Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Mantle of Hardy: Reflections on Far From the Madding Crowd

“The material world is so uninteresting, human life is so miserably bounded, circumscribed, cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.  I want another domain for the imagination to expatiate in.” –Thomas Hardy

On best-selling Allegra Goodman’s recent novel The Cookbook Collector, the following blurb appears: “If any contemporary author deserves to wear the mantle of Jane Austen, it’s Goodman.”  Though I love Austen, I find myself wishing that someday I might be blurbed as deserving to wear the mantle of Thomas Hardy.  I formed this wish after recently finishing Far From the Madding Crowd and then reading what literary critic John Paterson had to say about Hardy’s philosophy of the novel in Paterson’s book The Novel as Faith: The Gospel According to James, Hardy, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf.
I was 14 when I first read Far From the Madding Crowd, and although it would be some years before I had the critical language to articulate what I loved about Hardy, I would have told you that a Hardy novel has a completely different—and entirely pleasing—sensibility from any other novel.  You know when you are reading Hardy.

Now I can name that sensibility—it is the sensibility of substance and truth over style and subjective psychology, of poetry and philosophy over representation and science.  Of course, his novels are also composed of the elements he is famous for: bringing classical tragedy into novel form, and with it, a strong sense of fatalism; also his rendering of a rural, agrarian England on the cusp of industrial revolution.

I am a product of George Mason University’s MFA program—a program which I loved and which exceeded my very high expectations.  But I felt a strong emphasis on psychological representation in the vein of Faulkner and Joyce and on ridding the text of exposition, favoring scene (more on this later).  Contemporary literati tend to distrust any author with abstractionist tendencies; in other words, an author had better not have a prevailing philosophy, and if he/she does, she must be very careful not to let it interfere or impose itself in any way on her characters. 

No wonder Hardy is so refreshing.  Though his characters have enough integrity to stand on their own and hold interest, the examination of a particular character’s thoughts is never allowed to overwhelm the forward, fated movement of the plot.  Leading lady Bathsheba Everdene—a character who certainly holds individual interest in her unconventional and courageous ownership of her own farm—becomes entangled in Hardy’s ingenious imbroglio of three suitors, each of which, though somewhat a type, has, too, his individual qualities.  We understand the characters’ motivations, and yet individual motivation is not the emphasis as it has been in so much literature since Hardy.  Instead, Hardy’s philosophy of a beautiful and natural universe fixed beyond the whims of individual agency prevails. 

Specific points to love in Far From the Madding Crowd include the opening chapter.  It’s brilliant, with its character sketch, simple action, and subsequent, spare comment.  Since this was my first re-reading since age 14, I remembered only two specifics about the novel: one was the climax (I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t read) and the other was Bathsheba’s red coat in which she first appears in chapter one.  I’m now 27; amazing that so small a detail stuck for 13 years!  I find myself especially admiring that first chapter anytime I submit the first few chapters of my novel manuscript to agents.  Would that some detail of mine might stick with them!

Also to admire is Hardy’s use of Fanny’s grave as a fixed point where the characters variously turn up with their different feelings.  Then, too, Hardy’s rural affections are at their best with the chorus of side characters, among them Henery Fray, who stubbornly refuses to remove the extra “e” from his name, and Joseph Poorgrass, who so innocently winds up drunk in the middle of an important errand.  Finally, be sure to note the truly magnificent nature descriptions.

My only criticism stems, oddly enough, from the very admirable quality of Hardy as tragedian.  Certain scenes (such as when Troy and Bathsheba converse within the waiting Boldwood’s earshot, as well as the tent scene at Greenhill Fair) went a little too far in closing the reader off from the characters’ feelings in service of a scene that became so play-like, it felt staged.

So what to take from this for novel #2?   I shouldn’t be afraid to allow philosophies to shape the novel, but I must also take care not to let those philosophies overrun to a point that they become weaknesses.

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