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Thomas Hardy's the well-beloved: a "Ghost" story.

The Well-Beloved attends to the complexities and anxieties of creative consciousness. While Hardy, characteristically, remains non-committal throughout, a speculation surfaces about the status of the artist, the relationship of the artist and the world, and the tendency of art to falsify. The artist hero Jocelyn Pierston is an explorer feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown beauty. It is his desire to find the ideal of woman ("the Well-Beloved") and translate her beauty into a sculptural form that impels him to wander. So among Hardy's preoccupations in the novel is a need to register the notion of wandering as a metaphorical referent for the hero's journey in search of ideal beauty, which is in fact beyond the limits of his own power. This essay invites the reader to consider the nature of Pierston's wandering, thereby aiming to underline that The Well-Beloved reflects Hardy's aesthetic and mores beyond his own fin de siele, which could be described as distinctively postmodern.


The serial version of The Well-Beloved appeared before Jude the Obscure in weekly parts in the Illustrated London News from October 1 to December 17, 1892. So Jude the Obscure (1895) is generally regarded as Hardy's last novel. However, The Well-Beloved was published as a complete novel after Jude the Obscure on March 16, 1897, as the seventeenth volume in Osgood and McIlvaine's edition of the Wessex Novels (Purdy 1954, 92). Furthermore, this edition involves a radical redaction of the serial version and has a completely different ending. For this reason, The Well-Beloved in this final form could reasonably be acknowledged as Hardy's last novel.

Although The Well-Beloved is the last of Hardy's published novels, it is not considered a great work, at least not to the same standard as Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891). Even so, some of the philosophical and aesthetic issues it raises make it quite possibly the most intriguing and potentially most rewarding of Hardy's works. A comparison of The Well-Beloved and its serial version, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, reveals at least two compelling facts. (1) First, all the explanatory and argumentative elements in the serial version, which are adopted again in Jude the Obscure, completely disappear in The Well-Beloved. Sarcasm against the institution of matrimony is carefully removed, so that The Well-Beloved goes without such remarks as "she was her husband's property" and "they talked in complete accord of the curse of matrimony" (PWB, 39). In the serial version, formal legal marriage is bitterly denounced as "the pious fraud" (PWB, 162) or barbarism, "licensed as it might be by engrossings, fees, stamps and ceremonies" (PWB, 156), yet this denunciation is excised from The Well-Beloved. Instead, suggestive visual references increase, as in the pictorial description of the forked roads in the Isle of Slingers that is discussed below. Second, the revised version affords more strict attention to its structure, most notably by arranging the contrasts between self-controlling Avice Caro and impulsive Marcia, illiterate Ann Avice Pierston and intellectual Nichola Pine-Avon, and young Avice Pierston and old Marcia Bencombe in Book First, Book Second, and Book Third, respectively. The general effect of all of these alterations is that The Well-Beloved becomes more systematic in structure and more richly suggestive in aesthetic conception. By removing all the argumentative discourses in the serial version, or absorbing socio-cultural and political sarcasms into more inwardly contained visual forms, the novel calls closer attention to itself as art form; consequently, in my view, it is rendered more subtly suggestive and aesthetically more interesting.

Hardy may have made all these changes to avoid the kind of criticism he had attracted with Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, which were severely attacked for their socio-cultural and political engagements. In other words, Hardy was forced to censor his own work out of fear of Victorian bourgeois morality. However, it is equally possible that Hardy was willing to revise the novel in accordance to his own ideas of art that did not advocate any pedagogical meaning or forensically accurate thought. In fact, at the end of his career as a prose writer, Hardy more rigorously worked his thought about art into The Well-Beloved. He was, of course, fully aware of contemporary aesthetic issues, as elaborated from Baumgarten through Kant to the Pre-Raphaelite circle. He also understood all the implications assumed by the term "art for art's sake" that A. C. Swinburne introduced in an article on William Blake (Swinburne 1868, 91) and that Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde continued to promote thereafter. It is in this general cultural atmosphere that Hardy conceived The Well-Beloved, the chief content of which is art and in which he presents a serious engagement with fundamental issues in aesthetic philosophy. One practical result is that the novel is characterized by a lack of concern for moral, religious, and socio-political life in favor of the pursuit of beauty for its own sake.

Therefore, The Well-Beloved is a novel distinguished for its aesthetic elements. Its artist hero, Jocelyn Pierston, is absorbed in private activities whose interest is their absolute irrelevance to a social or public world. His life story is fairly unbelievable. It spans a period of over sixty years, during which the protagonist, who is an aspiring sculptor at twenty, instantly falls in love with a girl of his own years, Avice Caro. Then, nearing forty, he pursues her daughter's heart, who appears as the spit and image of her mother in her youth. Turning sixty, he again carries a torch for another duplicate of Caro, her granddaughter, before he shows his true feelings. To be sure, this is a game of the improbable and yet this quirky, fanciful, almost unreal game is not as innocent as it seems; it is frankly burlesque at times, ironic, and then poignantly astute.

Interestingly, Pierston's love affairs are inseparable from his artistic aspirations. As a sculptor, Pierston is an explorer, feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown beauty. It is his desire to find the ideal of woman ("the Well-Beloved") and translate her beauty into a sculptural form that impels him to wander. So among Hardy's hidden preoccupations in the novel is a need to register the notion of wandering as a metaphor for the artist hero's journey in search of ideal beauty. However, the reason for Pierston's wandering is more complex in its implications, and this paper first and foremost invites the reader to consider its nature. To this end, it draws initial attention to the roles of Pierston's visual impressions, artistic emotions, and sexual desires respectively, all of which, constantly mobile, cause him to wander. But locating the cause of Pierston's wandering in his inner self is not all Hardy tries to register. According to Hardy's own "theory of the transmigration of the beloved one" (Millgate 1984, 304)/ "the Well-Beloved" Pierston pursues also migrates from one body to another. Therefore, he is destined to wander continually throughout his career, only given to understand that, in the world of phantasmal becoming, "experience unteaches--(what one at first thinks to be the rule in events).... Nothing is as it appears" (Millgate 1984,182; emphasis in original).

