Monday, March 21, 2016

“But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.” - Thomas Hardy in a sentence, plus more metal Hardy from The Return of the Native

Am I a good reader of Thomas Hardy’s novel?  I most surely am not!  Please keep that in mind for the next few days as I work on The Return of the Native (1878).

The difference of temperaments is one problem:

“But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.”  (Book Fifth, Ch. 9)

This line comes near the end of the novel, after an unlikely catastrophe.  Reading this line, am I supposed to burst into laughter?  That is what I did.

But here is what follows after that line:

“They say that a time comes when men laugh at misery through long acquaintance with it.  Surely that time will soon come to me!”

Wait, maybe I am supposed to laugh.  Maybe my temperament is not so different from Hardy’s.  I always get along well with his poetry, which I think of as a purer expression of his self.

I have no problem with the poetry of The Return of the Native, by which I mostly mean imagery in heightened language.  It is the hottest day of the year, and an old woman is wandering around on the exposed heath:

She looked at the sky overhead, and saw that the sapphirine hue of the zenith in spring and early summer had completely gone, and was replaced by a metallic violet.  (V, 5)

The language, and her perceptivity, reflects her heightened emotional state:

There lay the cat asleep on the bare gravel of the path, as if beds, rugs, and carpets were unendurable.  The leaves of the hollyhocks hung like half-closed umbrellas, the sap almost simmered in the stems, and foliage with a smooth surface glared like metallic mirrors…  among the fallen apples on the ground beneath were wasps rolling drunk with the juice, or creeping about the little caves in each fruit which they had eaten out before stupefied by its sweetness.  (V, 5)

The great flexibility of the novel can be seen here.  A painter cannot speculate, by means of simile, on the motivation of the cat, nor can he move inside the hollyhocks or describe the state of mind of the wasps.  What does the repetition of the word “metallic” mean, to the character, or the narrator?

In the next chapter, the same character, still out on the heath, sees a symbolic heron:

He had come dripping wet from some pool in the valleys, and as he flew the edges and lining of his wings, his thighs, and his breast were so caught by the bright sunbeams that he appeared as if formed of burnished silver.  Up in the zenith where he was seemed a free and happy place, away from all contact with the earthly ball to which she was pinioned; and she wished that she could arise uncrushed from its surface and fly as he flew then.  (V, 6)

Again, metallic, using different words, and a return to the zenith from the beginning of the previous chapter, now invested by the character with enormous meaning.  “Pinioned” is a funny word here, not quite a pun but a return to the old meaning of the word.

When we next meet the woman, she has gotten her wish, or perhaps a grotesque parody of her wish.

This side of Hardy I am reading all right, I guess.


  1. May I quibble with the notion of a "right" way of reading Hardy (or anyone else for that matter)? If a text is a mirror, then each perceptive reader sees something different if he or she is willing to gaze carefully. And to my mind, the text as mirror is the appropriate metaphor. Then the notion of "right" way of reading might become less important than the attentive gaze.

  2. I do not believe I mentioned a right way of reading.

    How horrible, the thought that a text is a mirror. Then all I would see is myself. What would be the point? I get all too much of myself all day long. Who needs more?

    Yes, care, attention. What I am suggesting at the beginning of the post is that I am not sufficiently attentive or careful with Hardy.

  3. Not at all horrible; all texts have no existence except through reading, and each reading is a different experience. Consider a line (with a different context and meaning) in Antony and Cleopatra 5.1:
    When such a spacious mirror’s set before him,
    He needs must see himself.

    1. And you said:
      This side of Hardy I am reading all right, I guess.

      Your Hardy will never be the same as my Hardy or anyone else's. The mirror is the variable.

    2. For more on the mirror metaphor, check out Harold C. Goddard's essay on _Hamlet_ in _The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1_. Perhaps his use of the metaphor will be more tolerable and sensible than mine.

  4. "All right" is an expression meaning "okay," "satisfactory." "I guess I'm doing okay with it." Not that I'm reading Hardy the "right" way.

    I think we disagree on what a mirror is. Also what a text is. I didn't know you were a Berkleyite. As Dr, Johnson said, "I refute thee thus! Ow, my toe!"

    If literature were just a means to study myself, I would give it up for gardening or lepidoptery or scrimshaw.

  5. I think I might have given away my Goddard. I'll have to check. I don't remember him being such a French theorist.

  6. I can resist anything except the temptation to quote a little Lichtenberg to lighten up the mood. "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out." :)

  7. Philip Larkin's A Study Of Reading Habits sums up the effect of using books as mirrors. There is a pun in 'pinioned': it's meaning of 'held down' actually comes from 'pinion' as a bird's wing. Originally 'pinion' as a verb meant to immobilise a bird by tying its wings so it... ties, shall we say? with the heron above.

  8. Right, that is exactly what I meant by "not quite a pun." Perhaps I compressed too much. The character's flight feathers have been clipped. The "held down" meaning is secondary, and I guess I am thinking too close to the more specialized meaning, just a weakening. I want a pun to have some distance.

    But I don't want to be pun police.

    Larkin and Lichtenberg are in rough agreement, or pretend to be.

  9. Some lovely bits, Tom... Might have to rummage up a copy, though the heap to be read is so high.

  10. I have more to quote from this chapter, which is full of good things, so basically in a couple of days it will be as if you have read it. Close enough.