Cliffhanging with Thomas Hardy

a pair of blue eyes

A Pair of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy, 1873

Famous for:

  • allegedly creating the term and concept of the cliffhanger

Thomas Hardy’s third novel is a simple story that I have complicated feelings for. This is gonna be a doozy.

The central concern of A Pair of Blue Eyes is the romantic history of Elfride Swancourt. As I have said before, Thomas Hardy is the king of character names. Young Elfride is the daughter of a country vicar. Here’s a summary of her love life:

  • A young farmer named Felix Jethway completely misconstrues some comments and actions of Elfie’s. He thinks she cares for him. She does not. He sneaks up behind her and kisses her. The fact that she didn’t tell her father and have him, I dunno, whipped or something, is later tossed in her face as evidence that she had accepted him as her sweetheart. Does wordpress have an eye-roll emoji? Felix dies of consumption. His mother, the Widow Jethway, blames Elfride for her son’s death.
  • A young architect, Stephen Smith, stays with the vicar while planning church repairs. He and Elfie fall in love. Her father encourages the match until he discovers that Stephen is not the London gentleman he seems to be, but the son of local cottagers. British English is perhaps superior to American English. We don’t have a word for people who live in cottages. More to the point, Elfride’s father forbids them from marrying. Stephen, determined to win the right to his sweetheart’s hand, decides to go to India where the competition among architects is less stiff and a man can rise quickly in the world. To ensure that they remain true to each other, he persuades Elfie to run away and marry him in secret. She begins the process, but has second thoughts about defying her father and begs Stephen to return her home. He does so, but the journey back to Endelstow—Thomas Hardy is also great at place names—takes so long that Elfride is OUT ALONE WITH A MAN OVERNIGHT. Her nemesis, the Widow Jethway, sees her on the train and has the power to ruin Elfride.
  • Elfie meets Henry Knight who happens to be Stephen’s friend and mentor. They play chess. She rescues him from death! They fall in love and she forsakes Stephen for Mr. Knight. The freakin’ Widow Jethway vents her ire upon Elfride by sending Knight a letter describing her overnight trip with Stephen in an uncharitable light. Knight forsakes Elfride.
  • Elfie’s handsome neighbor, Lord Luxellian, needs a mother for his children since the last one croaked. He picks Elfie because his little girls like her. He grows to love her passionately. Sadly, Elfride dies just five months after their marriage.

Elfride’s love life is a good deal less complicated than Lady Mary’s, but she certainly has more betrothed suitors than any girl in English literature so far. For me, the novel succeeds in parts and fails spectacularly in others.

A Pair of Blue Eyes Successes:

  • Elfride has some charming and unique personality traits. She is smarter than her father and writes his sermons for him. I really love that detail. She’s very good at chess. She also cares for finery and flattery, which I’m ok with, because the stereotype that smart girls don’t care about their looks is silly. I doubt there is any correlation between IQ and vanity. Hardy also succeeds at painting Elride’s romantic vacillations in a sympathetic light. Knight might judge her, but the reader is not meant to, which I appreciate.
  • The cliffhanger scene is wonderful. The book was originally published serially. Hardy left Knight literally hanging from a cliff between installments. I mean, on my second read through I was upset that I had to go to work with Knight hanging there. Elfride goes behind a bush, takes all her clothes off, puts the outer layer back on and rips up her petticoats to make a rope that saves her beloved.
  • The wild, rugged, Wessex landscape is beautifully described. Hardy’s skill as a novelist developed greatly between his second and third books. I can see elements of his capacity for working meaningful aphorisms into a text. He can be wise, but is generally so in a way that fits the story he has created so tightly that the aphorism loses most of its power out of context. Subtle details of plot, characterization and style are vastly improved over the atrocity that is Under the Greenwood Tree.
  • Hardy’s capacity for situational humor emerges. For example, in the churchyard Stephen chooses the flattest tombstone to sit on with Elfride. They have an intimate courtship conversation and plan their future. Stephen eventually asks her if anyone else has ever loved her before. She confesses that someone did (Remember Felix Jethway?) They banter on about it for a while. This conversation ensues:

‘“Where is he now?” he continued to Elfride.

“Here.”

“Here! What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that he is here.”

“Where here?”

“Under us. He is under this tomb. He is dead, and we are sitting on his grave.”’

I love my silly Elfride so much for kissing her new love on the grave of her old admirer.

  • I appreciate how Hardy humbles Stephen and Knight at the end of the story. I won’t describe exactly how he does it, but it’s quite a brilliant twist in the narrative.

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes Failures

  • Thomas Hardy wants us to see Elfride’s third suitor, Henry Knight, as an intelligent, humble, super moral guy. A hero that the reader should admire. Um, no. Nope. Henry Knight is the worst. He might be smart, but he’s an intellectual snob who publishes silly articles professing his own wisdom and moral superiority. Hardy wants us to see him as humble, but he’s actually so conceited that when he fears dying he thinks “such an experiment in killing might have been practiced upon some less developed life.” Because he thinks uneducated people are so far below him that they deserve to die more than he does. I could give many more examples of why Knight is a foul hypocrite and I will, upon request. I loathe him particularly because of his need to be “the first comer in a woman’s heart.” What is this? Why? I am supposed to admire this man for being a 30 year-old who is determined to marry a young, innocent, teenage virgin? What is there to admire in that? Nothing! Perhaps he can’t bear comparison with another lover. Perhaps he can’t bear the intellect and wisdom of a woman his own age. Perhaps he’s just a fetishist obsessed with virginity. I guess a lot of Victorians were. There’s nothing admirable in it. Nothing valuable in wanting to be with someone inexperienced. I loathe him. I love Elfride for standing up to him when he rejects her for having a previous lover with this sobbing speech “Am I such a—mere characterless toy—as to have no attract—tion in me, apart from—freshness?” She continues on from there, but that is her most cogent point. Exactly, Elfride! You got him. I will repeat, there is nothing admirable in Knight’s failure to recognize Elfride’s true value, because he is too busy being enraptured with the idea of “fresh lips” to kiss. Revolting.
  • Elfirde has significance only in her relation to men. I will provide two examples. First, her characterization changes when she is with different men. When Stephen courts her, Hardy portrays her as too smart and worldly for him. When Knight shows up, suddenly she’s not smart anymore. She becomes abjectly submissive to this “great” man. I know, barf. Other than that one despairing moment quoted above, she is nothing like the Elfride of the early pages of the novel. Secondly, after Stephen and Knight hear of Elfride’s death they bicker about who has the greater right to grieve for her. A woman has died! They are in the presence of her coffin and still using her as a chip in their male dominance game.

Here’s a little quote that I like:

He drew himself in with the sensitiveness of a snail.

 

Final Thoughts: I feel so ambivalent about this book that I can’t say whether I like or dislike it in total. I think I like it, but only a little. Anyway, I am certainly glad to have read it. Twice. Maybe three times; I can’t remember.  While I may have told you just about all there is to know about the plot, there’s a world inside this book and if you choose to read it, you’ll find plenty more than what I have described. Thomas Hardy is great and some of the elements of his greatness are on display in A Pair of Blue Eyes for all its flaws.

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