After looking into the fundamental nature of Pierston's wandering, the ways it is inscribed and developed will be brought into focus, particularly in his complex relationship with the Well-Beloved. In doing so, this essay aims to elucidate the implications that Pierston's wandering assumes for his creative life, thereby offering a new reading of the novel. This reading is to establish three interrelated things: first, the novel is a compelling quest into the status of the artist and the nature of art; second, it lays a particular stress on life as anarchy and art as forgery with its tendency toward play and game; last but not least, the novel insists upon the impossibility of ideal beauty. This is, of course, not to suggest that Hardy uses the novel as a means to contest any moral or aesthetic tenet; characteristically, his viewpoint remains indeterminate throughout and all that the novel confirms is the impossibility of the artist's dream of ideal beauty.

Hardy once remarked, "I suppose I have handicapped myself by expressing... philosophies and feelings as yet not well-established or formally adopted into the general teaching" (Millgate 1984, 344). The longing for a new voice highlighted herein will steer us to the final conclusion: that Pierston, portrayed as Hardy's autobiographical alter ego, is in the front line in an endless battle to reach the ideal. I would argue that this battle ultimately encapsulates the author's lifelong efforts to communicate an idea beyond his own fin de siecle--the sine qua non of his philosophical thinking.

The Well-Beloved is held in high esteem by a few readers, Marcel Proust and J. Hillis Miller conspicuously; yet generally it "has been not only greatly undervalued but seriously misunderstood" (Page 2000,458). Put differently, it has hardly been a favorite with critics. To name but a few, D. H. Lawrence called the novel "sheer rubbish, fatuity" (1985, 93); Albert J. Guerard terms it "one of the most trivial" (1949, 68); Robert Schweik remarks "alas ... only a sketch after all" (2002, 36); Hillel Daleski described it as a "slight fantasy" without "the novelist's customary brilliance and depth" (1997,187). These views suggest the potentially problematic nature of J. Hillis Miller's stance, which puts the novel almost on a par with such books as Wuthering Heights and A la recherche du temps perdu. Hillis Miller argues, "As with many great writers, a central theme of Hardy's writing is literature itself, its nature and powers." "This theme," he goes on to say, "surfaces in the form of an interrogation of the relation between erotic fascination, creativity, and Platonic metaphysics," which, he concludes, makes The Well-Beloved "one of a group of important nineteenth-century novels about art" (Miller 1982, 148). Annette Federico and Yvonne Bezrucka, both of whom have, one way or another, expanded our understanding of the book recently, owe a great deal to this thesis of Miller's: that love is closely entwined with art and philosophy (Federico 2007, 269; Bezrucka 2008, 228X3 Thus, perhaps Paul Ward was the first critic who read the novel as a story about art (1972, 33), but it is Miller who throws new and far-reaching light on not only the matter but also the issues related to it, love and philosophy, with rare insight.

In a letter to Swinburne in 1897, Hardy himself indicates that The Well-Beloved is an exhibition of "artistic nature" in a fanciful manner (Purdy and Millgate 1980, 2:159). Elsewhere he also says that "the truth that all men are pursuing a shadow, the Unattainable," underlies "the fantasy followed by the visionary artist [Pierston]" (Millgate 1984, 304). These notes taken together clearly suggest that instead of Hardy's usual preoccupations with class, gender, and dominant ideologies, more purely philosophical and artistic concerns traverse his "last" novel, The Well-Beloved. As a preliminary to his embarking on a new career as poet, the novel attends to the complexities and anxieties of creative consciousness whence a speculation surfaces about the status of the artist, the relationship of the artist and the world, and the tendency of art to falsify. This said, it is well to read the novel as a story about art and philosophy--all the more so as it embodies the "final formulation" (Bezrucka 2008, 227) of Hardy's aesthetic and philosophical ideas so that the reader may come to impose and, more appropriately in this case, recast a retrospective pattern on a philosophical, aesthetic force operating in Hardy's previous novels. (4)

As suggested, wandering is a catch-all category in The Well-Beloved, a repository for philosophical and aesthetic problems that could not be otherwise classified. In order to afford a philosophical character to this wandering, Hardy systematically refers to Pierston as "the Wandering Jew" (WB, 225) in "Part Second: A Young Man of Forty" and then the "Jew Ahasuerus" (291) in "Part Third: A Young Man turned Sixty." Michael Irwin draws attention to "the wandering Jew" only to make the denigrating shrug: "Having found the parallel [between Pierston and the 'Wandering Jew'], he [Hardy] chooses not to develop it or not to develop it in remotely predictable terms" (Irwin 2000, 53). Similarly, Guerard remarks: "Both irony and fantasy are constantly hampered ... by the book's original ... idea: that Pierston is ... 'the Wandering Jew of the love-world'" (Guerard 1949,67-68). Yet Hardy's original idea of the "Wandering jew," it must be stressed in advance, is developed in a compelling manner. In scriptural terms, Jews, who wander in deserts in search of absolute truth, are unhappy: despite their ongoing prayers, no straight road into the House of Truth is given, the discrepancy between hope and fact looming large instead. Much as in the case of wandering Jews, what lies in front of Pierston is, to put it simply for the moment, an unending detour and infinite wandering.

