|< Previous page | Home | Contents | Next page >|
In the previous lectures on the novel, firstly Dickens’s and Thackeray’s novels were shown to borrow from the 18th century some comic/ satirical/conversational conventions in their basic comic vision of the social world which they translated into popular fiction of the picaresque and panoramic type. Secondly, the feminine authors, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot were proved to be interested rather in the ”avatars of the pharaoh of sensibility” and they were said to both ambitiously and successfully apply the romance or high mimetic visions of the world to create very solid, compelling masterpieces in fiction. In the present lecture it will be proved how at the end of the Victorian complete age, Northrop Frye’s historical and archetypal criticism statements about the ironic mode and the mythos of winter will apply successfully, i.e., with considerable explanatory power, to the novels by Thomas Hardy. Next, by extending some structural characteristics of a Hardy novel to the other instances of popular fiction published roughly during the same last three decades of the 19th century when Hardy’s novels went into print, there could be proposed a typology of the fiction written in the terminal Victorian age as a whole.
Starting from the observation that for all their tragic intensity, it is impossible to ascribe to Hardy’s novels the status of tragedies because, although the protagonists exist between two worlds, there is no ascent and no cathartic purification of the world of men in any of them, but rather, a devastating projection of man’s marginal position in the universe, so marginal as to allow man’s being doubly crushed by and subjected to fate, universally, and to society or by society, contextually – starting from this empirical observation, therefore, it can be conjectured that Hardy’s novels belong to the mythos following the mythos of autumn, or tragedy, namely to the mythos of winter, which Frye considers to join satire and irony. Another argument in favour of this classification of Hardy’s novels outside the fold of tragedy comes from a structural observation, this time. Hardy builds his fiction with strong bricks: strong individuals with untameable souls, manifestations of the strong forces of nature whom Hardy opposes by strong social forces, the forces of history and human civilization; but in making these solid bricks play against each other Hardy makes his own edifices threatened by crumbling into nothingness. So he behaves just like Browning’s Setebos or grotesque Caliban – genius, creating out of spite only to cruelly maim the creatures whose wings he will pluck with joy on the second day and on the second thoughts of his creation. This is in keeping with the definition given by Northrop Frye to tragic irony which in the mythos of winter reduces tragic situations to mere ”comedies of the grotesque”. The universally negative relationship revealed by Hardy in his novels bears the philosophical name of nihilism and it is responsible for what we would like to call in Hardy’s literature inverted, decadent, late medievalism. Hardy seems to distribute his characters in a Dantean fashion in their respective Bolgias to be pursued by their fate rather than by their sins – so strict is the immutability of their positions in the fictive universe. The paradisal, privileged region of the mind: Hardy’s primaeval Wessex, is the garden of Eden after the fall of man into historical relativity, as it is intimated on the first pages of ”Jude the Obscure”. The overall sense of a Hardy novel is that man has been delivered in the hands of a clockwork mechanism that ticks like a bomb before destruction. There is malevolence in the infallible mechanics of Hardy’s fictive wholes, something Satanic, Calibanesque, not to call it simply grotesque. And this terrifying textual efficiency is achieved owing to the, again, medieval, scholastic construction of the books which work with the full range of levels of existence which scholastic philosophy had so carefully organised by working out a perfect system of formal or symbolic meanings. The archetypal orders of existence which Frye reviews in his ”Anatomy of Criticism”, the third essay, as: the divine, the human, the animal, the vegetable, mineral and, although Frye does not call it so, by implication, the elemental – these are all present in Hardy’s fiction. In addition, in the most rigid scholastic manner, they are kept separated – and they are made to often work against each other. This is one instrument or artifice of the Hardy–esque tragic irony: the keeping apart of the various orders of existence, even the maintaining of tensions among them. Applying Frye’s table of archetypal meanings (cf. ”The Anatomy”, Penguin, 1990, p. 141), the resulting imagery at the divine level offers representations of hell and the villains who occupy the godly position are called Time, Fate, The President of the Immortals; it is in this connection that the grotesquely radical gesture of the Little Father Time troll in ”Jude the