Literary Blog Hop : Analyzing Literature

The Literary Blog Hop is a monthly meme hosted by the gals at The Blue Bookcase.

This month’s question:

To what extent do you analyze literature? Are you more analytical in your reading if you know you’re going to review the book? Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your readerly experience? 

I like this question but I’m not completely certain how to answer it.  Earlier this year I read an introduction to literary theory that gobsmacked my ideas about what I do and how I approach literature.  I was previously unaware that there were so many different facets of literary analysis – so many isms – structuralism, deconstructionism, new historicism, formalism, feminism.  How little I knew was suddenly reaffirmed.

I don’t know that I’m ready to take on literature in those realms and I’m okay with that.  I’m a work in progress.  Each step of my literary journey broadens the scope of my understanding.   Since the birth of my classics exploration in late 2009, I’ve tried to reach beyond the plot to uncover themes, authorial intent, and to put what I’m reading into some kind of historical context.  Each new author propels my thinking one step further.   Each new work teaches me something that I didn’t know before. Hardy is teaching me to pay attention to setting.  Flaubert reminds me to consider narrative perspective.  Through Nabokov, I’ve become more sensitive to style and figurative language.

I think of each novel that I read as a piece in a larger literary puzzle.  What I learn from one work enlightens the next and with each I push the boundaries of my understanding.  My hope is that it has a cumulative effect.   As I get further along in my literary journey I  can reach deeper and deeper into what I’m reading.  I can fit more pieces together.  Connections are made more easily.

I’ve recently become drawn to the idea of honing in on individual authors.  After reading Thomas Hardy’s major novels and a biography followed by a collection of his poetry, I relish in being able to pick up on his subtleties.     I love that I know little tidbits of his life and his personality, which also serves to strengthen my grasp of his work.      I believe there’s value in that.         I aim to become just as intimate with other authors.

Whether or not I’m going to write about a novel makes no difference in my approach to it.  I read everything with the objective of broadening my understanding of life and literature.  I always intend to write about about a book even if that doesn’t always get accomplished.  I don’t read “for entertainment” but reading entertains me.  In my experience,  thinking deeply about a text is entertaining.  If there’s nothing to grapple with, that’s when I get bored.

I see what I’m doing now as more of a survey of literature rather than an analysis of it.  At least for me, this seems like a necessary step before advancing to a deeper, narrower focus – before treading into all of the literary isms.

~

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Click the button at the top of this post to see what other LBH participants think about literary analysis.

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

A Birthday Tribute to My Beloved Thomas Hardy

I happened to visit the blog, Subtle Melodrama, today and discovered there that today is Thomas Hardy’s birthday.

As regular readers of my blog know, Mr. Hardy is a beloved favorite author.

I read my first novel by him, Tess of D’Urbervilles in March of 2010 – just over one year ago.  I was charmed, dazzled, and enthralled.  I remember reading in bed at night and turning to my husband saying, “Man, this guy can write.  Listen to this . . . “

But I’ll be honest, the story of Tess was so achingly tragic that I didn’t return to Hardy for many months.  I think I’ve said as much on this blog before but Tess is the only literary character that I’ve truly mourned in my adult life.

In August, Far From the Madding Crowd was the selection for a Goodreads reading group.  Had it not been for that, who knows how long it would have taken me to pick up one of Hardy’s novels again; but while reading that book, I knew I had landed on something really special.  While reading Far From the Madding Crowd, I became aware that I was reading way more than just a story.

Unread though I was (and by all accounts still am), I knew enough about Victorian literature to know that Bathsheba Everdene was an unconventional, if not revolutionary character.  She was independent, daring, and courageous.  She owned property.  She performed tasks and dealings typically limited to men.  In her own words she said,

I hate to be thought men’s property.”

Yet, she was still a woman – with all the desires of a woman.  And like any human being, male or female, she had desires that threatened to ruin her.

Over the course of the next year I would read five more of Hardy’s novels, more than 100 of his poems, and a small sampling of his short stories.  I soon learned that Bathsheba Everdene was not alone.  Hardy had more.  Character after character reflected the complexity of the human experience in a powerful way.  Hardy handled his characters and the landscapes that they inhabited with gorgeous depth and power.

My reading of Claire Tomalin’s biography this past March sealed my bond with Mr. Hardy.  Through her, I learned of Hardy’s personal and professional pursuits and tribulations.  I learned all sorts of interesting little tidbits like how Hardy wrote most of Far From the Madding Crowd outside, sometimes etching notes onto stones or even dead leaves!  That novel contains the most aptly written account of a thunderstorm that I’ve ever read, and rightfully so.  While Hardy penned those words, a storm was raging outside his window.  Perhaps these anecdotes seem inconsequential to the scope of his work, but those little insights strengthened the bond that I felt with his books.

hardy with his bikeTomalin’s biography also served to strengthen my affection for Hardy, the man, not just the novelist and poet.   Hardy was a tortured soul and suffered from bouts of despondency.  He deeply felt regret.  While he scarcely wrote a phrase about Emma, his first wife, while she was alive, he wrote poem after poem about her when she died – and all while he was married to someone else!  He was just as critical of the society that he inhabited as his novels reveal him to be.  Yet, he was also social.  He enjoyed parties and laughing with friends.  As an older man, he learned to ride a bicycle and became an enthusiast, riding as much as forty miles in a single day.  He was flirtatious and fell in love rather easily.  I also believe that in his later years he may have been a bit of a geezer.