Interestingly, the narrator of the novel attempts to explain Pierston's pursuit of ideal beauty in the light of "emotional wanderings" (WB, 246) and "a restless, wandering heart" (288). The relation of wandering, emotion, heart, and ideal beauty formed in this way is further strengthened by recourse to water imagery, such as "drifting," "floating," and the "unanchored heart" (299). The recurrent images of a lighthouse and a lightship are also implicated in heightening the theme of "drifting," which, whether in art or life, represents Pierston's ludic wandering. So it comes as no surprise that fluid emotions figure prominently as a prime source of his artistic success: "Jocelyn threw into plastic creations that ever-bubbling spring of emotion which, without some conduit into space, will surge upwards and ruin all but the greatest men. It was probably owing to this ... that he was successful in his art" (WB, 211). Yet, barely satisfied with the great success that brings him the prestigious title of Royal Academician, Pierston makes it his crusade to possess ideal beauty, which is, as it were, beyond his reach. Accordingly, wandering becomes his lifelong "sober business," although it seems to be "a sheer waste of time" for others (212).

Under the sway of these "artistic emotions" (WB, 217), Pierston wanders playfully, although the world he goes through is a bleak one in which "emotions have no play" (Millgate 1984, 153). This raises the following question: what exactly are "artistic emotions" and how is it that "emotions" function in the hero's creative work? To answer the question, it is instructive to pay heed, if in passing, to Hardy's favorite term, "impression," for two reasons (Bjork 1974, 78). First, Pierston's sculpture-making depends on the visual character of "impression." Second, the role of "emotions" is nowhere more significant than in "impression." (5) Generally the emotions are conceived to be natural bodily experience and expressions. They are older than language, subjective, unruly, unconscious instincts rather than rational thoughts, spurting rather than curbing at the functional level. "Impression," made upon the organs of sense, predominantly the eye, is the locus where these emotion categories mix with their contrasts--say, logic, calculation, and reason. Reasoning power here, though only "better fitted to improve than to create," attempts to find its primary function in quantifying emotions (or sense-data) into timeless ideas and forms. Yet its task is done after a fashion, inadequate to its expectation, mostly due to the ceaseless influx of ever new emotions. Pierston's "artistic emotions" (WB, 217) likewise are in flux, in consequence of which his "impression," a fundamental material for image-making, becomes unsettled, ever unadjusted. Unadjusted "impression" makes it impossible for him to sculpt any ideal image that he hopes will stand the test of time. Thus thwarted to a large extent, he finds himself tortured by the feeling that his artistic aim and its realization are rarely in harmony, but follow each other like harsh, unpleasing vibrations of different instruments, at intervals which can only jar.

"Unadjusted impressions," explains Hardy, "have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life ... seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change" (Orel 1969, 39). So Pierston sets himself on the path toward "a true philosophy of life." He does so by accommodating the ongoing flow of experience, more particularly responding to visual "impressions," which, by nature, breed a kaleidoscope of changing perspectives. But immediately a problem presents itself, because, driven by "idealizing passion" (WB, 260), Pierston is also in hot pursuit of "the Idea, in Platonic phraseology" (257)," the idealized form of beauty, supposedly the immutable, perfect, eternally existing model as suggested in Plato's famous cave parable (1953b, 85-86). In order to possess "the Idea," or ideal beauty, Pierston ought to transcend the material world of change and contingency. However, this aspiration goes awry while his sense experience is, as ever, replete with unsettling emotions and ever-shifting impressions. It follows that Pierston's reason, stamped with "an advisory character" (Bjork 1974, 309), continually confirms that ideal beauty has not been obtained; this in turn brings him to assert the need for further wandering.

In this anguished wandering, "artistic emotions" aside, sexual desire plays a crucial role. Plato famously argues that sexual love is the essential ingredient of the quest for the divine form of beauty (1953a, 541-43). In a similar spirit, Nietzsche also says, "for art to exist ... a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication ... above all, the intoxication of sexual excitement, this oldest and most primitive form of intoxication" (Nietzsche 1982, 71; emphasis in original). (7) So one may well assume that "sexual excitement" is absolutely essential for Pierston's art project. It is counted a crucial aspect of his creative life. When the novel came out in book form, however, the notice in the Athenaeum declared: "Of the physical side of passion, he knows as little as any man so susceptible can do" ("Advertisement" 1897, 471). The lack of "the physical side of passion" in Pierston was echoed elsewhere. Michael Irwin later asserted that "Hardy's acknowledgement of the force of physical desire is merely a background to his exploration of idealized love" (2000, 44). Much the same has been said more recently by Richard H. Taylor: "For most of his life Jocelyn's sexuality is merely cerebral" (1982, 154). To read these critics, for the most part, is to be struck by their acuity of understanding, but it is still tempting to assume that erotic passion and Platonic idealism might not be segregated in Pierston, for at the roots of his Platonic scheme, free sexual energy, the most elemental to human life and the most potent way to engage the senses, seems to be in operation. However, it appears in a carefully censored form because of all the pains occasioned by the Victorian moralism by which Hardy robustly refused to bind himself, particularly with respect to the scandalous books Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.

This consideration directs our attention to Pierston's love affairs with Avice Caro (8) and Marcia in his early twenties. In the opening pages of the novel, Pierston comes back from London to his birthplace, the Isle of Slingers, to visit his quarryman father. Exactly in the same manner as he used to be smitten by many girls, one after another, he is instantly attracted to Avice and asks for her hand in marriage, which to his delight she gives. But presently he feels annoyed that he cannot enjoy the romantic tryst they are supposed to have before he goes back to London. He believes that her prescient precaution, which goes against the old custom of the isle that ratifies betrothal through the ceremony of sexual intercourse, forbids her to keep her promise. Her "modern feelings" (WB, 189) notwithstanding, he argues that it is only an ironic confirmation to be ruled by the "bygone barbarism" (189) of prenuptial liaison. Interestingly, however, twenty years later, he stands it on its head. It transpires that his irritation at that time was due to unfulfilled sexual desire: "Had she appeared the primitive betrothal would probably have taken place" (233).

