Not too long ago I saw a TV version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, a BBC remake of its own 1978 adaptation of the novel originally starring Alan Bates, which I believe I had also seen. This one had Clarán Hinds in the title role and I found it quite moving, particularly the anguished coda, Michael Henchard's last will and testament as read by Hinds at the end of the film, which in its somber mood brought to mind the powerful concluding paragraphs of "The Dead."
I had read The Return of the Native in high school for a literature class. For an author, being taught in an American high school is the kiss of death, guaranteeing that he will never be read again by those same hapless students, and the fact is that I did not pick up another Hardy novel for nearly thirty years. Then, out of feelings of guilt more than anything else, I read Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'Urbervilles and remember finding them somewhat depressing. But now, after seeing The Mayor of Casterbridge, I began to think about Hardy again and determined to get to know his work a little better. I would certainly reread the two later novels but start, for sentimental reasons, with The Return of the Native. I also start with very little knowledge of Hardy, other than that he was an architect, led a conventional life, and gave up novel writing at a certain point to concentrate on poetry.
I am prepared for the worst. The last time I had exposed myself to the 19th century British novel was during the First Gulf War, which we sat out in our sealed Jerusalem bedroom waiting for Saddam to launch a chemical attack. That had seemed as good a time as any to read a few of the earlier Dickens novels that I had overlooked as a teenager, having recently been unable to resist buying a complete set at a bargain price. These included Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, which I now found unreadable, and Dombey and Son, which I found simply awful, with Edith Dombey the ice queen forever stiffly and haughtily drawing herself up when she addresses her husband with "imperious disdain" and "supercilious glance." The inability to portray real human emotion that Edmund Wilson noted in Dickens had infected more than one British writer. Would I find it now in Hardy too?
Hardy eases us into the novel with an introductory chapter that establishes Egdon Heath as a pristine wilderness embodying the eternal, untamable aspect of nature that is in ourselves as well. This is followed by a long scene with people talking about other people who I assume will be the leading characters in the novel: a couple who have gone off to be married, someone's granddaughter, and a Mrs. Yeobright's son. Hardy is going to tell his story in a very characteristic 19th century way, omnisciently and somewhat turgidly, with a tendency to offer neat physical descriptions of his characters ("She was a woman of middle-age, with well-formed features of the type usually found where perspicacity is the chief quality enthroned within"). The omniscient author describes characters physically because he is observing them as part of a landscape of human figures whose presence is noted in objective terms rather than in terms of the impression they might make on a character whose consciousness shapes the story. Needless to say, no one contemplating the physical descriptions of such characters will have the slightest idea what they actually look like nor would anyone even recognize his next-door neighbor if he was described novelistically.
But all this can be forgiven. These were the horizons of the Victorian novel, light years away from Flaubert, you could say. What we learn from the local gossip is that it is Mrs. Yeobright's niece, Thomasin, who is marrying Damon Wildeve, whom Mrs. Yeobright doesn't approve of, and that Mrs. Yeobright's son, Clym, is returning to Egdon Heath for a Christmas visit, and that the said granddaughter, Eustacia Vye, is "very strange in her ways." We also meet Diggory Venn, a reddleman, that is, a supplier of a red dye called reddle that was used to mark sheep.
Diggory is on his way to Egdon with a passenger in his wagon who turns out to be Thomasin. She has not gotten married after all. Apparently there was a technical problem with the license. Within a relatively short time we will also learn that Diggory is secretly in love with Thomasin, that Damon is openly in love with Eustacia, and that Eustacia has fallen in love with Clym. Things get rolling when Diggory delivers Thomasin to Mrs. Yeobright and Damon gets back to Egdon on his own. The first twist in the plot occurs when Damon meets up with the "voluptuous" Eustacia. They are at odds. Eustacia resents having been dumped by Damon in favor of Thomasin. Damon proposes that they run away together, to America no less. Eustacia is willing to consider the proposition, for "the man who had begun by being merely her amusement, and would never have been more than her hobby but for his skill in deserting her at the right moments, was now again her desire. Cessation in his love-making had revivified her love."
