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SOURCE: Wright, T. R. “Diabolical Dames and Grotesque Desires: The Short Stories.” In Hardy and the Erotic, pp. 89-105. London: Macmillan, 1989.
[In the following essay, Wright considers the role of the erotic in Hardy's short fiction.]
Hardy published nearly fifty short stories in a variety of periodicals from 1865 to 1900, collecting the majority of them for republication in four volumes: Wessex Tales, a set of rural romances drawn from the folklore of the West Country; A Group of Noble Dames, recounting the perverse desires of a number of aristocratic ladies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Life's Little Ironies, a macabre series of illustrations of the tricks fate plays upon loving men and women; and A Changed Man, a miscellaneous collection of tales whose central theme is the chaos introduced into human lives by the irresistible dictates of desire. Each of these volumes contributes to Hardy's exploration of the erotic. Like the short stories of Hawthorne and Poe, of which so much has been made by post-structuralist and psychoanalytic critics, they lead beyond the ‘normal’ characterisation of the realistic novel to consider those areas of the psyche which are abnormal, obsessive and irrational.
Hardy's short stories are often dismissed as melodramatic and clumsy because they are full of such abnormal characters and perverse situations. Even when they have been recognised as instances of his ‘interest in psychology, especially in its bizarre and unusual aspects’, they have been criticised for their fixation upon single oddities of character at the expense of the ‘whole personality’ (Sumner, 1981: 18). Yet Hardy can be seen to be challenging the liberal humanist notion of coherent personality, deliberately focusing on the incoherence of human behaviour, in particular the irrationality of desire. The short stories demonstrate a particular interest in the ‘uncanny’ in Freud's famous definition, ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’, combining the ‘strange’ with the ‘commonplace’, breaking down that ‘distinction between imagination and reality’ upon which sanity is based and shedding doubt on the stable certainties of the rational world (Keys, 1985: 111). The Wessex Tales in particular draw on familiar traditions of folklore to undermine any belief in the simplicity of country life (Brady, 1982: 48-9).
At least five of the seven stories written between 1879 and 1888 which were collected as Wessex Tales focus on the dreams and illusions of desire. ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ tells a familiar tale of infatuation with the exotic and unknown, a local girl finding herself fascinated by the melancholy face of a young German soldier. The language barrier between them speeds the process of her infatuation, for ‘the eyes … helped out the tongue and … the lips helped out the eyes’ (WT [Wessex Tales]: 50). Refusing to see him in the same serious light as someone who spoke the same language,
She no longer checked her fancy for the Hussar. … The young foreign soldier was almost an ideal being to her, with none of the appurtenances of an ordinary house-dweller; one who had descended she knew not whence, and would disappear she knew not whither; the subject of a fascinating dream—no more.
She is quite shocked when he proposes, for such a ‘practical step had not been in her mind in relation to such an unrealistic person as he was’ (54). The Hussar is captured and shot for desertion, leaving her to contemplate her unfaithful fiancé's departing gift, ‘a very handsome looking-glass in a frame of repoussé silverwork’ (59). Her self-reflexive desire, it is implied, will no doubt find new objects on which to reshape itself.
‘The Withered Arm’ is the most bizarre of the Wessex Tales, concerned as it is with the magical powers of a jealous woman. It has been called ‘an essay in the pathology of sexual jealousy, … a psychological fable’ exploring that uncanny area of strange coincidence determined by the forces beyond our conscious control (Keys, 1985: 106). It begins with a neglected woman sending her son to report on his father's new bride. The lad's ‘hard gaze’ takes in every ounce of her charm, ‘every feature, shade, and contour distinct, from the curve of her little nostril, to the colour of her eyes’, lit up by the evening sun. He notices not only how ‘nice and red’ her mouth is but how her gown ‘whewed and whistled’ against the pews in church (WT: 68-70), culture combining with nature to give a clear indication of her erotic attraction even to the boy.
On the basis of her son's evidence and that of the village gossip, the neglected Rhoda is able to build up ‘a mental image’ of her rival, as ‘realistic as a photograph’ and sufficient for a vivid dream in which
the young wife, in the pale silk dress and white bonnet, but with features shockingly distorted, and wrinkled by age, was sitting upon her chest as she lay … the blue eyes peered cruelly into her face, and then the figure thrust forward its left hand mockingly, so as to make the wedding-ring it wore glitter in Rhoda's eyes.