Avice's failure to appear does dispirit Pierston, but this is soon forgotten with the advent of a new girl, Marcia. Although newly engaged to Avice, this man of great susceptibility is irresistibly attracted to Marcia, "a very Juno of beauty": "The Junonian quality of her form and manner made him throw himself by an impulse into harmony with her, and he responded regally. He scented a romance" (WB, 191). Hardy ingenuously expresses this blast of infatuation through a series of water images that escalate in intensity from drizzle into violent storm. Initially rain hits their cheeks like "pellets of a popgun." Soon after it increases its force embodying the "character of a raking fusillade" (191). As darkness starts to prevail, it turns into "corn thrown in handfuls by some colossal sower" (192). "Popgun" is an emblem for Pierston's childlike playfulness while in love. This idyllic game intensifies into warring feelings in the form of "a raking fusillade," which blatantly turns into "corn," symbolic of fertile sexuality (corn as a reproductive seed is a symbol of Pierston's sexual power but he remains childless, as Hardy does). It is this rain that coerces Pierston and Marcia to look for a shelter. They creep under the bows of an upturned lerret and manage to make themselves comfortable. Thereafter "the roar of the storm" makes them draw close to each other, and "something tender" comes into their talk. They forget the lapse of time from then on. Marcia, however, has to inhibit what she regards as dangerously immoral: "It was quite late when she started up, alarmed at her position" (194). So she insists on coming out of the lerret, and he complies by walking with her through "the twanging and spinning storm":

The sea rolled and rose so high on their left, and was so near them on their right.... They had not realized the force of the elements till now.... Her clothing offered more resistance to the wind than his, and she was consequently in the greater danger. It was impossible to refuse his proffered aid. First he gave his arm, but the wind tore them apart as easily as coupled cherries. He steadied her bodily by encircling her waist with his arm; and she made no objection. (WB, 194-95)

This storm scene, which prima facie looks insignificant, is a strong reminder of an erotic scene in Hardy's 1882 novel Two on a Tower, in which the star-crossed lovers Viviette and Swithin are seen holding each other in the impetuous hurricane (Hardy 1999, 94-102). Uncontrollable passion when abandoned to impulse is dangerous in decent Victorian society, and Hardy likens it to the unruly storm, intending it as a fitting backdrop for Pierston's whirlwind romance. After this climatic scene, Pierston takes Marcia to an inn, where they are to spend the night in separate rooms. Even then, his erotic feelings, a kind of id on the loose, are not so much dissipated as ever-increasing, as is illustrated in his act of drying Marcia's wet underclothing before the fire (WB, 196). In the serial version, Pearston (as Pierston is called there) touches Marcia's wet underclothing with his lips. Briefly, the scenes discussed thus far serve well Hardy's aim to suggest that Pierston is intensely impulsive by nature and that his woman-chasing gains its impetus largely from his sheer sexual energy.

Certain narrative elements are now worth distinguishing to suggest that Pierston's sexual desire meshes with his artistic practice; one of them is that Pierston's "erotic fascination" produces "ephemeral fancies," which turn into "artistic emotions" while he seeks to chisel them into "perennial [sculptural] shapes" (WB, 217). The narrator indicates an inseparable link between Pierston's art and "fancy," a contraction of "fantasy" or "phantasy," meaning in Latin "to make visible": "He would not have stood where he did stand in the ranks of an imaginative profession if he had not been at the mercy of every succubus of the fancy that can beset man" (251). Pierston forsakes his part in developing relationships with the various women to whom he is attracted, including Avice and Marcia, each of whom he comes close to marrying. The reason is not hard to find: he is always in the grip of a "whimsical ... fancy" (212) that constantly urges him to wander from woman to woman. The result is that it is impossible for him to make the divine form of beauty--impossible indeed when the woman of ideal beauty he wants to model in marble is not available. So although he absorbs all love and sexual desire in the love of art, his Apollonian endeavor to chisel his "ephemeral fancies" of women into "perennial shapes" becomes as futile as the attempt to translate dreams into plaster. (9) In this situation, all Pierston does is gather himself to set out again, making that departure reanimate the wish to reach ideal beauty. The narrator suggests that wandering is a defining characteristic of Pierston's artistic life:

The renewed study of his art in Rome ... developed his natural responsiveness to impressions; he now felt that his old trouble, his doom--his curse, indeed, he had sometimes called it--was come back again.., and now, at the age of one-and-sixty, he was urged on and on like the Jew Ahasuerus--or, in the phrase of the islanders themselves, like a blind ram. (WB, 290-91)

Getting back to the study of his art in Rome, Pierston is once again in thrall to his innate "responsiveness to impressions." Put simply, aged sixty-one, he still pursues a whim, acting like a "blind" man, moving about disoriented. Subsequently he realizes that ideal beauty is an ungraspable telos that refuses to show itself. As he absorbs this truth his artifacts, the sculptural realizations of ephemeral impressions, are sentenced to be all "ugliness" (332), without bravura of conception or execution. They are only the instruments by which the contingency of his experience is playfully ordered. Hence they are shameful reminders of a gap between real and ideal which kindle no light in the heart and awaken no hope other than atrocious counterfeits, where value depends on falsification.