Hardy goes to considerable lengths to paint an alluring portrait of Eustacia, and to tie her to the heath in an almost visceral way:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess … She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries … Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities … Egdon was her Hades …
Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her…. To be loved to madness—such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.
Subsequently, Eustacia runs into Clym, who has just arrived from Paris, and after getting a better look at him decides that she prefers him to Damon, as she imagines that he can offer her an exciting life. Eustacia thus has a dual aspect, running along parallel tracks that never meet – mythic or primal, on the one hand, and commonplace, fickle and a little shallow, on the other, as Hardy proceeds to work both sides of the street, so to speak, producing not so much a complex or even larger than life figure but one, in my view, that really doesn't measure up to her exalted billing and remains a little out of focus. As for Damon, rejected by Eustacia he hurries back to Thomasin, getting there just before the ubiquitous Diggory, who is always hanging around and getting wind of what is in the air and now wishes to propose to Thomasin himself. In the end, Thomasin and Damon marry, as do Eustacia and Clym, though Hardy glosses over their courtship, giving us a bottom line, as it were: "My Eustacia!""Clym, dearest!"
And commenting: "Such a situation had less than three months brought forth." And then, from Clym:
"Well, whatever I may have thought, one thing is certain—I do love you—past all compass and description. I love you to oppressiveness—I, who have never before felt more than a pleasant passing fancy for any woman I have ever seen. Let me look right into your moonlit face and dwell on every line and curve in it! Only a few hairbreadths make the difference between this face and faces I have seen many times before I knew you; yet what a difference—the difference between everything and nothing at all. One touch on that mouth again! there, and there, and there."
I do not quote these lines to ridicule the novel. The prose, on the whole, is not without force, and as long as Hardy's characters stay within the bounds of typical British deportment, displaying indignation, contempt, condescension and of course imperious or supercilious disdain, they are halfway credible. It is when Hardy tries to represent any form of intimate feeling that he slips into the inflated Dickensian mode.
In any case, Clym has decided to give up the diamond business in Paris and become a schoolmaster in Egdon, much to Eustacia's displeasure. Then he strains his eyes while studying and is forced to cut furze (gorse) and turf for a living while recuperating, to Eustacia's even greater displeasure.
"And how madly we loved two months ago!" says Eustacia. "You were never tired of contemplating me, nor I of contemplating you. Who could have thought then that by this time my eyes would not seem so very bright to yours, nor your lips so very sweet to mine? Two months—is it possible? Yes, 'tis too true!"
Hardy has by this time sets in motion the chain of events that will lead to the novel's tragic denouement. Mrs. Yeobright sends a messenger to Clym and Thomasin with a 100 guineas to be divided between them. Damon runs into the said messenger and surmises that Mrs. Yeobright wishes to circumvent him with regard to the money and, out of spite, lures him, significantly, into a game of dice, winning all of it. Diggory shows up as usual, understands what has transpired, and wins the money back, but thinking that it is all intended for Thomasin, delivers it to her. Mrs. Yeobright, on the other hand, learning from the shamefaced messenger that Damon had won it, believes that he had intended to give it to Eustacia and that there is something going on between them. There follows some confusion and then a confrontation between the two women leading to their estrangement and then Mrs. Yeobright's resolve to seek a reconciliation. In the meantime, Eustacia and Damon have gotten together again and are at her house when Mrs. Yeobright knocks at the door. Eustacia doesn't answer it and Mrs. Yeobright returns home – a six-mile walk – collapsing on the way and subsequently dying of exhaustion and heart failure compounded by an adder's bite as she lies helpless on the heath. Hardy allows two months to pass before he has Clym figure out the entire sequence of events. Eustacia is mortified to be blamed for the mother's death and leaves her husband, asking Damon to take her away. Clym sends her a remorseful letter which she never receives. Thomasin, who has given birth to a child in the interval, rushes to Clym to tell him that Damon and Eustacia are running away. Clym runs into Damon on the way to intercept them and the despairing Eustacia falls or more likely throws herself into a stream on her way to the assignation. Both men jump in to save her. Damon and Eustacia drown. Thomasin marries Diggory. Clym recovers and becomes a preacher and "everywhere he was kindly received, for the story of his life had become generally known."
