Wednesday, May 13, 2015

small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe - towards a Hardy ethos

Thomas Hardy owed George Eliot quite a debt.  He borrows her parties, her choruses of rustics – even Daniel Deronda had a chorus of rustics, for just a page – and a number of specific scenes.  The great climax of Adam Bede (1859) is a long scene where a young woman goes on a long walk.  There is a big complication I will not describe.  Hardy baldly steals the scene, complication and all.  He improves on Eliot by adding a magical dog, “the ideal embodiment of canine greatness” (Ch. 40).

It is a fine scene, a single chapter devoted to one character and one action, a woman walking to town, and having more trouble than it seems she ought to be having.  It could be detached from the novel without much trouble.  Large pieces of the novel are so written, as set-pieces.  Hardy and his shepherd spend five percent of the book (Chs. 36-38) trying to cover the grain ricks before a storm hits.  Way more exciting than it sounds.  Lots of lightning:

The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones – dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion.  With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light…  Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba's warm arm tremble in his hand – a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.  (Ch. 37)

Gabriel the shepherd is working for and in love with Bathsheba – it is her grain they are saving.  The second line shows how the character work, the drama, is carried along by what should not necessarily be a scene with much meaning.  In the next line, just before another lightning strike, the shepherd for some reason notes “how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light.”  It is this mix of tiny details and signs of an “infuriated universe” that now look to me like the most effective and unique aspect of Hardy’s art.

In one of the greatest scenes in the book, a woman is buried by the wrong person, and Nature rejects the burial.  This is Chapter 46, “The Gurgoyle: Its Doings,” the openly Ruskinian gargoyle scene.

The persistent torrent from the gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance upon the grave.  The rich tawny mould was stirred into motion, and boiled like chocolate…  The flowers so carefully planted by [] began to move and writher in their bed.  The inter-violets turned slowly upside down, and became a mere mat of mud.  Soon the snowdrop and other bulbs danced in the boiling mass like ingredients in a cauldron…

Here I was laughing not at Hardy’s jokes or prose but at his audacity, where the combined forces of Nature and English tradition re-sacralize a grave it or they see as desecrated.  Taking literally, this is ridiculous, as absurd as anything I have seen in Hardy except possibly the allegorical cartoon character from Jude the Obscure named Little Father Time.  Within the mythology of Wessex, though, it is to be expected.

Tomorrow: mythology.


  1. Bathsheba? Really? Is there an adultery plot?

    The storm scene is good; it's like that lightning-hitting-the-tree scene in "Jane Eyre." I always like it when the world gets personally involved in the story. The gargoyle is a great idea, too. I've only read Jude, and I thought that had cured me of Hardy, but some of this looks pretty cool.

  2. Bathsheba Everdene. All of the authentically rural characters have names like this. Gabriel Oak, Joseph Poorgrass, Fanny Robin. You know Baily Pennyways is going to turn out to be a bad dude just from his name.

    John Crowley does the same thing in Little, Big, a novel about fairies. Hardy is somehow known as a "realist."

    Anyway, off the track, sorry, there is not exactly an adultery plot because neither Bathsheba nor the David figure are married, and they do not sleep together before getting married - Victorian sensibilities at work - but otherwise, yes, there is a variant of that story.