing to oversee the farm herself rather than hiring a bailiff, a fact that adds to both the strength and the fallibility of her character.  Through a strange and unfortunate twist of fate, Gabriel finds himself approaching her, not as a fellow farmer, but rather in search of employment as a shepherd.  She hires him, and time after time throughout the novel she finds herself in predicaments that only the reliable Oak can release her from.

Bathsheba, who is not unaware of her beauty and has become accustomed to attracting attention, is disconcerted when nearby farmer, William Boldwood, takes no notice of her.   What Bathsheba does not realize is that Boldwood is reserved, stoic, and conservative and not likely to be drawn to any female form.  Still, flustered by the ill-attention, Bathsheba thoughtlessly sends a valentine to him in an effort to strike his fancy.  When things progress further than she anticipated, she finds herself refusing a proposal from him as well.

illustration image from serialized edition

Image from Victorianweb.org

Bathsheba’s third suitor is the reckless charmer, Sergeant Troy.  Bathsheba weakens under the influence of Troy’s vacuous charm and when he suggests that he might stray if she doesn’t marry him, in fear of the loss, she promptly agrees to be his wife.  Even after they wed, the steadfast Oak continues to be the pillar of the farm.  From very early on, it’s almost as though Gabriel is Bathsheba’s true partner in action, even if it’s not official and he does not have Bathsheba’s affection.

image of thomas hardy

Thomas Hardy

I have come to appreciate Hardy’s keen understanding of human nature.  These are not flat characters, but on the contrary they are complex and multi-faceted.  Hardy gives us deep insight into each of them and rarely does one particular character trait define them.  Just as in life, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, we might not always react in predictable ways given different circumstances, and rarely does one trait embody the essence of a person. The same is true of Hardy’s characters.  Even the self-reliant Bathsheba falters under the persistent pressure of passion and then guilt and remorse.  Hardy’s acute characterizations of not just one main character, but multiple characters in the novel gives a further testament to his sensitivity to the intricacies of human nature and fallibility.

Fate is a reoccurring theme in Hardy’s novels.  Hardy approaches not only the seemingly inconsequential human actions that can have far reaching consequences, but also the chance collisions of nature and human circumstances.  In Tess of D’Urbervilles (and as I understand in many of Hardy’s novels) this leads to tragic endings.  In Far from the Madding Crowd, however,  some of the characters are given a second chance and there is a note of redemption in the end, but it is not without the mark of calamity.

I highly recommend this book.  It can be read for pure enjoyment, simply relishing in Hardy’s poetic descriptions of nature and his characters while also being carried along by interesting plot twists and turns; or if you want something you can really sink your teeth into, the pages of this novel are brimming with allegory and allusion.