What did Hardy wish to say in this novel? The clue, again, is in Hardy's description of Egdon Heath as constituting a vital, pristine, natural force that exercises a hold on its inhabitants. Clym is drawn back to it and Eustacia is unable to escape it. This force is mirrored in human passion but it is chance that determines human destiny:
"If you had never returned to your native place, Clym, what a blessing it would have been for you!... It has altered the destinies of—"
"Five," Eustacia thought; but she kept that in.
But these are no Heathcliff and Cathy, I must say. The passions in the novel are so anemic that it is hard to credit them with any destructive force, nor does the underpinning of the novel, its motifs, allusions, symbols, structure – all rendered with considerable artistic skill and coherence – breathe any real life into it. Though I understand what Hardy is getting at, it has made no impression on me, I don't really feel the connection between the nature of the universe and the fate of his characters. I might just as well be back in high school.
The Return of the Native had been published in 1878. Tess of the D'Urbervilles came out in 1891. This time Hardy set out to tell the story of Tess Durbeyfield, whose worthless father learns of the family's illustrious knightly history as D'Urbervilles and immediately commences to weave extravagant fantasies about his prospects. In the meanwhile, Tess, not yet 17, is forced to set out for Casterbridge to deliver some beehives for her father – for we are again in Hardy's fictional Wessex in southwest England, superimposed on Dorset and the counties surrounding it. Their horse is killed in an accident on the road and Tess, feeling guilty, allows herself to be cajoled by her mother into making the acquaintance of the nearby D'Urbervilles, now thought to be kin but in fact a nouveau riche family that has appropriated the name to glorify itself. Right from the start Hardy forewarns us of the tragic events that are to come as a consequence of the imperfect "social machinery" that seldom brought together "the two halves of a perfect whole." At the D'Urberville estate, where she begins to work on the poultry farm, the innocent Tess is soon seduced (or raped) by the rakish son and has a child that promptly dies.
Three years later we find Tess working as a dairy maid on a distant farm. Hardy devotes much attention to the folkways of the common people, showing us how they eat, drink, dance, talk, this being Tess's natural habitat and clearly engaging Hardy's deepest sympathies. However, the characteristic heaviness of the writing forces the reader to wade through the individual sentences as though through a quagmire, having to pause at every turn to ponder their simple meaning, which makes for tedious reading, as the sentiments being expressed are, as often as not, 19th century commonplaces. There are few simple sentences in the novel:
And probably the half-unconscious rhapsody was a Fetichistic
utterance in a Monotheistic setting; women whose chief companions
are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the
systemized religion taught their race at a later date.
All this with reference to something that Tess chants from the psalter. (It should be remembered that it was around this time that Stephen Crane was beginning to write some of the most lucid prose in the English language.) It is in fact very rare that Hardy produces a sentence that can be read with pleasure, though admittedly he occasionally does:
The lower rooms were entirely given over to the birds, who walked about them with a proprietary air, as though the place had been built by themselves, and not by certain dusty copyholders [landholders] who now lay east and west in the churchyard.
At the dairy farm, Tess catches the eye of the well-born Angel Clare, a rebellious parson's son who is learning the farming trade before starting out on his own up north or in an overseas colony. Tess falls in love with him, as do her three roommates, none of them believing she has a chance. Finally Angel declares himself but Tess is reluctant to accept his proposal and reveal her condition as a ruined woman. On a visit home, Angel confides his interest in Tess to his parents, who are not too pleased to see him pursuing a cottager's daughter instead of a lady. Tess's mother counsels her to conceal her past and this Tess resolves to do and a wedding date is finally set. Then she has second thoughts and tries to confess, but Angel is not interested in hearing confessions so she slips a letter under his door but he does not see it and they marry.
Now they are off on their honeymoon, having rented some rooms in a farmhouse. Here Angel makes his own confession, telling Tess about two days of dissipation with some woman in the past. Encouraged, Tess finally tells Angel everything.