Obscure” should be understood to annihilate children who are not even his, like a mad Chronos. In ”The Return of the Native”, Clym Yeobright’s Victorian aspiration of return to the sublime past, his dreamt return to his mythical native place as a foundational or original space is nothing but a return to paradise for the encounter with the serpent. At the human level, the appearing supermen or superwomen are de–sublimated because they are efficiently surrounded by beings whose major efficiency in working against these supermen comes from their being different, from their obstinate otherness. More often than not they are stock social effigies, like some sombre caricatures, if this is possible. The human characters are engaged or rather locked in relationships of mutual annihilation. Marriage, in particular, is a trap, a destructive machine, on whose altar pure natural necessity crashes against social necessity in practically all the novels written by Hardy. But all the social – ideal or communal institutions invented by man vye with each other in Hardy’s fiction for the destruction of man: the institution of learning in ”Jude the Obscure”; the Christian earthly church, in both ”Jude” and ”Tess”; the professions, in ”Far from the ”Madding Crowd” and ”The Mayor of Castrebridge”; and especially so, the city which is seen to wage a perfidious war on man and the countryside life in the majority of Hardy’s novels. Even more importantly, people are made to belong to different phases in the history of ideas, and so to different worlds. Jude and Sue’s natural sensibilities are fully compatible, they being both of them Fawleys, but their intellectual aspirations pertain to different phases: Jude is a late medievalist and admirer of antiquity, Sue is an enlightened free thinker, one of the modern Victorian agnostic angels. All the existing institutions, social or ideal (marriage, the Church, learning as a form of disciplined thinking) cooperate in undoing them. The humans are actually made to run into the category of sacrificial animals or victims, if they are not regarded simply as experimental guinea pigs for Hardy’s demonstrations in nihilistic, clinical spite towards his own age. The vegetable world is at times paradisal, as the title of ”Under the Greenwood Tree” would suggest, or, as at the beginning of ”Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, where it suggests the higher, divine, ceremonial levels of existence right in the middle of history in the countryside– but it is more suggestively symbolical of the modern hell, as when, in ”The Return of the Native”, the vegetable world is practically lacking or it presents us with the kind of vegetation in exile, with the harsh but genuine desert it leaves behind in Egdon Heath. At the mineral level, the city and its life offers the embodiment of a fortress, with outwardly shining red–brick houses hiding hoaxes and housing villains, such as Alec D’Urberville, with the city (i.e., the French rather than Norman ”ville”) functioning as a powerful source of destruction for the country (side) (i.e., the ”field” of Tess’s genuine, healthier family name would have it).
But Hardy has been shown to work not only with a scholastic model of the world, in his late Victorian’s Satanic mediaevalism. He also expertly uses the scholastic theory of meaning –as expertly as an architect, who has been trained to design with mathematical perfection enduring buildings, and who is bound to be very efficient in his application of the multiple meaning recipe. According to St. Thomas Aquinas’s exegetical model, complex, theologically structured meanings could be interpreted, or invoked in sermons, by fourfold decoding operations working at distinct structural levels: the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogic ones. Hardy’s meanings start from the literal level and develop upwards in the allegorical, moral or as Northrop Frye puts it in his own modern structuralist terms, in the archetypal direction. It can be noticed that in Hardy’s work the literal or descriptive images (according to Frye) and the formal ideas (allegorical, according to St. Thomas D’Aquinas) override the existential clusters of meaning (Frye calls them mythical, archetypal or natural). In more direct structural terms, expression invades existence. This can be demonstrated by the joint analysis of the characters’ elevations and the plots. If a novel like ”Tess of the D’Urbervilles” contains an existentially or archetypally sublime creature, like the ethereal yet solid Tess herself, then she will be most likely subjected to erosion (at the hand of social and natural forces plotting against her from the outside) via carefully contrived, artificial coincidences commanded by Hardy’s expressed idea about Fate; or else, if a goddess of pagan nature, instinctually resplendent and full of life like Eustacia Vye inhabits the fictional world, as it happens in ”The Return of the Native”, then she will at least be turned into a she–devil causing the destruction of all the creatures around her, by being misplaced in the least