The dream vision is clearly a reflection of Rhoda's jealousy and its deformity a product of her wish-fulfilment. Her vindictive desires are fulfilled in the following sequence of the dream, in which she seizes the bride's mocking left arm and whirls the spectre on to the floor.
But it is not only in the dream that Rhoda achieves her revenge. On waking in a cold sweat she continues to feel the arm within her grasp while the bride actually suffers the resultant injuries, which grow progressively worse until the conjuror to whom she turns as a last resort recommends the touch of a corpse as the only remedy. The corpse she chooses, however, in another uncanny coincidence, turns out to be Rhoda's son, unjustly condemned to hang for arson. Rhoda catches hold of her bare arm, as in the dream, and causes her instant death. The story baffles its readers, breaking down all certainty about what is real and unreal, conscious and unconscious.
Everything is beyond the control of the unfortunate Mr Barnet, one of the two ‘Fellow-Townsmen’, who never manages to attain the object of his desire, which remains fixed on his first love, Lucy Saville. He comforts himself during his unhappy marriage to a dominating and wilful woman by meditating on the beauties of Lucy's face, reminding himself of ‘the Raffaelesque oval of its contour’ by paying her a visit (103) and projecting a ‘gaze’ of longing on to the curl of smoke which rises from her chimney ‘as from a fire new kindled’ (117) at the very moment that his wife's body lies believed drowned upon his bed. His wife, however, recovers as a result of his dutiful attentions and proceeds to live just long enough for Lucy to marry the bereaved Mr Downe and thus remain inaccessible to Mr Barnet, who returns after an interval of twenty-one years to find her once more free to marry. She at first refuses him, changing her mind too late to prevent his disappearing for ever unsatisfied. The irony is that Mr Downe is blessed with two marvellous wives whom he takes almost for granted. Possession once more reduces desire, which survives in his fellow-townsman only through perpetual frustration.
Marriage and desire are portrayed throughout the Wessex Tales as mutually incompatible. Farmer Charles Darton, for instance, who congratulates himself at the beginning of ‘Interlopers at the Knap’ on his resolve to do the sensible thing and marry the good-hearted Sally in place of the superior Helena, the first object of his affections, soon finds his old desire reawakened when he encounters Helena in Sally's house wearing the dress he had bought for Sally to marry in. Sally discovers them with their eyes ‘fixed’ upon each other, the farmer unable to stop ‘looking at Helena's dress and outline, and listening to her voice like a man in a dream’ (163-5). None of the three participants in this scene knows, at this stage, how the other two relate to each other. It transpires that Helena has married Sally's brother, who has returned from Australia to die. This, of course, leaves Helena free to marry the farmer, only for him to find the reality of marriage an inevitable disappointment, a pale reflection of the delights of desire.
The last of the Wessex Tales, ‘The Distracted Preacher’, plays with the struggle in the mind of a Wesleyan minister between the delights of the erotic and the demands of his conscience. This ‘lovable youth, who won upon his female hearers as soon as they saw and heard him’ (183), is delighted to find that his widowed landlady, whose first entrance is announced by a provocative ‘rustle of garments’, is
a fine and extremely well-made young woman, with dark hair, a wide, sensible, beautiful forehead, eyes that warmed him before he knew it, and a mouth that was in itself a picture to all appreciative souls.
He does not see much of his ‘enkindling landlady’ since she limits her availability in the deliberate hope of increasing his interest. But the fact that she refers in a slip of the tongue to her ‘first husband’ makes it clear even to the minister that she ‘had thought pretty frequently of a second’ (191). He spends a ‘titillating fortnight’ being allowed only the occasional glimpse of her ‘seductive eyes’. Too often, for his taste, there is ‘no Lizzy Newberry and no sweet temptations’ (192-4). Excited by the mystery of her night-time absences and an independence of manner which ‘would have kept from flagging the passion of a far more mutable man’ (203), he eventually discovers that she is involved in smuggling.