Here I close the book for a moment. How will Angel react? I am very curious about how Hardy is going to handle this. Thinking back to the tedium of "studying" literature in high school, I remember an old idea of mine about how to teach it, namely, to have the students read the first chapter of a novel and then write the second chapter themselves. In this way, I believed, comparing their result with the author's, they might come to understand how the novelist thinks, how he makes his decisions, why he writes what he does. I am tempted to try this with Hardy now. Up to this point I have been convinced that it is Tess's dishonesty that will be her undoing. But this is really not a grave enough offense, given the circumstances, to hang a novel on. So I ask myself whether Angel will take Tess's confession badly or generously. If generously, it seems to me that Hardy will not have a novel. He must take it badly then, and this is the chapter I would write, and it is in fact the one that Hardy writes, turning Angel into a priggish Englishman despite his free-thinking tendencies.
So far so good. As annulment of the marriage isn't feasible, Angel leaves Tess and makes preparations to sail to Brazil. "O Tess!" he says. "If only you had told me sooner I would have forgiven you." This is doubtful, and in any case he himself put off hearing her confession, so there is no reason why he shouldn't forgive her now. It may be true that a 19th century mind like Angel's, given England's social and sexual values, would respond so stupidly to Tess's "fallen" state, but it is a little difficult to grasp Angel's feelings in the matter, which Hardy wishes to represent as mixed, though without offering any real insight into what might be going through his head.
Angel now runs into one of the girls who had been in love with him at the dairy farm and impulsively proposes that she accompany him to Brazil, but then withdraws the offer when she tells him how much Tess loves him. In the end he sails to Brazil alone, and it must be said that all these manipulations of events and feelings are meant only to serve the "plot" of the novel in a typical 19th century way and in effect work to take us further and further away from any convincing depiction of human behavior. Hardy is always setting things up for what is going to happen down the line, like any popular novelist working from a chart pinned to the wall.
Eight months later Tess is roaming the countryside looking for farmwork. I feel that there is no real point in continuing to read the novel other than to find out what happens. Will the two of them get back together again? Otherwise the novel consists of a recitation of Tess's misery and nothing else, so that despite the density of the prose I find that I am able to pick up my reading pace without any fear of missing something, though here and there, again, the writing is actually nice:
The swede [turnip]-field in which she and her companions were set hacking was a stretch of a hundred odd acres, in one patch, on the highest ground of the farm, rising above stony lanchets or lynchets – the outcrop of siliceous veins in the chalk formation, composed
of myriads of loose white flints in bulbous, cusped, and phallic
At this point Tess runs into her seducer, Alec d'Urberville, now reformed and operating as a preacher. Soon enough, however, he throws off the pious facade and begins to pursue her again. Tess resists his advances, still dreaming of a reconciliation with her husband, but he convinces her that Angel is never coming back and offers to support her family after the father dies and they are evicted from their home and land. In the end she consents to live with him. But Angel does come back, convinced now that he has wronged Tess, and Tess realizes that she has been deceived by Alec. Then Alec is found stabbed to death in his bed. The obvious conclusion is that Tess has murdered him and then we will have a real tragedy on our hands with perhaps a hanging thrown in as well.
Tess catches up with Angel and tells him that, yes, she has murdered Alec. They are together now, reconciled, and flee north, through the Great Forest, and at Stonehenge, which was there before there were D'Urbervilles and before there was God, Tess lies down to sleep on a slab of stone that is like an altar, sacrificed to the hypocrisies and inequities of Victorian England, and then the constables come.
Unlike The Return of the Native, which had a strictly classical view of human destiny, with the social aspect fairly muted, Tess of the D'Urbervilles concerns itself more with the rottenness of Victorian society and in this sense is akin to the naturalistic novel of the 19th century, to which century it fully belongs, perceiving the changes that were occurring in rural England but never really grasping the broader horizons of the modern world that was just around the corner, unlike a very different and very similar novel of our own time, The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its miraculous transformation of Sarah Woodruff into a modern woman. Societies destroy individuals. This is what the novelists of the 19th century had come to understand. Generally they destroy the weak; occasionally they destroy the strong. What is destructive within a society is always its system of values. The class values of English society were more destructive than most because of the callousness of the English people. This is not yet the stuff of tragedy, at least not in literature. In class societies, it is when doors are opened that tragedy begins. In England these were false doors creating false hopes, and in Tess of the D'Urbervilles Hardy documented the consequences of trying to walk through such a door.
