Wednesday, November 23, 2016

part of the pattern in the great web of human doings - Hardy can't describe moss

In a way my favorite description in The Woodlanders is the one where Hardy’s narrator admits defeat:

Further on were other tufts of moss in islands divided by the shed leaves – variety upon variety, dark green and pale green; moss like little fir-trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss.  (Ch. 42)

He piles on the metaphors, but in the end the moss overwhelms his baroque poeticism.

Hardy piles them onto his characters, too, not to describe their appearance but their – what? – their position in the universe.

In this room sat she who had been the maiden Grace Melbury till the finger of fate touched her and turned her to a wife.  (Ch. 25)

The scene to him was not the material environment of his person, but a tragic vision that travelled with him like an envelope.  (Ch. 32)

Several times the characters are moved into Norse mythology, as when Grace tries to attract the attention of the wood-God, Giles, while he is high up in a tree, “motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him” (Ch. 13).  The tree is not lost in the fog – Giles is perfectly visible from below – but rather the character’s mind.

Thus the primary mechanism of the plot, the means of separating characters who should marry and pushing them towards those they should not, is a constant series of small misunderstandings.  “Grace had been wrong – very far wrong – in assuming that…” (Ch. 39), and it hardly matters what she is wrong about in this case.  The same line could be used throughout the novel, substituting other characters for Grace.  Characters do not quite see what they should, or see it and make the wrong interpretation.

I thought the strongest ethical argument to emerge from the novel – no idea if Hardy had it in mind – was the importance of allowing multiple interpretations of the behavior of other people.  Maybe even be generous.  The characters in The Woodlanders like to pick one possibility and cling to it.

And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn. (Ch. 3)

In the first chapter, the narrator even declares that the forest village sees “dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean,” which now seems like over-promising.  The scale of The Woodlanders is human, compared to the cosmic horror of Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, or even to the long reach of history as in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  The pagan relics and Roman ruins are not so visible among the trees.

In an 1895 Preface, Hardy claims that The Woodlanders is about “the question of matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle – given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation.”  If that were the case, he could have handled it with a lot less fuss.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. (I also post under the name Christopher Lord, my nom de plume, in case you hadn't made the connection).

    Hardy's plots so often turn on misheard statements, overheard conversations, and misunderstandings. Here, the graffiti on Giles's cottage is just one example along with Marty overhearing the convenient and clunky exposition in Chapter 1.

    Re: the great web, the Penguin paperback has a note stating that Hardy had in his notebook the statement "The human race to be shown as one great network or tissue, which quivers in every part when one part is shaken, like a spider's web if touched."

    Also note here the frequent Platonic references, where people are cast in the shadows between a fire and cave-like dark place, showing that individual people are mere impressions of the ideal. Fire is again a significant motif, as it is in Return of the Native, and attached to pagan rituals here as it is in that novel, and so many other places in Hardy, where the vestiges of the past are almost always within reach of the more "civilized" present.

    If you are done with The Woodlanders, I hope you'll read more Hardy after this. I recommend "Under The Greenwood Tree," his second and "happy" novel, which is the novel I have paired with Tess for the seminar I'm leading in early 2016.

    And, because the holiday season is upon us, you should read (if you haven't already) the great poem "The Oxen," which is just about everything Hardy believed in a nutshell, and still moves this atheist in ways I don't quite understand.

  2. "The Oxen" is wonderful.

    Thanks for recommending Under the Greenwood Tree. I want to read The Well-Beloved but otherwise have had doubts about where to go.

    Your Platonic "allegory of the cave" idea is quite interesting. I see that, in my notes, I have some relevant passages, but I did not use them while writing because I did not understand what I was seeing.

    Thus, though, the constant failures of interpretation, if the characters can never see more than the shadows of each other.