Pierston thus succumbs to self-pity, swayed by chimerical impressions and fancies on the one hand, loaded with sexual desire and artistic emotions on the other. But the ticklish question arises here, not entirely without reason: given that Pierston remains faithful to the pursuit of beauty, isn't it misleading to brand him as "a blind ram" (WB, 291)? It is not that difficult for Annette Federico to diagnose the main problem of this "blind ram": he has "too much subjectivity," a next-to-neurotic or pathological subjectivity, which prohibits him from morally engaging with the world. Yet Federico's own moral engagement with the novel--which is, in fact, a book about an amoral world and in which Hardy characteristically remains noncommittal--disallows her from seeing another important problem, namely that the "Well-Beloved" is "a masquerading creature" (WB, 185). In other words, Federico--Yvonne Bezrucka follows suit more recently--keeps focused only on Pierston, choosing not to look into the nature of the "Well-Beloved," at once the object of Pierston's desire and free-willed subject herself, who has real independent existence (2007, 276)-10 According to Hardy's own "theory of the transmigration of the ideal beloved one" (Millgate 1984,304), the "Well-Beloved" manifests herself in effacing herself, only presenting herself as a "spirit," "dream," "frenzy," "aroma," "light," or anything "of no tangible substance" (WB, 184); which is to say that, apart from Pierston's own whimsical migration, the "Well-Beloved" he strives to possess is also on the move. Constantly transmigrating, she leads Pierston through a fairground of illusions and leaves him with a glaring paradox about the relation of desire to its object. In this great masquerade, then, in which by all accounts the object of Pierston's desire is not a reducible entity, it is not surprising that Pierston looks like "a blind ram."

The very fact that the "Well-Beloved" is "indescribable" (WB, 186) is to explain why Pierston is cut to the quick and why he is impelled to retreat with frustration, each time missing his artistic goal. Central to a full understanding of this frustration is "Part Second: A Young Man of Forty"; reading this is like delving into a highly complex mindscape, shot through with the shifting perspectives of Pierston's thinking. In this part of the novel, for the first time in his life, Pierston intends to end his wandering after dwelling on the importance of "a ground-quality" (232) (which seems to stand for a source material the artist has to work upon to possess the ideal). This thought of "a ground-quality" comes over him at a dinner party in London where he is seated between the wife of the "Lord Justice of Appeal" and a "leading actress ... of the United Kingdom and America" (228). His mind, however, is miles away. While he is secretly reading a note with the news of Avice's untimely death, the glittering scene surrounding him recedes into the background, the plebeian image of Avice advancing instead. Then, all of sudden, it occurs to him that his life in London is devoid of "a groundwork of character" (232), whereas Avice and the isle, at bottom, partake of "aground-quality": "I know what she's made of ... to her innermost fiber; I know the perfect and pure quarry she was dug from: and that gives a man confidence" (257-58. It is impossible to overemphasize here that Pierston has been using stone from a quarry on the island for his sculptures and that, unaware that Avice is "the perfect and pure quarry" out of which he could have made the divine form of beauty, he abandoned her without much care or thought. Now she turns out to be the most important of all. However, a new hope is germinated which Hardy ironically visualizes in a ceremonial scene, the funeral of Avice Caro:

The level line of the sea horizon rose above the surface of the isle, a ruffled patch in mid-distance as usual marking the Race.... Against the stretch of water, where a school of mackerel twinkled in the afternoon light, was defined, in addition to the distant lighthouse, a church with its tower ... near the edge of the cliff. The churchyard gravestones could be seen in profile against the same vast spread of watery babble and unrest.... The coffin ... crawled across the isle, while around and beneath it the flashing lights from the sea and the school of mackerel were reflected; a fishing-boat, far out in the Channel, being momentarily discernible under the coffin also. (WB, 234)

At a moment critical to the plot, Hardy asks us to contemplate a word-painting which is resistant to simple explanation." In the course of the funeral a silent procession moves slowly toward the church: Hardy animates the angular form of stasis (coffin) with the dynamic mobility of the sea. He adds a few more touches by disposing "a school of mackerel" around the coffin in order to highlight the exuberant vitality of the mackerel twinkling in the fading light. The final upshot of all is an evocation of a sense that death (and thus absence) is no more frustrating. Without a doubt, at one level the coffin aptly advertises Pierston's failure to possess what he desires. All the same, it pales into insignificance against the living mackerel. It thus follows that in no sense is his failure synonymous with complete despair, especially as he comes to understand the worth of "a ground-quality," albeit in costly exchange for Avice's death.

This positive note registered in the scene turns to a new hope upon the arrival of Avice's daughter, Ann Avice Pierston. Ann is Avice's spit and image, and is thus deemed to have "a ground-quality." Therefore, Pierston attempts in an obsessional manner to marry her, which has a transparently allegorical significance: to marry Ann means to settle down with her, ending his Dionysian wandering in his creative world. As Ann has "a ground-quality," he can work upon it so as to turn it into the ideal; once he possesses the ideal, there will be no need to wander. At this juncture, Pierston seems to have a great deal in common with Hardy, who sings in the poem "In a Eweleaze Near Weatherbury" that "I remain what I was then / In each essential feature / Of the fantasies of men ... {although I am old now} Still, I'd go the world with Beauty" (1985a, 92). Certainly the belief that Ann, the second Avice, has "a ground-quality" serves as a rationale for his "go[ing] the world with Beauty," which is in a way a diabolic manifestation of his unlimited life against old age.

In spite of this sheer tenacity, however, Pierston's scheme to terminate his wandering somehow does not seem to bode well from the outset. Note the way in which Hardy offers a glimpse of Pierston's highly ambiguous mind, which is suspended between hope and fear. One day, Pierson watches the second Avice climbing up a "straight" road. In order to create Pierston's complex mindscape, Hardy skillfully draws on spatial imagery, more particularly his favorite road metaphor:

As you approach the upper end of the street all progress seems about to be checked by the almost vertical face of the escarpment.... But in a moment you find that the road ... turns at a sharp angle when it reaches the base of the scarp, and ascends in the stiffest of inclines to the right. To the left there is also another ascending road, modern, almost as steep as the first, and perfectly straight.... Pierston arrived at the forking of the ways--Before turning to the right, his proper and picturesque course, he looked up the uninteresting left road to the fortification. (WB, 256-57)

