How incomparably the immaterial dream dwarfed the grandest of substantial things, when here, between those three sublimities – the sky, the rock, and the ocean – the minute personality of this washer-girl filled his consciousness to its extremest boundary, and the stupendous inanimate scene shrank to a corner therein. (II.viii.)
That’s not a bad single-sentence summary of The Well-Beloved from right in the middle of the novel, when the sculptor Pierston is at his most solipsistic. This is when he is in his forties, pursuing the twenty-year-old daughter of the woman he jilted long ago. The form of the novel shapes my response to his solipsism. Hardy’s rocks and oceans feel as real as his characters; the washer-girl seems as real as Pierston. More so, honestly.
Pierston idealizes women to the extent that he becomes the idealized, unrealistic character. Early in the novel, Pierston confesses his pursuit of the imaginary Well-Beloved, who flits from woman to woman, to a more grounded friend, and is told that he is merely male and not that special. “’You are like other men, only rather worse’” (I.vii.). Just what I had been thinking!
Hardy routinely undercuts his protagonist. Just after the quotation up top, the washer-girl openly tells him that she herself is pretty flighty (“’I have loved fifteen a’ready!’”) but that Pierston is “’handsome and gentlemanly’” but “’too old’” – “’But you asked me, sir!’ she expostulated.”
“I have paid the penalty!” he said sadly. “Men of my sort always get the worst of it somehow.” (II.xii.)
Meanwhile the rest of the novel demonstrates the exact opposite.
If Pierston is too old in his forties, Hardy needs some help to make the final section credible, when he is in his sixties pursuing the Well-Beloved in the form of the twenty-year-old daughter of the washer-girl, the granddaughter of the woman he jilted in the early chapters. In a clever twist, the mother, ill and worn down, gets caught up in the romance of the novel. She pressures her daughter to marry Pierston, thinking it will somehow make up for all of the various disappointments of the past forty years.
Rejecting the first Avice, the second had rejected him, and to rally the third with final achievement was an artistic and tender finish to which it was ungrateful in anybody to be blind. (III.vi.)
These are the thoughts of that “second,” who rejected Pierston. She is the one seduced by the artistic finish, the satisfying happy ending, because it makes a good story. Luckily, her daughter, in line with the rest of the novel, is made of less dreamy stuff and is able to make her own ending.
Hardy returns to this idea at the novel’s end, in a kind of coda:
“That’s how people are – wanting to round off other people’s histories in the best machine-made conventional manner.” (III.viii.)
Unsurprisingly, Hardy resists this temptation. Remembering that The Well-Beloved is in some sense Hardy’s last published prose fiction, the last line looks like it serves more than one purpose:
At present he is sometimes mentioned as the “late Mr. Pierston” by gourd-like young art-critics and journalists; and his productions are alluded to as those of a man not without genius, whose powers were insufficiently recognized in his lifetime.