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  • Sleeping Figures: Hardy, History, and the Gendered Body
  • Jules David Law

Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years.

The Mayor of Casterbridge 1

In sleep there came to the surface buried genealogical facts, ancestral curves, dead men’s traits, which the mobility of daytime animation screens and overwhelms. In the present statuesque repose of the young girl’s countenance [her father’s face] was unmistakably reflected.

(MC, 196–97)

Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles 2

In Hardy’s novels the human body is marked by both gender and history, but the two make strange bedfellows. Notwithstanding Hardy’s recognition of the Victorian gender- and marriage-systems as sites of intense negotiation, his novels display remarkably little interest in representing history as a succession of contested social arrangements. Bodies function in Hardy’s novels as relay or distribution mechanisms, in which the energies and passions aroused by the contestation of social arrangements may be organized and distributed according to a number of relatively naturalized tropes: accumulation, erosion, and fossilization, to name a few. The novels thus display conflicting attitudes toward the representation of historical change, and this ambivalence is itself inscribed in gendered ways on the bodies of Hardy’s characters. This is not to say that one always finds on the bodies of his characters tokens of a temporal struggle against the social destinies prescribed by gender [End Page 223] systems; rather gender itself is articulated as a kind of temporal depth, but one which is determined ultimately, as we shall see, by a narrative apparatus rather than by any historical or social-material factor properly speaking.

For Hardy, temporality expresses itself through the human body in a variety of heterogeneous ways: as the traces of evolutionary history, as buried genealogical traits, as the disfigurations produced by a lifetime of intense labor, as the codes of dress and posture that signal the narrative of one’s class-history, and in smaller ways as the emotional high-water marks of the individual’s life-history. In each of these cases, temporality has a double valence: historical continuity is naturalized while social change is pathologized. But the figure of the human body is traversed as well by the markings of gender, in which are condensed a complex set of social relations, “potentialities” and destinies. 3 Hardy’s initial strategy for assimilating these two types of inscription—and his initial “solution” to the contradictory implications of history—is hardly original. Not surprisingly, he distributes the positive and negative valences of temporality schematically across lines of gender: men’s bodies express reassuring temporal continuity, while women’s bodies express the anxieties of social change. But Hardy’s bodies are not sui generis; they are produced by and under the narrative gaze, which they help construct in turn. In the early novels this narrative gaze is masculine in the simplest and most literal sense: it assimilates to itself those “complex” and “reassuring” qualities it elsewhere ascribes to the bodies of male characters. Yet as Hardy moves gradually (in the novels ranging from Far From the Madding Crowd to Tess of the D’Urbervilles) toward an interpretation of social relations (and particularly of the impasses and contradictions within specific communities) in terms of the sexual crises in women’s life-histories, he is forced into a more complex representation of the way temporality is inscribed on the female body. Thus Tess Durbeyfield, for instance, has both continuity and social change inscribed on her body. What remains unchanged, of course, is the narrative...

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pp. 223-257
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