New Year, Same Old Story – Part 2

18 Jan

Okay, yesterday we covered the easy stuff – grammar and logic stage questions.  Today, we dive into the rhetoric.

WEM Ornament 4

Oh, look at that pretty glittery ornament.  It’s so sparkly!  Did you remember to identify the novels in yesterday’s ornaments?  You can do the same with today’s pictures – they’re different.

Oops, sorry, I’m easily distracted by shiny things.  Plus, answering the rhetoric questions can be just plain difficult, but we did it, and I’m hear to report the facts.

We started by going through the list of characters.  Did we sympathize with Eustacia?  Nope.  How about Clym?  Not so much at the end.  What about Mrs. Yeobright?  She was kind of that annoying mother-in-law and not so quick to forgive.  Well, Thomasin then?  She did choose to get herself into that mess.  Wildeve?  Absolutely not.

It’s true.  We didn’t really sympathize with anybody.  There were some glimmers of characters that we could relate to, but mostly we found them all sort of unlikable.  But don’t worry, we had a theory about what caused our detachment:  we’re pretty sure that we couldn’t sympathize with the characters because we can’t sympathize with Hardy’s argument.  Or maybe it’s visa versa.

As we approached the second rhetoric question about Hardy’s technique this section from Susan Wise Bauers’s description leaped off the page, as if it were written for this very novel.

What does the setting of the book tell you about the way human beings are shaped?  If the novelist believes that we are produced by our environment – that the place and time in which we live determine who we are – she will pay close attention to the physical landscapes.

Hello?  Paging Mr. Hardy.  Wow, does he ever think people are formed by their environments.  He goes to great lengths to describe the background of each character, and then watches as they are remolded and shaped by their present situation on the heath.  As Christine so succinctly put it, “It’s Nature vs. Nurture, and Nature always wins.”

As we dealt with that tricky question about the novel’s self-reflectiveness Jeannette pointed out that Clym is the only one on the heath with an education, and that he is the character mostly closely associated with Hardy himself.  Clym tries to expand his education and bring learning to the heath-folk.  That is a no-go with Egdon.

Changing the heath, or even trying to leave it, is not that easy.  You can’t learn your way out, you can’t spiritualize your out, and you can’t love your way out.  Resistance is futile.

WEM Ornament 2While Hardy’s story seems to take place in a very tight sphere (did you notice that we never left the heath, not even once?) there were some signs that he was influenced by the changing world around him.  The play between characters and their class and background was certainly still a topic on the minds of the English.  In addition Hardy’s work takes place on the cusp of modernism and its move away from faith.

That’s right, folks, welcome to modernism.  Here’s how Susan Wise Bauer sums Hardy’s argument (and who are we to argue with SWB, well, except for where she made a mistake or two in her summary of the ROTN plot.)

Thomas Hardy’s hapless characters struggle against the implacable natural forces that continually push them down into the much from whcih they strive to rise.  They always lose.  And so, Hardy wants you to know, will the rest of us.”

Cheerful, right?  But we’re afraid she’s on to something.  The best you could hope for if you were one of his characters is the outcome that befell Thomasin and Venn.  And even their end was not so bright and chipper until Book Sixth was forced out of Hardy’s pen.  The heath giveth, and the heath taketh away, but blessed is not the name of the heath.

In addition to the heath exacting its desires, there is a healthy dose of human pride, vanity, passion, self-love, lack of forgiveness, lust, and scheming to go around as well.

And while we may agree with SWB about what the argument is, we don’t agree with Hardy about it’s greater truth.  For what the novel lacks is hope.  Sure, the world is full of rugged, ugly, dark terrain.  Absolutely, sin abounds.  But outside of a scheming Venn Diggory, where does one find the good on Egdon heath?  Where is Raskolnikov’s Sonia?  Where is Rochester’s Jane?  Where is Levin?

They’re not here.  Instead we find we’re left on a hill of dead bones listening to the guilt-ridden sermons of one lost in despair.  Yes, Hardy, I’m talking about you.


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8 responses to “New Year, Same Old Story – Part 2

  1. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    January 18, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Amen and amen.

    Excellent wrap-up!

  2. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    January 18, 2013 at 9:03 am

    I just came upon this quote from a book I finished last week — Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by Karen Swallow Prior. (HIGHLY recommend. I’ll be writing about it soon.) She has a chapter about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I think what she has to say applies here too.

    “While grace is absent from the world within [Hardy’s] novel, the novel’s very existence comes through grace: that is, the grace offered by the author himself. In his depiction of a world without grace Hardy is demonstrating the very need for that grace.”

    Whether or not this was Hardy’s intent (I’m inclined to think it wasn’t), the point is — you can’t run away from God.

    KSP has some other great examples of Hardy’s poetry that adds even more credence to her opinion.

    P.S. I’m glad I live in a world that has real Sonias, Janes, and Levins in it!

    • Christina Joy

      January 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      One of the unexpected benefits of the WEM journey for me has been the satisfaction I get from understanding why I might not like a novel. It’s nearly as satisfying as actually liking it.

      This quote is amazing, it really helps put it all in perspective, and reminds me that we took a similar spin on Moby Dick.

  3. Ruth

    January 20, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Great points! I really like this presentation, too.

    BTW, did anyone else think: Eagles – “Hotel California” when discussing the heath? I just keep hearing Don Henley, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” OK, my age is showing. I’ll stop.

    P.S. The ornaments are beautiful, too.

    • Christina Joy

      January 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      Ha!! Now it’s stuck in my head, so, thanks for that 🙂

    • Christine

      February 3, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Ruth, I don’t know how I missed your comment, but I love the “Hotel California” song relating to the heath. Clever and spot on!


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