favourable natural environment that alone could deny her plenitude, and by yoking her in love and marriage to the least suited social being in her surrounding (Clym Yeobright). If a character, such as Jude Fawley has one sublime trait, his aspiration towards spiritual perfection through learning, this or he will be decimated by the fickle, vulnerable part of his character flawed in the tragic manner and accessible to the evil alienating influence of the world or of other people. (The same is true of Sue Bridehead, whose submission is effected through her prejudices in connection to the marriage to Jude). Or a morally improved character who has turned into a generous public leader, like Michael Henchard in ”The Mayor of Casterbridge” will be regressively pursued by the Furies emerging from a momentary blemish of his character in the past . The clear result of this will be a world in which each character will end up in loneliness and alienation running madly like a train on its track which must remain parallel to every other track or train; each character runs in its own track or tunnel rather, for all their awareness and craving for each other. In other words, the schematic delivering, by design, of the literal and archetypal meanings in the hands of the formal and anagogic, mechanical and autonomous meanings, working towards sure destruction makes one understand that behind all this Hardyesque world ripe with life, doom and damnation awaiting, as it were, to be emptied of its interesting people, there is Hardy himself waiting like an ironic, grotesque or fearful executioner, standing blade in hand, ready to perform his slaying ritual. But whereas in genuine tragedy or in the Christian theology of sacrifice the ”slaying” ritual is cathartic, i.e., purging and healing, Hardy’s novels do not work on the vertical and do not point skywards (or even demonically hell–wards), but rather they remain pointing, like the index signs in ”Jude the Obscure”, pointing back to the middle–world itself. In the strictures of his literary naturalism, Hardy could then be suspected of confining his characters in a social, because historical, forest of evil symbols, of taboos placed there to be encroached upon and his fictional traps are then awfully constructed, constructed in awe, as if by an evil magician who casts a bad spell that first frightens and then destroys the victim when the time is ripe. This can be the ”dark” side of Hardy’s mediaeval or rather, punningly, his ”mediaevil” practices for encoding meanings; and after all, magic was as wide–spread in the Middle Ages as scholasticism was. But now, if we leave joking aside, it is actually obvious that the domination of Thanatos in Hardy’s fiction is rather connected to the emergence in this particular period of the ironic historical mode in English literature, if not really in the literature of the West. Selecting the general characteristics underlying the six ”phases” of the mythos of winter Northrop Frye enumerates, the assumptions of the satirical–ironical mythos are:
1. heroism has disappeared or it is doomed – and it is the task of satirical literature to chastise the human claims to heroism;
2. intellectual dogmas are set against the life which they are supposed to explain;
3. the world is disintegrating and ironic literature imitates the fact that there is no shared commonplace in the world;
4. tragic situations get reduced to mere comedies of the grotesque;
5. nature is dominated by the wheel of fate whose steady, unbroken and merciless movement is absolute;
6. human life is presented as mere unalleviated human bondage.
It can be observed that all these assumptions apply to Hardy’s novels in more than one respect, and their narratological effects are very similar to the effects of the fantasies published in the same last three decades of the 19th century.
The inventory of novels published in the last three Victorian decades includes : ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) plus ”Through the Looking Glass and What She Found There”(1871); Samuel Butler’s ”Erewhon” (1872), less known than Carroll’s books but which can be remembered as the Victorian ”Gulliver’s Travels”; R. L. Stevenson’s ”The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886), a study in psychopathology in the guise of a (medical) science fiction book, just as Oscar Wilde’s ”The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891), which was equally dedicated to the abysmal psychology motif of the double, although with obvious aestheticist ”de–moralising” other purposes and means; Rudyard Kipling’s ”Jungle Books” (1894, 1895); Bram Stoker’s ”Dracula” (1897); H. G. Wells’s ”The Time Machine”(1895), ” The Invisible Man” (1897) and ”The War of the Worlds” (1898). All these were published in parallel with Hardy’s fiction: ”Desperate Remedies” (1871); ”Under the Greenwood Tree” (1873); ”A Pair of Blue Eyes” (1873); ”The Return of the Native” (1878); ”The Mayor of Casterbridge” (1886); ”The Woodlanders” (1887); ”Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (1891), ”Jude the Obscure” (1895).