Four years later Jude the Obscure appeared. We are back in Hardy's Wessex. Jude Fawley is a somewhat innocent and good-natured rustic, an orphan living with his great aunt and dreaming of moving to the nearby college town of Christminster (Oxford) like his teacher Mr. Phillotson and becoming a scholar. In the meanwhile he begins to study Latin and Greek. He also apprentices himself out to a stonemason to learn a trade and soon enough is married to a pig farmer's daughter named Arabella, who feigns pregnancy to ensnare him. But the marriage quickly sours and Arabella leaves him to emigrate to Australia with her parents.
Three years later, Jude is off to Christminster to pursue his dream. Here he looks up his cousin Sue Bridehead, a waiflike but independent-minded creature. Almost immediately he is attracted to her but as he is still married and is also aware of his family's history of doomed marriages ("sommat in our blood," his great aunt has told him, with a nod by Hardy to Darwin), he is reluctant to pursue her. Now Hardy sets up another of his elaborate sequences of fortuitous events to bring together Sue and Mr. Phillotson, who had remained a schoolmaster, never fulfilling his own dream of becoming a university man and making a career in the Church. Sue buys a pair of plaster statuettes of Apollo and Venus which her pious landlady/employer finds and angrily destroys, causing Sue to resolve to leave the city, which prompts Jude to arrange an assistant teaching position for her with Mr. Phillotson to keep her around. Mr. Phillotson soon develops a romantic interest in Sue. Sue enrolls in a teachers college but after innocently spending the night with Jude at a farmer's cottage she is confined to her room at the college. She then sneaks away and joins Jude again. She had already confessed to him, with the usual quivering lip, that she is engaged to the considerably older Mr. Phillotson. Now they have a long chat, mixing theological pronouncements, which Jude finds "Voltairean" on her part, with occasional declarations of asexual cousinly love, which is certainly more than that in Jude's case. It may be that the unnatural speech that a writer like Hardy put into the mouths of his characters was not unnatural at all to British readers, who, if they did not themselves speak in such a wooden way, would not have been able to imagine any other way of representing educated speech in a work of literary fiction and moreover fully expected anything remotely concerned with human emotion to spill over immediately into the most effusive kind of sentimentality. The result in Hardy's case was to cast his two characters, Jude and Sue, into an emotionally incongruous relationship that it is almost impossible to imagine.
Sue is now kicked out of the teachers college. Jude has by this time made it fairly clear to Sue that he loves her in an uncousinly way, though ruing his "wrong, very wrong sentiments." He has also pretty much given up on his college dreams and is working as a stonemason, hoping one day to enter the lower levels of Church service. He now tells Sue about his marriage to Arabella, and though she has never declared herself romantically to Jude, she takes the confession badly, "stamping her foot in a nervous quiver," which is a prelude to the obligatory trembling lip. It is not that it is impossible for someone to hide or deny his feelings for someone else; the problem is that Hardy does not connect these feelings to any recognizable form of human behavior. He is in fact constrained by both literary convention and the demands of his plot to represent this behavior without reference to any human reality.
Sue now marries Phillotson. Jude gives the bride away. At the rehearsal Jude leads her down the aisle. Sue asks him:
"Was it like this when you were married?"
"Dear God, Sue – don't be so awfully merciless!... There, dear one, I
didn't mean it!"
"Ah, you are vexed," she said regretfully, as she blinked away an
excess of eye moisture.
This emotional fencing will continue throughout the novel, teasing Hardy's emotionally repressed readers with the prospect of an explosive resolution, which, even if distasteful to the guardians of British morality, they certainly would have found very satisfying and toward which Hardy seems to be building. Certainly he knows exactly where he is going, knows it from the start, is not waiting for his characters to reveal their destinies to him but is in effect pushing them toward a preordained fate in the kind of reversal of reality that is at the heart of the popular novel but which at the same time, it must be said, is precisely the way Hardy viewed the universe.
