A Matter of Perspective

There was at least one more major point I had planned to make on The Return of the Native, but when I realized how much work it would take to go back and support the idea with quotations, I decided to use the first two chapters from The Mayor of Casterbridge to make the same point instead. Probably any comment I make about Hardy in these short essays will apply to all four novels, anyway.

Hardy is a master of perspective, which may explain why he’s often considered the first “modern novelist.” He made better use of the omniscient viewpoint than any novelist I’d ever read before, him, though modern novelists like Faulkner make even better use of it. This technique led some to accuse him of moral ambiguity because it’s not easy to pass judgements on characters when we begin to understand why they acted the way they did. Rigid rules don’t always apply easily to complex situations. Those of us who like his style would suggest that such insight makes it easier to emphasize with characters who may not always follow society’s mores.

For instance, in the climactic scene in The Return of the Native when Mrs. Yeobright is “turned away” from her son’s door and ends up dying of heat exhaustion on her way home we see the scene from Eustacia’s, Mrs. Yeobright, and, later, Clym’s viewpoint. Originally, we see it from Eustacia’s viewpoint inside the house where she feels compromised by Wildeve’s presence. She tries to get him out the back and assumes that Clym, who’s sleeping near the door will wake up and let his mother in. When she returns to the front room to greet her mother-in-law she realizes Clym has never woken up, opens the door, looks outside, but cannot see where her mother-in-law has gone. Then we see the same scene from the mother’s viewpoint. She’s seen Eustacia look out the window at her and assumes that Eustacia must hate her so much that she has shut her door against her. Worst yet she believes her son who she had just seen enter the home let his wife do such a thing on a blistering hot day. It’s not surprising that Clym throws his wife out after he discovers that she had not opened the door for his mother, directly leading to her death and her deathbed condemnation of her son. Though students might complain that this kind of multiple look is “boring” and slows down the action, it’s precisely what transforms an escapist plot into a serious novel.

But enough of Native. Let’s discuss The Mayor of Casterbridge, my least favorite of the four novels I read for my senior paper. To tell you the truth, I have no memory of the novel. I don’t remember a single character, a shred of the plot. After reading the first chapter when Michael sells his wife, and daughter, for a few shillings I’m surprised I didn’t remember it. It’s about as shocking an event as one can imagine to start a novel.

The novel begins with what is essentially a long shot of Michael and his wife as they enter a new town and then proceeds to close-ups of the pair and their child:

What was really peculiar, however, in this couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved. They walked side by side in such a way as to suggest afar off the low, easy, confidential chat of people full of reciprocity; but on closer view it could be discerned that the man was reading, or pretending to read, a ballad sheet which he kept before his eyes with some difficulty by the hand that was passed through the basket strap. Whether this apparent cause were the real cause, or whether it were an assumed one to escape an intercourse that would have been irksome to him, nobody but himself could have said precisely; but his taciturnity was unbroken, and the woman enjoyed no society whatever from his presence. Virtually she walked the highway alone, save for the child she bore. Sometimes the man’s bent elbow almost touched her shoulder, for she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact, but she seemed to have no idea of taking his arm, nor he of offering it; and far from exhibiting surprise at his ignoring silence she appeared to receive it as a natural thing. If any word at all were uttered by the little group, it was an occasional whisper of the woman to the child–a tiny girl in short clothes and blue boots of knitted yarn–and the murmured babble of the child in reply.

When one reads the description carefully, it becomes more complex, more ambiguous, and more difficult to tell how this man and wife really feel about each other from the way they walk together. It’s obvious a movie camera could never totally convey the complexity of this small scene.

After a few swigs at the local market, though, we get a better idea of what the man seems to be feeling:

The conversation took a high turn, as it often does on such occasions. The ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes and the extinction of his energies by an early imprudent marriage, was the theme.

“I did for myself that way thoroughly,” said the trusser with a contemplative bitterness that was well-nigh resentful. “I married at eighteen, like the fool that I was; and this is the consequence o’t.” He pointed at himself and family with a wave of the hand intended to bring out the penuriousness of the exhibition.

