Tuesday, November 22, 2016

excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave - the winter day emerged like a dead-born child - Hardy describes things

With The Woodlanders, I’ll skip the classic bad Hardy sentences, having made any point I might have back when I wrote about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, except for this wonderful specimen:

But to give the lie to her assertion she was seized with lachrymose twitches, that soon produced a dribbling face.  (Ch. 45)

Isn’t that something?  It is like a riddle.  I can see how a good Hardy reader develops a taste for these.  I may have developed a taste for them.

The descriptive passages in The Woodlanders have a strong flavor.  The narrator can sound nuts:

There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child…  Owls that had been catching mice in the outhouses, rabbits that had been eating the winter-greens in the gardens, and stoats that had been sucking the blood of the rabbits, discerning that their human neighbours were on the move discreetly withdrew from publicity, and were seen and heard no more from nightfall.  (Ch. 4)

The novel has barely begun, and the sun is rising like a dead baby.  Nothing in the story, at this early point, matches the bleak imagery of the narrator, nor is this specific foreshadowing.  It is the narrator seeing something that his characters cannot see. His paganism is les explicit than in The Return of the Native, less attached to the characters, however much one resembles a fruit-god, but is often present in the descriptions:

… slimy streams of green moisture, exuding from decayed holes caused by old amputations, ran down the bark of the oaks and elms, the rind below being coated with a lichenous wash as green as emerald.   They were stout-trunked trees, that never rocked their stems in the fiercest gale, responding to it entirely by crooking their limbs.  Wrinkled like an old crone's face, and antlered with dead branches that rose above the foliage of their summits, they were nevertheless still green – though yellow had invaded the leaves of other trees. (Ch. 27)

The trees are consistently interesting and strange.  Two exhausted women are lost in the woods at night, cold, so that they “clasped each other closely.”  Overhead, “the funereal tress rocked and chanted dirges unceasingly” (Ch. 33).  Again, the trees seem to know something that the characters do not.

It is not just the forest that is fun.  Look at these old playing cards

that had been lying by in a drawer ever since the time that Giles’s grandmother was alive.  Each card had a great stain in the middle of its back, produced by the touch of generations of damp and excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave; and the kings and queens wore a decayed expression of feature, as if they were rather an impecunious dethroned dynasty hiding in obscure slums than real regal characters.  (Ch. 10)

Which I suppose is closer to what they are.  Yes, yesterday I quoted a different passage invoked “a city slum.”  They are the only two in the novel.  I do not understand how they might be connected, and am puzzled by every mention of the city in this profoundly rural and sylvan novel, where the characters, plot, imagery, and language are all tangled in the depths of forest.


  1. Back in graduate school I was quite the Hardy fan. I read all the top-tier books and then dabbled in the second-tier books. The truth is Hardy cranked them out. He had to make a living. But as second-tier work goes, I thought it was pretty good overall.

  2. Your vote is that Hardy was a hack. All right. That is not an explanation I remember seeing. Or are you just referring to specific novels? I don't know anything about how most of them were written. Tess, though, "cranked out" is not how I would describe the process on that one.

    Nor this one, just based on the text. Maybe the argument is that Hardy was not a good hack. Too much art. He could have just said that character burst into tears and zipped on.

    Honestly, 14 short-to-medium novels in 25 years does not seem, in Victorian terms, or today's, like such vigorous cranking.

  3. Fascinating quotations: that 'dead baby' image is extraordinary. It's so long since I read this I'd need to go back to it. You're unerring in your putting your finger on TH's style and methods - excellent stuff. Maybe you're right to query his being a hack; but at the level of sentences - some of these do look 'cranked out', as you've suggested in Tess, and to some extent here. He often seems at pains to display his erudition and vocabulary, and this presents as verbosity.

  4. Oh, I never thought Hardy's sentences were "cranked out," even the worst of them. I think he worked hard at them. I think he liked them that way, trying to do in prose what he would have rather done in verse.

    Maybe we all mean something different by "cranked out." "She burst into tears" is more what I think of as cranked out - written fast for money - but "lacrhymose twitches" looks hand-crafted to me.

  5. Yeah, look at what tremendous effort he makes to avoid cliche. It's anything but lazy and quick.

  6. The winter/dead baby simile just might be the most shocking/effective I've ever read. I recall writer's advice: never use a figure of speech that has been previously used by someone else. I suspect no one will ever coopt the unforgettable and imitable winter/dead baby trope. Horrible! I might never again think of winter in the same way. Thanks.

  7. Vera Nabokov once said that the truly great literary accomplishment Vladimir Nabokov made was to never use a cliche nor to repeat himself.

  8. A shocking simile - it sure is. A surprise in context, too, right at the beginning of an early chapter. Nothing in the novel so far has been that grim. A glimpse of some horror behind the story.

    Hardy's sense of good taste is quite different than mine, but I think he is doing just what Scott says - avoiding cliches and conventional language, even at the risk of the comical verbosity Simon mentions.

  9. You have moved on; I'm still working on The Woodlanders, following it up with Lady Chatterly's Lover and then Lawrence's essay on Hardy (waiting for it from Interlibrary Loan). Lawrence reminds me of Dostoyevsky--a terrible writer of sentences, but a great writer of ideas, even when they're hamfistedly presented. So far Lady Chatterley is taking a great deal of time to work up speed, but it's Hardyesque in that characters that are out of place in their landscape are always in trouble in some way; those that are grounded in place are also less interesting, since they lack the conflict that being out of joint creates. When my Hardy seminar is over I intend to read more Lawrence to see whether his uneven genius spreads across his other novels.

  10. "the conflict that being out of joint creates" - yes, that's good, that's helpful.

    Hardy, at the sentence level, makes me say "wow" a lot. Sometimes "wow, that's great," sometimes "wow, that's terrible." My experience with Lawrence has been similar, although Lawrence is I guess more willing to risk wretchedly bad lines in his poetry.

    I need to spend more time with Lawrence too, and not just his poems.