My journey with Thomas Hardy has brought with it a strong sense of familiarity.  I feel like I know him.  If he were alive today, and chance and coincidence allowed, I think he’d be a friend.  And in a strange way, I see him as a friend now – through the life he left behind in his writing.  As friends do, I laugh with him.  I laugh at him.  We engage in profound “conversations” about life.  And yes, if you’ve ever read anything by him then you know I have also shed more than a few tears with him.

An unnamed critic once said that Hardy, “permanently enlarged the boundaries of one’s intellectual and emotional experience.”  This is precisely how I feel.  Reading Hardy has opened up something in my soul, in my being, that I didn’t know existed.  This is a hard thing to explain – but I do feel changed by reading Hardy.

If I still have this blog 10 years from now, I think you’ll still find me talking about him here.  He’s not a man whose life and work are easily exhausted.

Thomas Hardy

Happy 171st Birthday, Mr. Hardy.

Thomas Hardy: a Biography by Claire Tomalin

book imageSimply put, I LOVED this book!

I will admit that I do not write from a place of objectivity here. I am totally enraptured by Mr. Hardy.  I recently finished and reviewed Jude the Obscure which marks the completion of my reading of his major works.  I have now read seven of his novels, and with each reading my love for him grew by leaps and bounds.  He is one of the most prolifically deep and soulful writers that I have yet encountered.

As for the biography, Tomalin manages to be detailed but not tedious – which in my view is no small feat.  Her writing is fluid, simple, and unpretentious.  She does not make too many assumptions.  I imagine that when compiling a biography, particularly for an enigmatic character like Hardy, it would be easy to infer too much.  Tomalin mostly sticks to what she can corroborate with  journals, letters, news articles and the like.  And her volume is well annotated.  Nearly every chapter (of which there are 24) lists no less than 40 citations.  Some notes simply supply the source while others expound with additional information to back up whatever claim is being made.  All in all, Tomalin puts forth an informed while also sensitive and poignant portrayal without being overly biased.

In line with the chronological happenings of Hardy’s life, Tomalin offers a synopsis and brief assessment of each of his major novels as well as a few of the minor ones.  More often, she incorporates timely excerpts from his poetry.  I was reading a volume of Hardy’s poems alongside this book so I appreciated Tomalin’s insights into the inspiration and events surrounding the writing of certain poems and her anecdotes also served to enhance both my enjoyment and understanding of specific poems.

There are also ruminations of Hardy’s boyhood, his adolescent flirtations, his carving out of a life in London, the literary transgressions on his way to becoming a writer, his lamentations through not one, but two, unfulfilling marriages, in addition to numerous accounts of literary figures that he rubbed elbows with.  I, for one, did my best to absorb every word of it.

image of emma hardy

Emma Gifford - Hardy's 1st wife -You can just look at this picture and tell that she is one who might have a flair for ridiculous tenacity.

I also ached for Hardy.  I know that he was by no means faultless in his relationships, but I sort of yearned for him to find true love the way I yearned for Jude to experience success.  Although by all accounts it doesn’t sound like he was the easiest person to live with, particularly in his old age.  I had to laugh at this little account of Hardy’s obstinacy whenever Florence (his second wife) tried to go anywhere:

He announced that he felt ill just as she was about to leave.  {Florence says,} ‘He began to put his papers in order and told me he was doing it lest he should die suddenly . . . By this time I began to think it would be wrong to leave him and so I . . . cancelled all my engagements . . . whereupon he suddenly became quite well.’”

I was enamored by all the seemingly insignificant little glimpses into Hardy’s daily life and idiosyncrasies.   Am I romanticizing him?  Sure I am.  I’m pretty sure that Florence didn’t find this behavior at all charming; but as a snippet in the life of a man I have so come to revere, I’ll admit, to me it’s endearing.  As I’m a bit phone-phobic myself, he totally won me over with his neuroses when I learned that he also apparently refused to answer the telephone when they had one installed.

If anything, this book has also served to increase my protectiveness of Hardy.  I respect everyone’s reading preferences and tastes but I will admit to feeling a twinge defensive when I hear people write off his work as “too tragic” or “overly depressing.”  To see Hardy’s work as merely tragic is to miss the point.  Of course, to overlook or downplay the tragedy would also be equally false.  As Tomalin relates specifically about the characters in Hardy’s novel, The Woodlanders;

To deny that their fate is tragic is to deny them their dignity and truth, and to miss Hardy’s gloomy point of the vulnerability of the poor.”

