Reading Hardy #1: The Lens

I am extremely fortunate and excited to be doing an independent reading of Thomas Hardy over the next few months. Not only does his work greatly concern and will likely impact my major thesis project for my master’s degree, I just enjoy his work in general. I’m beginning with a reading of Far From the Madding Crowd followed by The Mayor of Casterbridge, both of which are new to me. I’ll be following those readings by re-readings of Tess of the D’Urbervilles—a novel that has greatly shaped the outlook of my thesis—and Jude the Obscure. Given any extra time, I’m also very interested in having a look at The Woodlanders and The Return of the Native as well as a collection of Hardy’s poetry, but I may put that off for summer reading. Be that as it may, I am looking forward to seeing what these four novels will continue to reveal about Hardy’s position concerning the interaction between Judeo-Christian and pre-Judeo-Christian ideologies.

I saw this quite a bit in my reading of Tess where the new world clashed, often violently and fatally, with the old world. The image of the courier-buggy impaling the Durbeyfield’s farm horse stays with anyone who reads Tess, and the image of the new violently destroying the old echoes throughout the text. This is especially maddening when Alex—a figure from the new world who attempts to appropriate the old world by buying the D’Urberville name—destroys Tess who is legitimately of the old world. It is precisely this sort of tension that will be on my radar as I read through Hardy’s other three novels. The very fact that they are set in “Wessex,” modern in chronology yet ancient in nomenclature, lends toward readings that explore the friction zones between the ancient and the modern. So I begin my readings with some questions in mind, not the least of which concerns how rural life might be represented in these works. I do not mean to suggest that all rural peoples are intrinsically pagan, but a pagan context is certainly established in Tess. Is it in Hardy’s other works as well? That being said, how does the modern and urban world interact with the rural world? What tensions arise there? What might those tensions reveal about Hardy’s world? How might Hardy’s fictional world of Wessex reflect the real world of Victorian England (and attempt to reveal real-world tensions thereof)? Obviously, I hope the lens I’ve constructed will help me reveal some intriguing nuances in Hardy’s prose. If not—hey. At least I get to enjoy reading one of England’s finest writers of all time. I’m not biased though. Really.