The young woman his wife, who seemed accustomed to such remarks, acted as if she did not hear them, and continued her intermittent private words of tender trifles to the sleeping and waking child, who was just big enough to be placed for a moment on the bench beside her when she wished to ease her arms. The man continued–

Of course, this could just be bar talk, especially since the young wife seems to have heard it all before and totally ignores it.

After Michael offers to sell his wife , though, things take a turn for the worse when a sailor actually puts the money on the table:

Up to this moment it could not positively have been asserted that the man, in spite of his tantalizing declaration, was really in earnest. The spectators had indeed taken the proceedings throughout as a piece of mirthful irony carried to extremes; and had assumed that, being out of work, he was, as a consequence, out of temper with the world, and society, and his nearest kin. But with the demand and response of real cash the jovial frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid colour seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect of all therein. The mirth-wrinkles left the listeners’ faces, and they waited with parting lips.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

Michael can’t resist the challenge and picks up the money. The last he sees of his wife is she and their child following the sailor out the door into the evening. It’s hard to see Michael as anything but a monster willing to sell his wife and child for a handful of coins to a complete, stranger.

In typical, Harydesque fashion, though, the Universe seems completely indifferent to these people’s treatment of each other:

He rose and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load. Some others followed, and they stood looking into the twilight. The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the wilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.

Even this “judgement” is only allowed to stand until the last sentence when Hardy seems to reverse his opinion.

It’s not until the next morning, though, that we really see Michael’s reaction to his previous night’s actions. He finally sobers up enough to dimly remember what has happened and wanders outside looking for his wife and baby daughter. It’s not long, though, before other concerns than where his wife and daughter are begin to surface:

“Did I tell my name to anybody last night, or didn’t I tell my name?” he said to himself; and at last concluded that he did not. His general demeanour was enough to show how he was surprised and nettled that his wife had taken him so literally–as much could be seen in his face, and in the way he nibbled a straw which he pulled from the hedge. He knew that she must have been somewhat excited to do this; moreover, she must have believed that there was some sort of binding force in the transaction. On this latter point he felt almost certain, knowing her freedom from levity of character, and the extreme simplicity of her intellect. There may, too, have been enough recklessness and resentment beneath her ordinary placidity to make her stifle any momentary doubts. On a previous occasion when he had declared during a fuddle that he would dispose of her as he had done, she had replied that she would not hear him say that many times more before it happened, in the resigned tones of a fatalist…. “Yet she knows I am not in my senses when I do that!” he exclaimed. “Well, I must walk about till I find her.… Seize her, why didn’t she know better than bring me into this disgrace!” he roared out. “She wasn’t queer if I was. ‘Tis like Susan to show such idiotic simplicity. Meek–that meekness has done me more harm than the bitterest temper!”

While the reader may have been moved by his first concern for the whereabouts of his wife and baby daughter, it’s unlikely that they will be quite as moved by his sudden worry over whether or not he had revealed his name and his anger over his wife’s “meekness.”

This anger passes quickly, though, and when

… he was calmer he turned to his original conviction that he must somehow find her and his little Elizabeth-Jane, and put up with the shame as best he could. It was of his own making, and he ought to bear it. But first he resolved to register an oath, a greater oath than he had ever sworn before: and to do it properly he required a fit place and imagery; for there was something fetichistic in this man’s beliefs.

It’s even hard to doubt the sincerity of his regret when he seeks out the nearest church so that he can take an oath:

“I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take an oath before God here in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me; and may I be strook dumb, blind, and helpless, if I break this my oath!”

When he had said it and kissed the big book, the hay-trusser arose, and seemed relieved at having made a start in a new direction. While standing in the porch a moment he saw a thick jet of wood smoke suddenly start up from the red chimney of a cottage near, and knew that the occupant had just lit her fire. He went round to the door, and the housewife agreed to prepare him some breakfast for a trifling payment, which was done. Then he started on the search for his wife and child.

He searches for the two for several months until he reaches a seaport and hears that three people meeting their general description have emigrated, and he resigns himself to the idea that he has lost them. I suspect it will take the rest of the book to learn the moral ramifications of this transaction, but one can be sure that a price will be extracted for these actions.

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