Monday, July 4, 2016

The poignancy of Thomas Hardy

I discovered Thomas Hardy almost by accident. It was my birthday, as I recall, and I'd been given a book I’d read before. Parents are, of course, quick at seeing disappointment. Back then Sarasavi Bookshop hadn’t come to Piliyandala, but M. D. Gunasena had. English books were rare to find, though. So when I was taken there for me to choose the book I’d like to have instead of the one I was given, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to buy. My eyes, moving here and there, didn’t like what was on offer: Dickens, Austen, Walter Scott, Enid Blyton.

And then my eyes stopped moving. I noticed a book by an author I hadn’t read before. I picked it up and looked through the illustrations. I was curious. I asked for it and I got it. Later that day, I started reading it. By the following day, I was done.

That book, “Far From the Madding Crowd”, intrigued me. The story couldn’t be rationalised by the rules and myths of the English novels I had read until then. Even though it was an abridged version of the original (and I wouldn’t read the original until a good many years later), it was baffling. There was a love triangle between its characters, but unlike, say, a novel by Jane Austen, that love triangle didn’t break and get resolved easily. Instead, it broke in a way which left one lover jilted, one lover killed, and another imprisoned (for killing the second lover). It wasn’t complicated but it wasn’t easy to follow either. All thanks to its author, I felt.

Since then I’ve read into and about Thomas Hardy, and I’ve come to realise that, for all his imperfections (and he had a great many of them, which showed in what he wrote), he was superior in every possible way to later English writers. His prose wasn’t as exquisite as Henry James’ or Virginia Woolf’s. He couldn’t write to a rhythm, he wrote to a plot. He wrote of characters who sought resurrection but were denied that until the very end. And sometimes, in his harshest stories, they didn’t get it even in the end: it was either to death, exile, or imprisonment that they instead turned. And when they did, we cried or sighed or smiled. With them.

Hardy wrote so many stories and etched so many characters that one can’t refer to them all. He could get melodramatic, granted: there are sequences in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, for instance, which appear contrived to a fault, such as that in which Henchard (the titular Mayor and protagonist) saves the woman he loves, Lucetta Templeman, from a charging bull. Consider the conversation that follows, after Henchard tries to convince her to marry him:

"I cannot!" she insisted desperately.

"Why? When I have only within these few minutes released you from your promise to do the thing offhand."

"Because — he was a witness!"

"Witness? Of what?”

"If I must tell you ——. Don't, don't upbraid me!"

"Well! Let's hear what you mean!"

"Witness of my marriage — Mr. Grower was!"

"Marriage?"

"Yes. With Mr. Farfrae. O Michael! I am already his wife. We were married this week at Port-Bredy. There were reasons against our doing it here. Mr. Grower was a witness because he happened to be at Port-Bredy at the time."

To me this was and remains Hardy’s greatest triumph (in his novels at least): his ability at keeping crucial information from the reader, and in turn the main character, so as to impart a sense of some overriding Fate when it’s revealed. The character is happy, and momentarily so, but when that crucial information is revealed, both he and the reader are made aware of some cruel fate guiding their hand, even though they don’t quite know what it is.

Henchard’s descent into poverty and humiliation is provocative not merely because he hopes for better days, but because, when he knows he’s lost and is forced to resort to the one thing he despises (his wife’s daughter, fathered by another man and a woman who loves him even though he doesn’t love her), he grows to cherish her company so deeply that the moment their bond is breached, his downfall becomes harsher. It's almost as though fate wills him to suffer until his death (and to my mind, Henchard's death is one of the most unbearable that an English novel has ever described even though it happens "off-screen").

Hardy’s world is so bleak that we think ours is better (as someone aptly pointed out to me recently). That is something not even Dickens, even in his darkest novels (“Our Mutual Friend”, “Bleak House”), conveys. With Dickens we merely look at his world with a mixture of horror and humour (because even at his darkest, Dickens retains his sense of wit), but we know it’s a fictional world, never mind that it approximated to the London of his childhood and adolescence.

With Hardy, however, things are different: we not only are unqualified in our empathy towards his characters, but we are made to feel their currents of feelings to such an extent that we read their stories as we read our lives. Hardy instils a sense of universality in his characters, and to me, that explains why they are so enduring. Jude from “Jude the Obsure” need not have been from Wessex (the fictional county Hardy placed almost all his novels in). He could have been from our neighbourhood. From our part of the world.

There’s a reason for this, of course. The tumults of feeling and emotions these characters are subject to transcend their specificity, and in the end, they become easy to relate to. Why? Because they retain the qualities that make us the humans we are: frail, imperfect, constantly rebelling against a destiny we know we can’t overcome.

Coincidences abound in the stories they are in, moreover, which eventually thwart their dreams and force them to abandon the women and men they have grown to cherish. The poignancy of love – another of Hardy’s constant themes – figures in deeply in his stories, as it does in much of his poetry. It comes out beautifully in “Far From the Madding Crowd”, where the pleasure-seeking Bathsheba Everdene, after her failed relationships with two men who kill each other over her, reunites with Gabriel Oak, a man she once loved and spurned:

He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.

It is exactly that “mass of hard prosaic reality” which many of those resident in Hardy’s novels fail to acknowledge. In terms of love, friendship, and life, it is that same reality which vindicates those who affirm it and grow patient. When I read “Far From the Madding Crowd” for the first time, this is what I first thought. I have thought of it ever since I started reading his other novels and his poems, and I have never, for one moment, regretted my initiation into Hardy’s world. I personally rate him most other English writers, if at all because of this one quality.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com