George Levine. Reading Thomas Hardy.
Thomas Hardy's genius as a poet and artist has received as much praise as Lawrence's for decades, but his reputation as a novelist has constantly been marred by the pessimism ascribed to his plots. In this book, George Levine offers an alternative, "celebratory" reading to the predominantly pessimistic appraisal of Hardy's novels. Levine's aim is to highlight the enchantment of the natural world which Hardy points to through the nonhuman "understories" underpinning the moral human dramas. Levine thus convincingly argues throughout his study that underneath the gloom of the moral dramas which the stories foreground, lie Hardy's love of life and his desire to attract attention to its beauty and wonder. As the author of several studies on Victorian fiction and science, and particularly on Charles Darwin, Levine naturally calls upon other nineteenth-century novelists such as George Eliot and Mary Shelley to contrast their style and matter with Hardy's. But his main line of argument rests upon a correlation between Darwin's fascinated accounts of the workings of the plant and animal kingdoms and Hardy's inconspicuous admiration for the vital forces of nature.
While the book's summary and introduction may lure Lawrentians with hopes of some illuminating insights into Lawrence's praise and criticism of Hardy, the focus here is exclusively on Hardy. Levine frequently invokes Lawrence and Virginia Woolf superficially to introduce or confirm a point he wants to make, without discussing their readings of Hardy or their own poetic visions in comparison with Hardy's. Lawrentians may be slightly puzzled to find Lawrence being used as a qualifier in phrases such as "the Lawrentian Hardy," or mildly annoyed at the repetitive occurrences of his apparent frustration with Hardy ("Lawrence complains," "to Lawrence's chagrin"), although we will easily admit that Lawrence did his fair share of grumbling.
The driving argument of Hardy's cautious delight in the natural world is developed in five chapters and an interlude--which is a chapter in its own right. Levine takes a wide-ranging look at all of Hardy's fiction, with a particular focus on lesser-known novels such as The Well-Beloved and Two on a Tower, offering valuable analyses of neglected passages or revisiting major sections in the light of the nonhuman "understories."
Chapter 1, "Shaping Hardy's Art: Vision, Class, and Sex," introduces the importance, in Levine's view, of these "understories" in Hardy's fiction, which counterbalance the human catastrophes narrated in the main stories: "there is always an understory and life is not all about humans, their needs, and desires." Hardy and his protagonists are caught between the attraction of vital, sexual energies and the restraint imposed by social conventions, a tension "that predictably issues in disasters for protagonists," though not for the writer himself, who, Levine repeatedly asserts, desperately clung to Victorian respectability despite the appeal of passion. The "understories" therefore enable Hardy to indulge in the wonder of natural life while contrasting it with the social ordeals his characters undergo. The chapter persuasively concludes: "This habit of Hardy's of reminding readers of the lives of nonhuman others--not only pheasants and rabbits and birds but ants and moths and slugs--gives to his nervously defensive and gloomy art a vitality, a sense of the value of life, that resists his own shame at being ashamed that so often structures his plots. The juxtapositions are never merely ornamental, but intimations of another kind of narrative that is essential to the nature of Lawrentian life."
The demonstration continues in the following chapter, "Hardy and Darwin: An Enchanting Hardy?", which endeavors to redress Darwin and Hardy's reputations of having an essentially bleak vision of life by showing that both writers' matter and style do in fact direct attention to the enchantment of the nonhuman world and suggest possibilities of fullness--an analysis which readers of Lawrence will find convincing. In a series of pertinent examples taken from The Origin of Species and various Hardyan novels, Levine correlates Darwin's principle of universal connectedness with the attention and value Hardy assigns to the nonhuman lives of the smallest of beings. This "feeling for the richness of life," Levine contends, infuses the world with meaningfulness "that makes even of defeat and loss something very much worth living for."