Clearly Jude loves Sue with great passion. Sue, for her part, remains ethereal, and it is clear to Jude that she is not happy in her marriage to Mr. Phillotson. After the wedding Jude runs into Arabella, who has returned from Australia, where she had illegally taken a second husband, from whom she has parted, though he will turn up too seeking reconciliation. The plot thickens.
Jude visits the newlyweds and the emotional roller coaster continues when they are alone together, but Sue quickly retreats, rescinding an invitation to him to come and visit them again because they had been "too free" with each other. They meet again at their aunt's funeral. Here Sue confesses her unhappiness. They then negotiate how he may kiss her in parting. She will not permit the kiss of a lover, only of a cousin. He must swear to that. No, he will not. They turn to part. They turn back and, running into each other's arms, kiss passionately, on the mouth, one presumes, for indeed one would have expected their cheeks to have been worn thin after nearly two hundred pages of chaste embraces. "The kiss," writes Hardy, "was a turning-point in Jude's career."
The idea that our sexual natures are what doom us could only have occurred to a writer living in a society with a perverted concept of sexual desire. Victorian or Anglican England was certainly one such society, and therefore Jude concludes that what had seemed "the purest moment of his faultful life … was glaringly inconsistent" with "the idea of becoming the soldier and servant of a religion in which sexual love was regarded as at its best a frailty, and at its worst damnation" (an idea, by the way, that derives from Christian ignorance of Hebrew grammar and consequently a misunderstanding of Genesis 4:1, "Ve-ha-adam yada et hava …," reading it as "And Adam knew Eve" instead of "And Adam had known Eve," namely before the Expulsion and certainly not as a by-product of the Fall).Therefore Jude burns his religious texts, feeling unworthy now to be "a law-abiding religious teacher." Sue for her part is remorseful, and angry at Jude, but she does ask her husband for permission to live apart from him, even quoting John Stuart Mill in the process. Later, teaching at opposite ends of the local schoolhouse, they continue the discussion with an exchange of notes passed back and forth via one of their pintsized pupils, a scene that most writers would have played for laughs, given its absurdity, but which Hardy of course records with the utmost solemnity. In the end Phillotson consents to their living apart under the same roof. Though Sue, for all her special qualities, is initially presented as a fairly normal individual, Hardy goes to certain lengths to make her seem more and more odd and unstable as the novel progresses to explain her unorthodox behavior. The climax comes when she jumps out of her bedroom window when she wakes up to find her husband in the room, which he had entered from force of habit. Finally he agrees to let her go.
Jude and Sue are now together. Jude has also agreed to give Arabella a divorce so that she may marry her second husband legally. But things are never simple with Sue. Jude gets a room for them. Sue balks at sleeping with him and tells him why:
"My liking for you is not as some women's perhaps. But it is a delight
in being with you, of a supremely delicate kind, and I don't want to
go further and risk it by – an attempt to intensify it! I quite realized
that, as a woman with man, it was a risk to come. But as me with you, I resolved to trust you to set my wishes above your gratification. Don't
discuss it further, dear Jude!"
Jude submissively gets two rooms at another hotel, but it turns out to be the hotel where he had met Arabella to conclude the divorce arrangements. Sue throws a jealous fit. Another reconciliation. Another chaste kiss on Sue's cheek.
Phillotson in the meanwhile has had to resign his teaching position because of his scandalous behavior in giving his wife permission to join her lover. In the end he too consents to give her a divorce.
When Hardy picks up the story again the following year, Jude and Sue are still living together, more or less as brother and sister. Jude is now in the tombstone business, with Sue doing the lettering. They are also free to marry. However, Sue is afraid that the ironclad contractual basis of marriage would work to undermine their tender feelings for one another and would prefer to continue to live platonically. However, when Arabella turns up on their doorstep wishing to speak to Jude, Sue is almost hysterically opposed to his seeing her and now throws her arms around his neck and agrees to marry him, even tomorrow. Ordinarily one would attribute all this to simple jealousy, but Sue's responses are habitually so far removed from normal human behavior that it is difficult to know what is in her mind, and certainly Hardy is not suggesting that she is mentally unbalanced, far from it.
What Arabella has to say is that she and Jude have a son, for she had been pregnant when she left him. And since she is about to remarry her second husband and the boy is on his way from Australia, she wants Jude to take him in. Sue consents and a sad and wizened child joins their household.