It is interesting to notice in all the novels just listed how ideas or their expression work against the solidity of the fictional whole to annihilate the poise of the narrative edifice (as when Hardy’s fiction was proved to ”crumble” at the end of each novel to be swept off the stage, characters, reader and all) or to simply fluidize the fictional world, as in ”Alice’s Adventures….”, when it did not simply yoke it to the tail of this or that idea as a social, didactic, demonstrative project as it happens in ”The Picture of Dorian Gray” or ”Dracula” (the Irish subversive anti–bourgeois aestheticist project, in the first case, and the sanguinely anti–colonial and Oriental–cum–Mediaeval Count Drakul dystopia, in the second case ) or as in ”The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which voiced the repressed violence lurking in man, similarly to ”The Picture of Dorian Gray”, but which also popularised the latest lures and dangers underlying experimental science – as did H. G. Wells’s science fiction. (From the very label ”science fiction” it becomes obvious that fiction becomes subordinated to the scientific idea it serves to comment on). Even ”Alice’s Adventures….”, this fantastic pastiche of Victorian realistic fiction is yoked to what has already been called ”the shared everyday mentalities or commonplaces”, which are invoked at every turn of the fictional road during Alice’s journey and its winning complexity is probably obtained by the pasting together of two sets of common–places that pertain to different worlds: on the one hand the urban, social, historical commonplaces of which there is a full gallery in the two novels, on the other hand, the folklore conventions and commonplaces of the fairytales and nursery–rhymes intended for more innocent, simpler but quite profound creatures only marginal to the adult world of the day, the world that matters of grown–up, successful Victorian gentlemen and ladies. The same marginal, alternative ideology of children’s literature is put to work as the allegorical vehicle in Kipling’s ”Jungle Books”, where the child–protagonist, Mowgli, is initiated primarily in the ”jungle–like” allegorical tenor of the adult–life in a colonial society. Fables, didactic literature for children or satires – some of them memorable and compelling, as Samuel Butler’s ”Erewhon” meant to criticise society and science for the benefit of the grown–ups – this is what Victorian fiction becomes on the way of ”the Age” towards ”the Turn of the Century”. Just as it will happen in the intellectualised drama of George Bernard Shaw’s comedies, fiction will gradually turn into a stage for playing ideologies against each other, for new syntheses of not only confrontations between the various brands of urban or countryside folklore. The Victorian novel will step off the happy pedestal or the dignified pulpit into the genuinely low–mimetic pit of reality where it will first lose its ornamental ”interpretive power”, as Matthew Arnold put it, the power of deepening man’s interest in himself and life, the power of consoling the exhausted or troubled heart; and with this, the Victorian novel will give in to interests alien to those of shared ordinary social existence, becoming open to the sensational, the ideal, the purely rhetorical or experimental. All the novels of the late Victorian period evince the same fragmentariness or internal rift between meaning and existence as Hardy’s novels have been proved to do. Because they artifically multiply what Northrop Frye calls in the second essay of ”The Anatomy of Criticism” literal, descriptive meaning. By rather free, chaotic parallelisms within the structure of the novel that work with contradictory variations – as it happens in Hardy’s fictions where all the important characters haunt the same places but at the wrong moments in time or with completely irreconcilliable purposes –, or by the completely free association of motifs – as it happens in Lewis Carroll’s fantasies composed according to the unconscious logic of dream and of the sleeping mind, free to manifest its uncontrolled meanings – many late Victorian novels appear as odd wholes, if we still insist on regarding them as wholes, which the book form enclosed between the two covers invites them to be. They become puzzles, collections, anamorphoses, when not the more conventional satires as mock–picaresque narratives. It can safely be stated, therefore, that at the end of the age, the realistic novel returns – or rather regresses ! – to the basically comic mode patterns of the picaresque or of satire which stands half–way between the (non–literary) prose of ideas and the prose of literary invention proper which the novel should be. But working in the ironically mythical manner of the mythos of winter, the novels listed above all become only paratactically, fantastically, satirically, ironically Victorian. Their ambition will no longer be as genuinely archetypal or high–mimetically social as in the great feminine novels of the second lecture (or the second stream) devoted to fiction – because it has been shown to be simply ironic in its chastising, severe detachment from the Victorian present. Perhaps the maximum distance is achieved in the dystopian distant Erewhon of Butler’s social fantasy which contains an overall rejection of the Victorian ethos, the Victorian sense of progress and success, the latest in Victorian science and living and history, which are all of them condemned from the remotest future – in – the past perspective. In further ”linguistic” terms, it can be stated that the effect of all the Victorian fiction of the 70s, 80s and 90s is one that rejects affirmation from all quarters , replacing it by questions – in their majority rhetorical questions – exclamations, fantastic conditionals when not downright negations. The common denominator of the books on the above list of publications in the last three Victorian decades is that they work in this interrogative, conditional, exclamatory manner. The fantastic books on the list are gentler and more purely artistic in their de–familiarisation of reality and their refusal of assertive ”truths”. The more serious instances of canonical literature, such as Hardy’s, tend instead to utter downright negations, to threaten by subjecting man to his own (social, public) ways as to a prison. For what else is a Hardy novel than a labyrinth or a trap for each and every one of his characters the reader so painfully identifies with? They are not sacrificial altar–novels but rather slaughter–houses of fiction, because of their deeply negative ”message” working like some anti–Victorian–bombs with their ticking social clocks of doom, as a radical denial of Victorianism with its fiendish middle–class, pragmatic puritanism that Hardy believed had unrecoverably damaged man and the cosmos, in the extreme. Hardy’s radical nihilism or negative humanism sought support in Schopenhauerian anti–humanism and in the French literary trend of Naturalism that seemed to prove his point and give full power to his social anger. His was not the easy way out of the bourgeois ideological mess that the aestheticist dandies such as Oscar Wilde, had contrived in their otherwise inefficient theatrical pose. (As Wilde’s own case undeniably proves through the useless social ordeal which subjected him to martyrdom as ”the first saint to die on the altar of an aestheticist creed and of the individualist freedom of being what you are”, namely, in his case being a homosexual who did no harm to anyone but the busibodies, while writing dazzling literature). At any rate, in the last decades of the 19th century, the great amount of anger that this first age of progress and prosperity had secretely built up was literarily vented in a great deal of literary violence and voyeurism, as the case may be, depending on whether the Freudian source of the literary instinctual energy thus liberated was dictated primarily by pain or by pleasure.