Hardy presents an intriguing set piece, with Pierston standing before the forked courses of action. There are two roads before him. One is the "perfectly straight" road; the other the "picturesque" (and so implicitly winding) one. George Meredith, who was initially an influential guide in Hardy's literary enterprise, warns that by taking a "winding path" it would take "a thousand years" before one reaches "Truth, the right use of the senses, Reality's infinite sweetness" or "divine Philosophy" (1897, 20-24). But Pierston prefers a winding road to a straight one, predicated on the assumption that the road "turn{ing} at a sharp angle" is the "proper" one to ideal beauty. Be that as it may, at this point Pierston intends to give up the scenic road in order to follow the "straight road." It would not be irrelevant here to recall the telling road metaphor employed in his confession elsewhere: "I should have married her {Avice Caro} if I had gone straight on instead of round the corner" (WB, 306). Still, his current determination is hardly to suggest that the exigency of the case warrants him in suppressing a sense of rebellion against the "rigid mathematical road" (256), the "straight" road to an institution based on absolute obedience and convention, fittingly symbolized by the military fortification at the end of it. Its attendant result is an uneasy feeling that there is "something abnormal in his present proclivity" (242). The fact is that "his former idealizing passions" used to work in tandem with "a certain sanity." Consequently, "the Beloved had seldom informed a personality {i.e., the second Avice} which, while enrapturing his soul, simultaneously shocked his intellect" (242-43). Thus, not surprisingly, he sees his wandering as normal and his current decision to terminate it to the contrary. As he has the feeling that the "straight" road will not lead him to ideal beauty, his eagerness to follow it is also startling to his otherwise rational consciousness.

As indicated earlier, this does not necessarily signify that Pierston shrinks at carrying out his "abnormal" plan. The urgency of "change" (WB, 243) rather grows into "madness" (251), all the more notably when, much to Somers's surprise, he chooses Avice Caro's funeral before the prestigious Academy night event and prefers the second Avice ("washerwoman") to the upper-class and refined Nichola Pine-Avon, who is anxious to marry him. Twenty years later, he looks back on his life in his forties, "fully aware that since his earlier manhood a change had come over his regard of womankind" (286). Beyond a doubt, Pierston is permanently a young man, exactly in the same way that Hardy was "a child till he was sixteen, a youth till he was five and twenty, and a young man till he was nearly fifty" (Millgate 1984, 37). However, a change has come in such a way that "once the individual had been nothing more to him than the temporary abiding-place of the typical or ideal; now his heart showed its bent to be a growing fidelity to the specimen, with all her pathetic flaws of detail; which flaws, far from sending him further, increased his tenderness" (WB, 286). However, some critics argue that it is stunted growth that the novel emphasizes. Alma Priestley, for instance, remarks that Pierston's immaturity is in the way of a true, genuine, and objective love, which is one of the "flaws which are hard to forgive" (1976, 27). She goes on to say that Pierston's immaturity is exactly commensurate with Hardy's own inability to realize narrative potential fully. Whatever the force and finesse of Priestley's argument, however, the textual evidence seems to be beyond dispute: Pierston develops "maturer feeling" (WB, 286), the first sign of which comes to the fore as he vows to marry the second Avice in all seriousness. Although perfectly mindful that his "maturer feeling" is "less convenient" (286) and that her blemishes are glaringly obvious, he still decides to pursue this illiterate washerwoman.

Then again, the fact still remains that when it comes to a critical point, Pierston's resolve to marry the second Avice results in frustration. As noted before, Pierston is clearly out of his depth in his relationship with "the WellBeloved." He is puzzled and also at his wit's end because she is in a state of constant migration: "The Beloved has had many incarnations {i.e., the second Avice}. Each shape, or embodiment, has been a temporary residence only, which she has entered, lived a while, and made her exit from, leaving the substance, so far as I have been concerned, a corpse, worse luck!" (200). What is attested by this harrowing experience of "a corpse" (and thus death, absence) is that love is "a relationship with what always slips away" (Levinas 1987, 86). This point is paradoxically illustrated in the episode in which Avice Caro presents herself as "a corpse" at the very moment Pierston comes to discover she is "the perfect and pure quarry" (WB, 258).

This paradox, which Michael Ryan would call a mockery of Platonic aestheticism,'1 hurls more frustrations at Pierston when he is eager to marry the second Avice's daughter (the third Avice). The third Avice, like her own mother, takes after Avice Caro closely, so the fancy comes to Pierston that she has "a ground-quality." However, what he ultimately finds in her is nothing else than "a copy" (WB, 244), or an "extraordinary reproduction" (292) in which "the spirit, emanation, idealism" (196) of the bona fide first Avice are absent. After all, then, it is perhaps Avice the first whom Pierston always longs to grasp. Even the fact that he madly dotes upon her copies does not guarantee the sheer visceral joy of possessing the original Avice he calls "the perfect and pure quarry." Then again, Avice Caro is absent, dead, the effect being such that he cannot help feeling that to love the "dead and inaccessible" is "as hard as to cage a perfume" (231). In the end, the intimacy of presence and absence (based on the notion that absence is a form of presence) reinforces the point that Pierston's fantasy is in every way a dream of ideal beauty but that it is given its embodiment only in the futile quest for her. It may be that human life, foreign to true determinacy, is paradoxical in that it is reality and illusion, truth and non-truth, and so on. This outrageous paradox pervades Pierston's wandering throughout.