The combination of drink, sex and smuggling proves irresistible. It is symbolised in a scene in which the young widow offers to cure the minister's cold by uncovering a secret supply of liquor under the singing-gallery of the church, and they refill the keg with water which he sucks from her ‘pretty lips’ by means of the pressure produced by alternately squeezing and releasing the keg. He even accompanies her on a mission during which their cheeks come into accidental contact as they peer out at the Customs men from their concealed position. His conscience finally forces him to demand that she cease her smuggling if she is to become his wife. The reader is given alternative endings: that of the magazine, in which she gives up smuggling in order to become a dutiful minister's wife and that, according to a footnote added to the collected version, which ‘would have been preferred by the writer’, in which she sticks to her smuggling. The latter ending certainly captures the spirit in which the whole story is told, the mischievous delight in the sweetness of sin and the impossibility of reconciling the dutiful and the erotic.
None of these macabre stories is ‘realistic’ at the level of plot or characterisation. They are not long enough to prepare readers for the melodramatic twists with which they are filled. But in terms of the vagaries of desire, the absence of what conventional criticism would call ‘convincing’ and ‘coherent’ characterisation becomes a virtue. Acting upon impulse in response to uncontrollable drives, the protagonists of these tales perform the most extraordinary antics, all of which serve to demonstrate the absurdity and unpredictability of human emotions. Hardy abandons realism for a more complex ‘reality’ beyond the reach of conscious control.
A GROUP OF NOBLE DAMES
Hardy himself described A Group of Noble Dames as ‘rather a frivolous piece of work’ written ‘in a sort of desperation during a fit of low spirits’ (CL I [The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1]: 239). The stories are supposedly narrated by the ancient male members of the Wessex Antiquarian Club, who seem to regard the subjects of their stories as of little more interest than the stuffed birds, deformed butterflies and prehistoric dung-mixens which form their surroundings. They interrupt from time to time to comment on the subtlety of their ‘psychological studies’ and on ‘the dreamy and impulsive nature of woman’ (GND [A Group of Noble Dames]: 131). But they are clearly unreliable as narrators, providing an ironic reflection of the main themes of the collection, the irrationality of desire and the conflict between passion and convention. The noble dames themselves, so much more vital than the antiquarian members, can be seen as victims of social rules, in particular of marriage. They retain a certain fascination, distanced as they are both by time and by class from most of their lovers and most of their readers (Brady, 1982: 51-3, 93). They also illustrate many of the erotic features noticed in Hardy's earlier work, in particular the perversity of desire, its construction of illusory images which are all too easily displaced.
‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ is perhaps the best-known of these stories, partly because of the attack launched upon it by T.S. Eliot, who saw it as a vivid illustration of the entry of the diabolic into modern literature (Eliot, 1934: 58). Its heroine, like the archaeologist in Thomas Mann's much-analysed Gradiva, falls in love with a statue, that Lacanian symbol of objectified desire. She begins the tale ‘a good and pretty girl’ but then elopes with the impoverished Edmond Willowes, who has little to recommend him apart from his looks. Sir John and Lady Grebe accept the married couple only on condition that the husband undertake a continental tour to remedy some of the defects of his education and it is on this trip, heroically rescuing others from a fire in Venice, that he becomes so badly disfigured that his wife cannot repress the horror she feels on seeing him, reproach herself though she does for being a ‘slave to mere eyesight’ (GND: 63).
The unwanted husband disappears and dies, only for a statue commissioned on his tour to be sent on to the now remarried Barbara. She falls hopelessly in love all over again, forgetting the ‘mutilated features’ of the real man in favour of the perfect beauty of his image. ‘What are you doing?’ demands her second husband, Lord Uplandtowers, discovering her ‘lost in reverie’ before the statue. ‘I am looking at my husb—my statue,’ she stammers in parapractic reply (67), for this is the image she married. Enshrining the statue in a secret recess of her boudoir, she steals there in the middle of the night and is seen by her husband
standing with her arms clasped tightly round the neck of Edmond, and her mouth on his. The shawl which she had thrown round her night-clothes had slipped from her shoulders, and her long white robe and pale face lent her the blanched appearance of a second statue embracing the first.
Two images intertwine in utterly ‘unreal’ relationship testifying only...