In the third chapter, "The Mayor of Casterbridge: Reversing the Real," Levine exhibits Hardy's departure from the Victorian realism to be found in Eliot and Trollope, pinpointing for instance how the motif of marriage, habitually the Victorian realist's happy ending, is ironically treated both at the end and the beginning of Hardy's novel. The parallel this chapter draws between Hardy and Lawrence regarding the challenge to Victorian moral and literary conventions is of some relevance to Lawrentians. Starting with a quote from Lawrence: "In The Mayor of Casterbridge the dark villain is already almost the hero," Levine goes on to analyze the protagonist, Henchard, as "a Lawrentian figure," filled with vital energy and passion pitted against rigid social conventions. What appealed to Lawrence was the character's recklessness and heroism of desire, which also held a large degree of attraction for Hardy. The novel, however, is fraught with ambivalence, as the passionate characters are ultimately punished, yet admired, and thus it provides an interesting insight into Hardy's struggle with a paradox that Lawrence overcame. Levine here pointedly stresses why Hardy could not be Lawrence: "A tension develops in Hardy between the irrational powers that threaten social and psychic stability and the aesthetic shape he gives to his narratives. His preoccupation with perspective is one of the formal elements that keep him from being Lawrence."
The last three chapters of the study explore Hardy's vision of art and the role of the artist through the prisms of Jude the Obscure and The Well-Beloved. In the interlude, "Jude and the Power of Art," Levine shows how Hardy's art deviates from naturalism and wrestles with representations of enchantment and the ideal in a material world. Another brief comparison is made between Hardy's and Lawrence's conceptions of the physical and the spiritual: for Thomas Hardy, Levine asserts, the two notions are incompatible and therefore breed disaster for the protagonists, while Lawrence "believed that the only real spirituality was in and through the body." The fulfillment of the body Lawrence's novels seek and celebrate is thus denied in Jude and sexual desire is rejected altogether. However, the chapter argues, Hardy believed that the work of the artist is to overcome the paradox of the incompatibility of ideal and material, and of the necessity of the ideal to give meaning to the material. This idea is further developed in the fourth chapter, "From Mindless Matter to the Art of the Mind: The Well-Beloved," whose aim is to retrace Hardy's quest for the possibility of attaining the ideal through art and conveying the beauty of the material world without disaster. As a starting point, Levine sets Hardy's perception of consciousness against that of the modernists, but as elsewhere in the book, the parallel is not elaborated on and the discussion quickly centres on Hardyan novels' lack of exploration of consciousness and Hardy's resolution of yet another paradox: the mind's workings are impossible to understand, since, in the light of Darwin's theory, consciousness is a product of mindlessness. Yet consciousness gives meaning to mindless matter and is the source of art. The chapter concludes that the mind's incompatibility with nature, which leads to disaster, is transformed by art into tragedy.
The final chapter, "The Poetry of the Novels" is a somewhat less convincing correlation of the two previous chapters' argument on the role of art, and of the beginning of the study regarding the value of human and nonhuman life. Nevertheless, Levine's synthesis of Hardy's poetic intent is clear and detailed, reverting to the novelist's affinities with a Darwinian experience of the world to uphold his reading of Hardy's stories as an exploration of the possibilities of finding beauty and fullness in the apparently formless and mindless world, and resisting the ghastly and grotesque.
Despite the numerous mentions of Lawrence as a major critic of Hardy (featured in the index, which otherwise proves very helpful), Lawrentians may be dissatisfied with this volume's use of Lawrence either as an uncriticized point of reference--Hardy's fear of breaking with the conventions is gaged against Lawrence's disregard for respectability--or as a severe critic who mostly appears frustrated with Hardy as a powerful yet timid novelist, and serves as higher authority for Levine's argument. Nonetheless, the leitmotif of Hardy's struggle as a novelist to conciliate his yearning to break free from Victorian moral and literary conventions and his aspiration to respectability, does reveal by contrast Lawrence's freedom from such concerns. The argument of enchantment or re-enchantment of the post-Darwinian, post-Nietzschean world also interestingly resonates with Lawrence's English- and foreign-based fiction.
Paris Nanterre University
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|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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