The character of Pierston's wandering and the concomitant frustration we have examined so far comes into much deeper perspective at the suggestion that Pierston perceives "the rivalry of the thing itself in the guise of a lineal successor" (WB, 290). Although it is not really transparent what Hardy means by "the thing itself," one thing can be stated immediately and with confidence: Avice Caro and her descendants, whose images exhibit a rivalry or resistance to fusion despite their close resemblance, represent the impressions of the same thing, that is, "the thing itself." This phenomenon of difference in sameness is the crux of the aesthetic problem Pierston faces, yet the nature of "the thing itself' is not at our absolute disposal. All we may say about it is that it seems to point to Avice the first, but she exists as "a corpse," which brings us to further suggest that "the thing itself," like "a ground-quality," is absence, not presence as one may expect. A tragic irony consequently plays across it: the "ground-quality" Pierston sees in the three Avices may be "the perfect and pure quarry" (258) for his art; no warrant is nonetheless given for success when he wants to possess "the thing itself' through it. "The thing itself' then is only Pierston's cup of Tantalus: he is never to reach and possess it. Its corollary is the fact that he should keep wandering until, no longer ablaze with passion nor in possession of "the thing itself," he ceases to go to his atelier and his name appears on "the retired list of Academicians" (333). Finally, he gets married to Marcia, far from his ideal, who is "wheeled into the church in a chair" due to one of those illnesses old age brings about (355).

In fact, for Hardy as for Pierston, "the thing itself," which poses itself as an unknowable existence, is forever elusive. In a notebook entry of 1892 contemporaneous with the serialized version of The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, Hardy is very clear on this point: beyond our epistemological grip, "the thing itself" incessantly slips away. Pitting the true thing-in-itself against "impression," he notes, "we don't always remember as we should that in getting at the truth we get only at the true nature of the impression that an object, etc., produces on us, the true thing in itself being still beyond our knowledge, as Kant shows" (Millgate 1984, 261-62; emphasis in original). This statement is well encapsulated by Ruskin's observation that "we never see anything clearly ... and there never can be" (1904, 75-76). Convinced that the true thing-in-itself shows itself only as migrating impressions, Hardy records three more notes: "It is the on-going--i.e., the 'becoming'--of the world that produces its sadness" (Millgate 1984, 210); "The fact is that all things are falsely, or rather inadequately, named" (226); "A perception of the Failure of THINGS to be what they are meant to be, lends them, in place of the intended interest, a new and greater interest of an unintended kind" (213). So he declares, "since I discovered ... I was living in a world where nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently, I have troubled myself very little about theories." Then, Hardy concludes, "where development according to perfect reason is limited to the narrow region of pure mathematics, I am content with tentativeness from day to day" (160). The precise form of this statement counts on three interlinked suggestions: first, the empirical self is most important for Hardy; second, unbound by "theories," he is happy to lead a life of contingency; last, the uncertainty of intrinsic meaning provokes the ongoing search for "the true thing in itself." These offbeat some would be rather tempted to call them postmodernist--views subtly find a way into The Well-Beloved where sexual fantasy and artistic creativity are mingled with economy. Pierston's peculiar genealogical attempt to possess any of the three Avices is a journey through poignant anxieties in pursuit of the masquerading "Well-Beloved." As a result, Pierston's life manifests itself as a "ghost story": "His life seemed ... a ghost story ... He desired to ... put an end to his bondage to beauty in the ideal" (WB, 325). This "ghost story" features an artist who aspires to happiness in vain. Like Tess and Jude, Pierston struggles with painful feelings in a world indifferent to his aspiration and feelings, only to be crushed. More to the point, he strives futilely to achieve ideal beauty, a striving that in the end yields no satisfactory results. This is evidence of the consistency of Hardy's belief that in his Wessex there is no human satisfaction.

However, Hardy raises the question: when is this "ghost story" to end? This curse of endless wandering, "his heart not ageing while his frame moved naturally onward"? (WB, 176). A curt reply comes from the narrator, with a melancholy cadence in his voice: "Perhaps only with life" (176), which amounts to saying that Pierston's "ghost story" is unlikely to end before the end of his biological life. Surely it would be so, as far as one can accept Schweik's remarks that "human aspiration, human feeling, and human hope [in Hardy's fictional world], however dwarfed in the cosmic scale of things," are, nonetheless, "more important than all the rest" (1999. 70).


Seamus Heaney stated once that "art is not an inferior reflection of some ordained heavenly system but a rehearsal of it in earthly terms" (1988, 94). The same seems to be in large part true of Pierston's "ghost story." Pierston's art is a "rehearsal" of some ideal beauty and his wandering can be considered an artistic blessing, a great advantage to the artist able to renew his artistic enterprise continually, not least when the three Avices assist him in "fulfill{ing} himself artistically through their perennial capacity to frustrate him" (Neill 2004, 193). Unable to possess ideal beauty, Pierston is sadly left to learn that artistic representation and truth are a considerable distance apart. He thus would claim sympathy with a remark attributed to Hardy: "Why true conclusions are not reached, notwithstanding everlasting palaver?" (Millgate 1984, 299). He then would swear no allegiance to any particular order or system of values which is always at the mercy of chance and contingency, echoing Hardy again, who declares, "After reading various philosophic systems, and being struck with their contradictions and futilities, I have come to this--Let every man make a philosophy for himself out of his own experience" (333; emphasis in original). This declaration, however, does not signify that Hardy's dissatisfaction resulted in a total abjuration of all the philosophical ideas and systems he read. Rather, the Life and his other writings show that his philosophy was closely linked with the important moral, social, philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic questions of his time. Indeed, his autodidactic reading ranged widely from Plato to Nietzsche, Sophocles to Browning, and Darwin to Einstein. In particular, he suggested that his view was approximate to the thoughts of Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hartman, Comte, Darwin, J. S. Mill, Ruskin, Spencer, and Einstein, of whom all but the first two were his contemporaries. (13) Nevertheless, Hardy did not think that he was offered a key to the mystery of life. Instead of wailing in pessimistic despair, he pursued his own worldview independently. He felt that his ideas were still his own and that he would "not be able to escape using terms and phraseology from earlier philosophers, but {would} avoid adopting their theories if he values his own mental life ... and save years of labour by working out his own views as given him by surroundings" (Millgate 1984, 333). After all, it was in such a way, really, that Hardy developed his personal vision, which tells us that the world, real or fictional, is always a series of contingent manifestations and that the universe as an imperfect machine needs endless adjustments and ever-further clarification. It goes without saying that Hardy's "ghost story" which we have been discussing is largely based on this postmodernist vision.

