My readers will recall, I hope, an essay in this series, "Joseph Conrad and the Quest for Truth," in which I wrote of a new movement in art lasting from the 1890s into the 1930s, a movement which took art very seriously, almost religiously. I also discussed a critical technique (New Criticism) allied to it that offered a way to analyze and understand this art. Problems arise, however, when it is used indiscriminately to analyze work that does not belong to the modern school. There's nothing wrong with close textual analysis per se, the main method of New Criticism, but it will yield less when applied to Wordsworth than to T. S. Eliot, and the animating idea behind the analysis, that the text will reveal profound and subtle ideas about life, can be greatly exaggerated, leading to very fanciful readings.
I have written that little preface to a consideration of the work of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) because he was not a modern writer in the sense that Conrad was, although they were contemporaries. In fact, Hardy gave up novel-writing just a couple of years after Conrad began, and went on to write and publish only poetry -- but I'm getting ahead of my story. Born in humble rural circumstances in the county of Devon, an area rich in folklore that would greatly influence his work, Hardy became an architectural draughtsman, with a yearning to write poetry. Recognizing that he couldn't make a living at that, he tried writing fiction, unsuccessfully at first, but his second novel earned some money, as did the next, and his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) was quite successful. Now he was able to give up his architectural job and get married.
Writing novels was a way to make a living, and he was very deferential, especially in the early years, to editorial opinion. Beginning with his fourth novel, his works were serialized, and editors insisted on bowdlerizing them before they appeared in magazines (Hardy would restore the cuts in the book edition), but after all, editors controlled access to his audience. He was always scrupulously professional, delivering copy on schedule, fulfilling promises, doing his best.
The original vein that he worked so well in his best novels was the life of the Dorset countryside, which he immortalized as "Wessex," taking the name from the ancient post-Roman kingdom. Farm laborers are omnipresent as a chorus, while the central figures are somewhat higher in the social scale, e.g., farmers or merchants. The country life and work is not background but is woven into the life of the characters. Hardy was intensely interested in the old customs and folk tales, and they contribute to the density of his work, making the reader feel that the characters are embedded in history, that we see them moving against a tapestry of which they are a part. Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and Far from the Madding Crowd are his only novels with happy endings. The first is slight, a pastoral idyl, but the second is more complex and interesting. The protagonist, Gabriel Oak, naive and impetuous in the beginning, suffers trials that endow him with great patience and good-humored gravity, growing him into a very attractive figure, both to the reader and to the spirited and willful Bathsheba Everdene, who Gabriel eventually wins in a wonderful scene at the end.
The next Wessex novel, The Return of the Native (1878), brings up what I shall call Hardy's metaphysical problem. He had a dour outlook, and he rejected the Christian God, substituting a vague force indifferent to humanity and its concerns. But he had an unfortunate habit, especially in his later novels, of dropping remarks ("'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess") that suggested that he thought the force was not merely indifferent but malign. The notion that the gods are cruelly playing with our lives deprives a novelist's characters of integrity, making them hapless victims. He denied this, claiming that such remarks were only his fanciful way of expressing himself, but that's absurd: an author cannot say things in his own voice in a novel and then dismiss them. In Return, the many crucial coincidences that help to wreck the lives of the characters make them seem like puppets. Some of the characters and scenes are vivid, but everything -- plot, people, conversations -- is heavily melodramatic, as if Hardy's skill as a writer was distorted when the metaphysical pressure was too great. His last novels, Tess of the d'urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1897), suffer from the feeling of supernatural doom, and while the plot of Tess is improbably melodramatic, Jude's is absurd and repellent. Hardy had an unhappy marriage, and this is an anti-marriage tract (anti-Christian, to boot), grim and desolate. He was so annoyed by the harsh critical response that he gave up writing novels and turned to his first love, poetry. Over the next thirty years until his death he published eight volumes of poetry as well as the three-volume verse drama, The Dynasts. He is that unusual case (Sir Walter Scott is the only other I can think of) of a writer equally famous as a novelist and a poet.
The next Wessex novel after Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), is Hardy's masterpiece, a tragedy caused by the character of its protagonist, Michael Henchard. The first scene (as in classic tragedy) contains the seeds of future calamity, and its coarse brutality and underlying sensitivity shadows the book, lurking behind a gesture or a word, building a sense of uneasiness in the reader. Henchard, a skilled farm laborer in search of work, with his wife and very young child, appears at an annual country fair. We know already from their description as they approach the fair, that he is taciturn and she is submissive. They stop at a refreshment tent where he proceeds to get drunk and put up his wife at auction. The scene, fantastic in itself, is made grimly real by Hardy's descriptions of the reactions of the witnesses, who take it as a joke at first, but when a passing sailor makes a bid and actually puts down the cash, ". . . the jovial frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid color seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect of all therein." Susan throws her wedding ring in Henchard's face and leaves with the sailor, "sobbing bitterly." A sense of shock is apparent in the subdued remarks of the spectators standing at the door wondering about the sailor. Henchard returns "doggedly to his seat," declaring he won't go after her.
