Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thomas Hardy and the tragic and the (lack of) comic

Thinking about Thomas Hardy this week sent me back to Anthony Powell's take on him, which found its fullest expression in a review of J. I. M. Stewart's Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography for the Daily Telegraph in 1971. Powell opened the review by quoting T. S. Eliot's unforgettable damning of Hardy the novelist,
What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy's novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for so doing I have the gravest suspicion.
I expect that anyone who has read Jude the Obscure, jaw dropping in horror and astonishment at the worst of its scenes, would have trouble refuting Eliot's statement.

If, however, we can separate the worst of Hardy's excesses from the overall thrust of his novels, it's hard to deny the power of his fundamentally tragic vision--and Powell agrees:
Hardy . . . had a real grasp of the genuinely grotesque things that happen in life, even if at times these may be clumsily expressed. To this he added an enormous sense of "seriousness" in the motives of his writing. He wanted to do nothing less than rival Aeschylus and Shakespeare in representing the eternal conflicts of right and wrong, duty and inclination, and so on. At the ame time he hoped to propagate the supposed "new truths" that were making themselves known.
Powell goes on to quote a marvelously compact and insightful passage from Stewart, which he rightly notes "states the whole critical situation of Hardy and his novels":
Hardy in his novel-writing practice seems almost unhesitatingly to assume somethign really far from clear: that the elaborately "made up" plot of the popular Victorian novel could be manipulated or refined or elevated in such a way as to subserve both these grave intents.
It's a realization that would certainly not necessarily flow from reading Dickens, Thackeray, or even the relative realist Trollope, but it does seem to have informed Hardy from the almost the very start of his career.

Powell also pinpoints Hardy's greatest failing--to which, really, could be ascribed the tendency that so frustrated Eliot--a failure ever to see that the flip side of the grotesque is the funny:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.
Which leads me to a side note, mentioned by Powell: Proust and Hardy were fans of each other's work, a pairing that I find very hard to get my head around, its clash of styles, temperaments, and eras almost too much to contemplate.

Anyway, back to the main point: Edmund Gosse, in a passage I've quoted before from his obituary appreciation of his friend Hardy for the Sunday Times of January 15, 1928 addresses the central paradox that confronts anyone who knows Hardy's novels and his biography:
[Hardy] needed all the natural magic of his genius to prevent his work, interpenetrated as it was by this resigned and hopeless melancholy, from becoming sterile, but joy streamed into it from other sources--the joy of observation, of sympathy, of humour. Yet, after all, the core of Hardy's genius was austere and tragical, and this has to be taken into consideration, and weighed in every estimate of his writings. It was a curious fact, and difficult to explain, that this obvious aspect of his temperament was the one which he firmly refused to contemplate. The author of Tess of the D'Urbervilles conceived himself to be an optimist.
In a generous world we must all, I suppose, allowed to be wrong about ourselves, so long as we accept the fact that our friends, if they're worth the label, will always know better.


  1. Well, this is interesting. I've written a bit recently about comic scenes in George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, both quite funny when they want to be.

    I don't know Hardy well - just some poems and Jude, to which I reacted just as you describe. So you're saying if I go looking for humor in Hardy's fiction, it's going to be a long, hard search?

  2. Hardy does okay with a certain strain of knockabout rustic comedy--sort of like the early scenes in The Mil on the Floss--but overall he just takes everything so seriously that it's hard to imagine where humor, or even irony, might be able to enter.