Now the banns are published, but the dreariness of the civil ceremony at the town registrar's office causes Jude and Sue to walk out before it is their turn to be married. Subsequently, after observing a church wedding they opt out of that too and are back where they started. They then go off for a few days and when they return let it be understood that they are legally married. However, their mysterious circumstances cause them to be ostracized by their neighbors and they decide to leave the town. Three years later, with Jude now an itinerant stonemason, Sue runs into the now widowed Arabella and with amazing nonchalance Hardy has her inform Arabella that, in addition to Arabella's boy, Sue and Jude now have two children of their own with a third on the way. That Hardy has glossed over the most monumental event in the novel, what we have all been waiting for, so to speak, namely the act of sexual union between the two, is incomprehensible to me. All that teasing and then this.
Three-quarters of the way through the novel, Hardy now sets up, with consummate artificiality, the sequence of events that will carry it through to its tragic finale. "Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society," Phillotson has remarked. Back in Christminster, as Jude watches a procession of scholars, which brings home to him his failure to become one, Sue settles into their room. Now Hardy has the landlady improbably surmise that Sue and Jude are not really married, and Sue confesses that this is so, and explains again how they feared that the conditions of the contract would kill their love. That isn't quite good enough for the landlady's husband, who insists on evicting her.
Sue now goes looking for another room, taking her stepson with her. They are turned away at a dozen places. "I ought not to be born, ought I?" says the strange little boy. They go back to the room and have a long talk about their miserable circumstances and the boy bursts into tears when he learns they are going to have still another child. In the morning Sue leaves the children in the room and goes out to look for Jude. She finds him at an inn and they arrange to stay there together. When they go back to the room to pick up the children and their things, Sue finds the young ones hanging by the neck from the coathooks on the back of the closet door and the older one hanging from a nail in the wall.
I can't help remembering at this point Norman Podhoretz's remark about the cruelty not of nature and society but of John Updike in having Rabbit Angstrom's wife accidentally drown their infant in the bathtub as a form of literary retribution. I didn't agree with him at the time but I can see it now, as indeed being the obverse side of sentimentality, Hardy's and Updike's that is. To cap things off, Hardy has Sue deliver a stillborn child.
Where do you go from here? I think I know. I can feel it coming. Yes, Sue goes back to Phillotson and Jude goes back to Arabella. However, whereas I felt that Hardy might have something truly bold and imaginative up his sleeve, he disappoints by reverting to the commonplace. Sue gets religion, blaming herself for the children's deaths and feeling she has offended God by dissolving her lawful marriage to Phillotson and taking Jude from Arabella. And Phillotson remarries her. There is no love of course, and there is not meant to be any sex. As for Arabella, she gets Jude drunk and ensnares him again, marrying him for the second time. Jude languishes. He has in effect changed places with Sue, becoming an iconoclast, repudiating "the laws, customs, and dogmas" of society. Sick, and in a downpour, he goes to see her one last time. They kiss passionately and he proposes that they run away together, but she rejects the idea, determined to do the "ultimate penance" and drink her cup "to the dregs" by going now to Phillotson's bed. Jude wastes away and dies.
Jude the Obscure was condemned as immoral. This is puzzling, since not a few Englishmen kept mistresses, the more brazenly the higher they were born, and certainly had children out of wedlock. It was perhaps then the criticism of the institution of marriage as such that provoked so much wrath, as is always the case when hypocrisy is unmasked, not that Hardy should be seen as a social reformer. But it would be a mistake, I believe, to focus too much on this aspect of the novel, since it is attached to the person of Sue and is not really distinguishable from the rest of her idiosyncratic ideas, whatever Hardy's views in the matter might have been. Nor, I think, will it be entirely profitable to approach the novel from the angle of such conventional themes as the conflict between flesh and spirit or traditional and modern values. No, it is Hardy's terrible vision of life that is the issue here, that and nothing else; and while I was prepared to read a few more of his novels, I think these last two will suffice, for, together with The Return of the Native, they give one a very clear sense of how he saw the world. Still, I sample Far from the Madding Crowd and I know the story of The Mayor of Casterbridge. I also read a selection of his poems and stories and finally the revised Michael Millgate biography.
Hardy was born in 1840, in rural Dorset. His father was a mason, his mother had been a servant but was ambitious for her children. As a boy Hardy was somewhat sickly but seems to have had a fairly happy childhood. At the age of ten he was walking three miles to school in Dorchester (which would become the fictional Casterbridge). At 16 he was articled to a local architect. At 21 he went to London to work as a draftsman. There he was swallowed up by the life of a great city in much the same way that such a young provincial might have been swallowed up by a city like New York a hundred years later – consumed by ambition, dreaming of fame, seeking to attain some exalted station. However, he soon enough retreated from his Judelike ambition of a university education and Church career as well as his enthusiasm for the architectural profession. It was in fact the idea of a literary career that now exerted the greatest attraction. At the same time he was prone to bouts of depression, brought on perhaps less by the bleaker side of London life than by the burden of living with himself as he was – shy, sensitive, unassertive.
At 27 he was back in Dorset, continuing his architectural work (mostly church restorations) and producing an unpublished novel. At 30 he met his future wife (they were married four years later), a solicitor's daughter his own age and a step away from spinsterhood, with an element of entrapment involved but certainly not a faked pregnancy. The marriage would in fact be childless and not entirely happy. But now, with the success of Far from the Madding Crowd, his second published novel, his career as an architect effectively ended and he was subsequently able to live a financially independent and satisfying life as a professional writer, critically acclaimed and socially accepted.
There is no necessary connection between a writer's personal circumstances and his vision of the world. Sometimes, of course, there is misery at both ends, but even in these cases they may be unrelated. Proust remarked that even if the Remembrance had been an exact transcription of his own life, identical in every detail, the narrator would still not have been Marcel Proust. Hardy's tragic sense of life is not related to the manner in which his own life unfolded. In the last analysis the problems of his characters were not his problems. Whatever answers he found for himself, he found outside the framework of his novels.
Nor was this tragic sense of life associated with the tragedy of the human condition in the commonly understood everyday sense – with war, famine, disease, natural disaster, early death – or if it was, he found no place for it in his novels, for there is very little point in following the life of a character only to kill him off in an earthquake. Literary tragedy is the tragedy of individuals who struggle against themselves or against the world. The world that Hardy perceived was one without design or meaning where blind forces and pure chance or accident determined human fate. These forces were mirrored in human nature itself, which played itself out against the rigid conventions of human society such as Hardy encountered in Victorian England. This was an extreme vision, for while he believed that life could be even worse than it was and that therefore it was worth making the effort to ameliorate it, he agreed entirely with Sophocles that it was best not to have been born at all.
Hardy is perfectly right that it is our own natures and the nature of society that are the causes of human misery, but few people would agree that life is not worth living, though at the same time few would deny that most people do not get everything they want out of life. Our natures create desires (and needs) and society or our own limitations often frustrate them. The manner in which we accommodate ourselves to frustrated desires determines our state of mind or degree of happiness. In extreme cases, people end up like Hardy's heroes. More often, they lead lives of quiet desperation. Most often, they sail along on a fairly even keel, generally keeping close to a median line that brings them neither great happiness nor great unhappiness, and go to the grave "with the song still in them," as Thoreau put it. This is the condition of human life in its most developed stage, in the West, where there is generally enough to eat, heat in the winter and pills for most diseases.
The question then is not whether to live but how to live. Hardy does not and cannot supply an answer. Works of literature are not meant to solve problems; they are meant to represent the human condition. The extreme manner in which Hardy represents this condition is meant to underscore or highlight the general problem of being human. This problem may be thought of in terms of a series of barriers within ourselves and in the world which for most people are insurmountable. To circumvent such barriers something almost unthinkable is demanded – a kind of leap of faith that takes us out of ourselves and delivers us into a realm where there is no self and therefore no resistance to the self. Without such a self, chained to the same blind forces that govern physical life, we can perhaps be free to act in the world as emissaries of our better instincts. This is perhaps the only answer to the cruelty of nature and society.
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He has published stories in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, and others. His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.