Hardy’s novels ARE tragic, but tragedy is not the essence of any of them.  Unfortunate events speak to larger issues – things like poverty, fate, the human condition, and societal constraints.  The tragic elements are more than mere sensationalism.

Tomalin also shares an appraisal of The Woodlanders in which the reviewer says that the book was “written with an indifference to the moral effect it conveys . . . {that} lowers the art of his works quite as it lowers the moral tone.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s true that it’s easy to “miss the point,” as I said earlier, because the essence and substance of Hardy’s work is often subtle, but it IS there brimming below the surface, waiting to be unearthed with a little extra time and contemplation.  The fact that most of his novels lack an overtly stated moral message or a didactic tone infinitely ADDS to the artistry of his work, rather than the opposite.  I am no writer but I imagine that it’s easier to write with a heavy hand than it is to image of magic eyeconstruct an elusive mosaic of ideas that only comes into view with some reflection and scrutiny.  I liken it to looking at one of those “Magic Eye” pictures that were popular when I was a kid in the 90s.  At first glance they appear to be just an obscure and convoluted swirl of colors – with the embedded image only coming into view with special focus and attention.

It was no secret that the book would end with Hardy’s death, obviously I was aware of the inevitability of that – but I won’t lie, I shed a tiny tear.  That tear was indicative of mixed emotion – I felt the natural remorse of death that comes with witnessing the course of a great man’s life from boyhood through old age.  I felt sad for him in a way, seeing what a tortured soul he was.  Mostly, I felt the bittersweet triumph of his accomplishments blended with the impermanence of life.  It might seem like an odd reaction.  But somehow it feels strangely appropriate that a major theme of his work should well up upon beholding the events of his life.

_______________

Published: 2007

My Rating:  ***** 5/5

______________

P.S. I have NO idea what the Magic Eye image is supposed to be.

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.

_________________________

Weekend Book Treasures

I love a good book hunt.  Shopping in antique stores where there are books nestled on little shelves or inconspicuously piled up in corners or on table tops where a quick glance reveals a familiar title is pure heaven to me!  That combined with shopping at used or independent bookstores is about the only kind of shopping that I can bear on a regular basis.  This weekend my husband and I made the drive to one of our favorite used bookstores called Too Many Books.  It’s a quaint corner bookshop that is run by a woman with an exhaustive and truly impressive knowledge of her collection.  Whenever I’ve asked about a specific author or title she’s either taken me right to it or right to where it would be if she had it.  I never fail to leave baffled at how she manages to retain all of that information in her head.  If I ever owned a bookshop, I’d want to be just like her, whizzing through my store directing customers here and there all the while carrying on lively conversations.  We don’t live in the town where her bookshop is located so our visits are very infrequent, but she seems to know many of her customers personally.

Anyway, here’s what I came away with:

stack of books

 

The Essential Hardy Selected by Joseph Brodsky: This is a small volume of about 100 of Hardy’s poems.  They are complimented by an introduction and analysis by Joseph Brodsky, who was also a poet.

 

buck booksAll Under Heaven and Death in the Castle by Pearl Buck:  I will unashamedly admit that I collect Pearl Buck’s books faster than I can read them.  I’ve been fascinated by her ever since I read The Good Earth and one of her lesser known works, This Proud Heart as a teenager.  I had never before heard of these two titles but I just couldn’t resist their colorful vintage covers.

 

 

 

hardy short story imageAn Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and other stories by Thomas Hardy: Indiscretion is a short story that was apparently taken from Hardy’s first novel which was never published, The Poor Man and the Lady.  The volume includes nine other short stories which deal with Hardy’s familiar themes of irony, gender, and class.

 

 

 

frenchman's creek imageFrenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier: Over the years I’ve picked up some very nice vintage editions of du Maurier’s novels at this bookstore.  When I was there on Saturday, I was delighted to find this 1942 edition of Frenchman’s Creek published by the Literary Guild of America.  The shop owner takes care to preserve the vintage dust jackets by reinforcing them with plastic covers.  This one is in particularly good condition.

 

 

 

tomalin book imageThomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin:  I first heard about this book from Chris, the author of the blog, Pro Se.  I will likely not pick this book up until at least March as I want to first get through reading Jude, the Obscure, but I’m really looking forward to reading this.  I’m even happier that I found a copy in such good condition from an independent bookseller, rather than having to order it online.

 

The Warden by Anthony Trollope: Last but not least I left with The Warden.  I’ve been reading so much about Trollope on other blogs lately that I want to give him a try.  From what I understand The Warden is the first in Trollope’s Barsetshire series, so I’m guessing that it’s a good place to start?

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.

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.