The guilty regret just hinted here is enough to endow the scene with tragic foreboding, which unalloyed brutality would never have done. The combination of hasty anger followed by sore guilt is the master motif of Henchards' character, and Hardy's subtle portrayal of it in this initial scene shows his artistry. The others leave and Henchard falls asleep. The next chapter opens with the dawn when Henchard awakens, remembers what he has done, and determines to find Susan and the child. First he goes into an empty church and swears a vow on a Bible not to drink liquor for twenty years. His fruitless search goes on for months, and eventually he gives up and heads for Casterbridge. The next chapter takes place eighteen years later at the same place and time of year and once again Susan and her daughter are approaching the fair. The sailor, Newson, has died (it is supposed) in a shipwreck off Newfoundland, and Susan is seeking Henchard, telling Elizabeth only that he's a "relative by marriage." She speaks to the woman who ran the refreshment tent and learns that Henchard left word with her that he went to Casterbridge. Thither they go in the next chapter to discover Henchard, mayor of the town, at a banquet. They learn that he's a prosperous merchant, a hay and grain dealer. I won't tell more of the plot, but the reader can see that Henchard's initial brutal act is bound to have momentous consequences for a man in his position, especially because he is the same man with the same character: impulsive, uncalculating, fierce in his loyalties and repulsions. The rest of the book is the story of his downfall, brought on entirely by himself, by his greed for love that makes him alienate everyone even as love is within his grasp. When he dies, rejected and broken in spirit, he leaves this statement:
Michael Henchard's Will
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. & that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground. & that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me. To this I put my name. --Michael Henchard.
It is a characteristic act, defiant but an implicit admission of guilt, and it is very moving.
The Mayor of Casterbridge would not be a tragedy if it were marred by the supernatural determinism of his later novels, nor would it be so impressive if Hardy had not portrayed, with unerring insight, not only Henchard but all the other major characters by showing them in thought and action in and around the town, peopled by the kind of Wessex characters we know so well from other Hardy novels. The town, closely surrounded and permeated by the countryside, pulsates with life, a vibrant milieu in which the characters move and mingle. Hardy is not subtle like Henry James, nor a truth-seeker like Conrad, but he wrote a tragedy which has no equal in English literature since Shakespeare.
A Postscript of Interest
I don't know how far my message reaches, but it is not far enough, because I still see conservatives committing assault and battery on literary culture, as in a recent National Review, where "Ten Great Conservative Novels" are considered, and all are lousy for reasons that regular readers of this column should understand: they are admired for their message, not their writing. I haven't read all ten, but I've read, or tried to read, most of them.
Midcentury, by John Dos Passos. The author made his name with the USA trilogy, but even at his best (in the first volume, The Forty-Second Parallel, when he's drawing on childhood memories) he's not a very good writer. His characters are cardboard because he was more interested in ideas than people. Midcentury is absolutely inert. When Dos Passos was a lefty in the 1920s, and 1930s, his faith burned bright and gave USA whatever life the trilogy had, but no matter how conservatism stimulated his mind, it could not give life to his fiction. I have always admired Dos Passos. When he saw in Spain what the Communists were up to, he repudiated them, taking a lot of flak from the Left (including Hemingway), and wrote a pretty good novel about his disillusion, Adventures of a Young Man. He was a good man, and his memoir, The Best Times, is worth reading. But he was not a first-rate writer, and Midcentury is one of the deadest books I've ever tried to read.
Another one of these prize novels is Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet. He wrote only one good novel, a picaresque affair called The Adventures of Augie March. The rest of his novels suffer from the author's preoccupation with ideas at the expense of characters. It's very simple: if the characters do not live, what they supposedly think is of no interest. Bellow was fascinated by himself and his thoughts, a fatal fixation for any writer.
Walker Percy, another conservative writer revered for his message, is praised here for The Thanatos Syndrome, another novel I tried to read but couldn't because I was immediately put off by what I call conceptual cliches, platitudes, not of language but thought. One, beloved by second-rate writers, is the reversal of expectations. So the character who's conventionally disreputable will turn out to be the hero, the character who seems liberal and sophisticated will wind up a bigot, and the one who seems a bigot will finally be the one with a big heart, etc. Percy was another writer ruined by ideas, because he considered characters only means to an end.
Cormac McCarthy's crudities and vulgarities overwhelm his books. I don't know about his ideas in No Country for Old Men because I couldn't stay with him long enough to find any.
Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities is the "conservative" book I most detest because it is so trashily written, because it revels in the excrement that two generations of wretched writers have made of our fiction. Every description is a cliche and a sour one, and every occurrence and character is a cliche, mostly disgusting. To read the book is to feel dirty. It directly inspired the creation of this column a few years ago when I saw conservatives falling all over themselves to praise it. Not only is this another case of a writer concerned more with ideas than characters, but Wolfe is a writer who's joined the ranks of the destroyers of culture. *
"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson