Monday, May 11, 2015

Wasted through unheeding the comprehension: removing the Nymphean tissue from Far from the Madding Crowd

The first thing to say, as I launch into Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Thomas Hardy’s novel of loyal shepherds, lady farmers, and their troubles, romantic and ovine, is that I am maybe not such a good reader of Thomas Hardy.  I have not read that much – Jude the Obscure (1895), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and some poems, with Wessex Poems (1898) currently in progress – and I did not read those so well. Except the poems; I have always liked those.  I enjoyed Madding Crowd more than the other novels, and I like to think that means I am becoming a better Hardy reader, but there is some evidence that this earlier novel is easier, less complex or maybe more direct about its purpose.  The narrator is pretty direct, at least.

I want to get one big issue out of the way immediately: Hardy’s awful prose, the classic Hardy sentences, the ones where I wonder if English is his third language; if, like the talking moose head, he “learn it from a book.”

Gabriel Oak is the shepherd; he is watching a woman look at herself in a mirror:

Woman's prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight, which had clothed it in the freshness of an originality.  A cynical inference was irresistible by Gabriel Oak as he regarded the scene, generous though he fain would have been.  (Ch. 1)

The infirmity is vanity.  It is always the narrator, never the characters, who uses this language.  The southeast English shepherds surely do not talk this way.  The clue is that the vocabulary becomes Latinate.

Troy was full of activity, but his activities were less of a locomotive than a vegetative nature; and, never being based upon any original choice of foundation or direction, they were exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way.  Hence, whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech because that was spontaneous, he fell below the commonplace in action, from inability to guide incipient effort.  He had a quick comprehension and considerable force of character; but, being without the power to combine them, the comprehension became engaged with trivialities whilst waiting for the will to direct it, and the force wasted itself in useless grooves through unheeding the comprehension.  (Ch. 25)

The two pages describing Sergeant Troy are Hardy at his worst.  I have seen Hardy fans say that they do not notice lines like these.  How is that possible?  They are so ugly.  I would have thought that the true Hardy fan would not only notice them, but would learn to treasure them, would wallow in them, and would explain to me in, for example, a blog post how they are essential to Hardy’s aesthetic.

Shepherd Oak is looking at the heroine again; so is “criticism”:

Without throwing a Nymphean tissue over a milkmaid, let it be said that here criticism checked itself as out of place, and looked at her proportions with a long consciousness of pleasure.  (Ch. 3)

I have begun to enjoy these kinds of lines myself, but more in the nature of oddities, freaks of literature.  What crazy thing will this narrator say next?

The strange thing – and this is why I want to get the subject out of the way in the first post and never mention it again – is that these gummy mouthfuls are often followed, within a few lines, by fine writing, not just in the novelistic nature writing for which Hardy is best known, but in descriptions of movement, emotion, or speech.  How the good and bad sentences coexist is the mystery.

The different kinds of prose come from different kinds of thought.  It would be interesting to figure out how that works, how Hardy shifts the narrator form one mode to another.  But I do not yet understand what he is doing.  Maybe after the next novel.  Whatever I write next will only be about the one mode, the good one.


  1. I'm a big fan of Hardy. It's always tough to pick a favourite but if you stick me in the Iron Maiden, I'd probably say that The Return of the native comes tops. I think I tend to forgive my favourite authors for things--rather as we tend to forgive favourite people in our lives.

  2. I forgive, too, but I do not forget. My first question as a lover of literature is What is it?

    Return of the Native will be next, I think; soon, I hope. Tim Parks had an outstanding piece on the novel in the LRB last summer. Subscriber only, I guess.

  3. I don't like to read much literary criticism to be honest.

  4. Literary criticism is what you write!