All in all, Hardy cared for his own individual vision, which has often been labeled pessimistic owing to his bleak vision of the human condition. However, in a letter to J. A. Symonds dated April 14, 1880, he notes that "the study of tragedy in fiction may possibly here & there be the means of showing how to escape the worst forms of it, at least, in real life" (Purdy and Millgate 1980, 1: 190). More significantly, in 1918 he posits "pessimism" as a positive way to address the condition of human existence: "As to pessimism. My motto is, first correctly diagnose the complaint--in this case human ills--and ascertain the cause: then set about finding a remedy if one exists" (Millgate 1984, 413). In The Well-Beloved, Hardy's pessimistic vision centers on the problematics of art, ideal beauty, and truth. The search for ideal beauty or truth, which is beyond the limits of human power and experience, is a paradox, an execrable paradox coming with perpetual freshness to every single step of human wandering. To view human life punctuated in this way indicates Hardy's own interminable wandering, which begs the question, rhetorical in any case: Isn't it remarkable that, despite the renowned models and movements in the history of arts, every succeeding generation, school, and artist continues attempting to invent the possibility of art in a world of a disoriented sense of human purpose, always and already awash with internal tension and dislocations?


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This essay was supported by a Korea University Grant.

(1) Penguin's 1997 edition, used here, includes both the revised version of 1897, The Well-Beloved, and the serial version, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved. Hereafter The Well-Beloved is cited in parenthesis in text as WB, the serial version as PWB.

(2) The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (1984), edited by Millgate, is generally received as Hardy's own autobiography. For the most informative study on The Well-Beloved as an autobiographical statement, see Millgate 1994, 304-307; Priestley 1976, 55-57; Elliott 1987, 22-26.

(3) It is only fair to add that Federico does not take an opportunity to acknowledge Miller's influence, instead repudiating his poststructuralist analysis of the novel.

(4) Bezrucka says that The Well-Beloved brings out "the manifesto of Hardy's 'regional aesthetics,' an aesthetics that Hardy had been developing through the years and which here finds its final formulation." In fact, prior to Bezrucka, Miller pointed out that "The Well-Beloved functions as an interpretation of the earlier novels or even as their parody" (1982,151).

(5) The term "impression" represents Hardy's philosophical disclaimer concerning systematic logic. In the serial version of The Well-Beloved, he stresses the importance of "impressions" as being more powerful and convincing than "legal rights" (WB, 146). For Hardy's repetitive mention of "impression" or "seemings," see also Millgate 1984, 405-406, 408, 439; the 1892 preface to Tess of the d'Urbervilles-, the 1895 preface to Jude the Obscure-, the 1901 preface to Poems of the Past and Present-, and the 1922 "Apology" in Late Lyrics and Earlier. Virginia Woolf perceptively argues that, when "argument is allowed to dominate impressions," Hardy's writing loses poetic splendor (1994, 515). Interestingly, Norman Page, though in passing, compares Hardy with Impressionists (1999, 48).

(6) For Hardy's seminal idea of the novel as a Platonic project, see the preface to The Well-Beloved and Millgate 1984, 304. For recent research on Hardy and Platonism, see Steele 2006,199-216.

(7) Hardy, however, could not receive Nietzsche with open arms. For Hardy's mention of Nietzsche, see Millgate 1984,393.

(8) It is possible that the model for Avice Caro is Hardy's beloved cousin Tryphena Sparks, called "lost prize" in the poem "Thoughts of Phena." Tryphena died in 1890, two years before The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved started to come out. Hardy went to her funeral and met her lookalike daughter. Likewise, Pierston goes to Avice's funeral and subsequently meets her daughter. See Rabiger 1985, 66-71.

(9) According to Nietzsche, Apollo is associated with the art of the image-maker or sculptor. See Nietzsche 1967, 33.

(10) Federico offers a moral assessment of the hero's artistic journey, although she remembers well that Hardy was appalled to see some reviewers criticize his book for "moral atrocities" (Millgate 1984, 303). Bezrucka rightly guards against a misreading of the novel as "a sort of education sentimental" (2008, 227). However, Bezrucka is no less polemical than Federico in that she evaluates the novel as the author's "attack on orthodox aesthetics" (2008, 230). Bezrucka also follows in the footsteps of Federico in calling attention exclusively to Pierston, and, in Langbaum's words, "the destructive effects of (the hero's] idealization in love and art" (Langbaum 1995,144).

(11) In discussing Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Tony Tanner argues, "Hardy above all does make us see," adding that "legibility of vibrant, perceived detail" does not need "any enveloping and aiding words" (1968, 226). This statement applies to Hardy's other novels, which equally excel in pictorialism.

(12) Ryan discusses the novel as a mockery of Platonic aestheticism (1979,172-92). Bezrucka elaborates on Ryan's argument, considering the novel a "serious attack on ahistorical Platonism and its essentialist ideology" (2008, 229). As Ryan and Bezrucka argue, Pierston might be mocked on account of his attempt to possess the elusive One. However, what Hardy throws into more focus in the book is the questioning of why his (and our) dream of the highest and truest art is impossible.

(13) For Hardy's complex relationships with varied thinkers, see Schweik 1999."

DONGUK KIM is Associate Professor of English at Korea University. He has published extensively on Thomas Hardy, including in the Thomas Hardy Journal and the Thomas Hardy Tear Book. He also specializes in the work of M. M. Bakhtin and Jacques Derrida, and his other interests include narratology and the philosophy of language.
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