Functionally, analytically or narratologically speaking, the manneristic novels of the latter half of the 19th century tend to foreground certain components of the narratological system at the expense of all the others, or they may even have empty slots; or, they may mechanically, i.e., artificially, multiply their plots, split their protagonists inside or outside into doubles, the motif of the double becoming very frequent; moreover, these novels tend to become unique, the sole representatives of their own class. This inaugurates what Northrop Frye calls, in the second essay of ”The Anatomy of Criticism”, the anagogical phase in the use of literary symbols, a phase in which the image, the book or the symbol contains the world because it is all–powerful and self–sufficient. Thus, like a coquette’s body, that foregrounds and advertises her own beauties or like a dandy’s predictable affectations indulging in his own eccentricity and narcissism, the late Victorian novel seems to suddenly afford to do either without functional protagonists, or without functional action, which is replaced by mere thinking and by acting rather than, what Matthew Arnold called, in the ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems” excellent actions. More technically, it could be stated that ”mythos” is replaced by ”topos”, in the two senses of the word: ”topos” as space and ”topos” as subject. So is it in Butler’s ”Erewhon” where the first–person narrator lacks a name, even the stock name of a gullible person, like Gulliver, and who seems to have adventurously managed to cross the initial waste lands with so much difficutly to an otherness where he can at last meditate at his ease and understand this new topos in the two senses above. He can be said to have been completely defeated in his initial intentions of setting up a colony or at least a farm or a…”city upon a hill”, as John Winthrop’s founding sermon instructed the Americans to found. Butler’s narrative agent who lacks every other determination beside the spatial one, being just a mind and a voice, is won over from action of any kind by his own comments on the Malcontents, the Musical Banks – or Churches and Common–Markets and Temples and even Nursing Homes of Ideas, by the religion of the more advanced Yidgrunites and the common–sensical social contract in the Birth Formulae regulating the (scandalously useless!) coming into the seen world of children from the self–sufficient, unseen world. (Whenever the intention of a book such as this is mainly satirical and dominated by ideas, the narrative structure falls in the pattern of the link – and – frame story, consisting of a series of anecdotes, as the ones occasioned by the individual chapters from ”Erewhon” enumerated above. These chapters work as local symbols, independent stories, disconnected images only unified by the basic narrative strategies facilitating the rhetorical action of ridicule. Ridicule works by the reduction to the absurd of topics (topoi) which are exaggerated so as to allow the mere common–sense truth to come to the fore. In this way, the initially intended criticism of (here the Victorian) reality is fictionally attributed to the other worlds, but in a grotesque way, so as to settle down back into the accepted criticism of the initial world.) Continuing the series of examples of truncated narrative functionality proposed above, so is it, that the novel behaves like a coquette or like a dandy, in ”Alice’s Adventures….”, where the protagonist is a universally Victorian every–British–girl, with her identity threatened both physically and socially by a potentially hostile, unknown world consisting of cards and nursery rhyme or urban fairy–tale characters come to life in pairs of whimsical caricaturesque and mechanical creatures. The same schematic plot underlies the barren story of Mowgli’s adventures in the otherwise so British and imperial jungle in which the characters are fable animals whose ground meaning is immediately blown up if they are regarded in the light of their belonging to the British gentlemanly society at the time of 19th century colonialism. So is it again, in Hardy’s black–magical models of the world where the narratives tend to become artifical mechanisms, deceitful or fiendish puppet–universes, ready–made tricky toys worth quoting and interacting with, rather than simply reading. More simply perhaps, novels gradually become a sophisticated form of prose entertainment for readers as patient and as intellectualised as the readers of the essays in the 19th century at large, or as the readers of fiction in the 20th century.
Previous page | Home
| Contents | Next
© University of Bucharest 2003. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Ioana Zirra
Last update: March 2003
Text editor&Web design: Raluca OVAC