restricted access Thomas Hardy: Towards a Materialist Criticism (review)
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Reviewed by
George Wotton. Thomas Hardy: Towards a Materialist Criticism. Totowa: Barnes, 1985. 233 pp. $28.75.

Despite George Wotton's good insights, his book will probably win scant sympathy for a materialist consideration of Hardy's art. The preface suggests a reason for the book's uneven quality. He switched, rather suddenly it seems, from a depoliticized follower of F. R. Leavis to an adherent of Pierre Macherey and [End Page 658] Terry Eagleton. The thesis and antithesis of his development are quite clear; it is unfortunate that he did not achieve a more balanced synthesis before writing this book. The new system he has embraced often sinks analysis with excess ballast: obfuscation, jargon, dull writing.

The book's faults are heavy ones. Its aims are too ambitious, and its procedures too rigid, to permit the development and the testing his ideas merit. Part Three is a five-chapter review of Hardy criticism that traces "the relation between Hardy's writing and aesthetic ideology, the ways in which 'Thomas Hardy' has been produced as 'Literature' and the social and ideological function of that production." Because, Wotton claims, bourgeois criticism has imposed "areas of silence" and therefore does not permit "certain things to be said" of Hardy's works, only materialist criticism can speak on these forbidden topics. Given the vast, diverse body of Hardy criticism of our century, one grants that his survey will be highly selective. One is not, however, likely to grant the omission of critics who do not fit his tidy generalizations about bourgeois criticism. In Chapter Twelve, in which he takes pains to show that "the discussion of aesthetic ideology consistently produced Hardy's writing as the expression of a remarkable quietism," he fails to discuss Roy Morrell (Thomas Hardy: The Will and the Way), who argues persuasively for the potentialities available to Hardy's characters for action.

Wotton's confessing to "a certain awkwardness, even crudity" in his book is fair warning. The double burden of his reliance on jargon (often undefined) and dull, humorless, at times badly punctuated prose makes reading his book tedious:

Marriage here signifies a post-lapsarian reality and confronted by the prosaic necessity of having to live and work together the realization dawns that what had seemed to belong to the object of contemplation belonged in fact to the perceiving subject and the couple are left in a state of mutual antipathy.

Was it not against writing like this that George Orwell railed in "Politics and the English Language"?

There are, nevertheless, passages of insight. Wotton deals capably with the grounds for a widely shared misapprehension of Hardy's fictional art: the twin convictions that "Hardy" is the creator and narrator of his works and that his works express a coherent philosophical view. Chapter Six is an effective rebuttal of this notion. Wotton shows that although Hardy shared with other Victorian thinkers a belief in Progress, his writing evinces conflict between that view and "an individual, ego-centric process of 'taking thought.' " Out of this conflict spring "those consistent images of separation, a product of Hardy's association of 'taking thought' with the colonizing bourgeois civilization. . . ." Thus, Wotton argues, it would be wrong "to think of Hardy's writing in terms of the elaboration of a philosophy . . . for that would be tantamount to saying that the novels were simply a reflection of Thomas Hardy's consciousness." Instead, Hardy's commitment to philosophical idealism led to the use of conflicting modes of perception in the novels. Hence, whereas Hardy's "aesthetic intention . . . constructs the reader as seer," a reader aware of the "ideological problematic" upon which the intention is based may logically say "something about Hardy's writing which is not simply a repetition of what the writing itself is saying." In other words, [End Page 659] what Hardy enables us to "see" in his art may well be at odds with any "views" presented by the persona-narrator or any of the characters.

Sections in which his ideas receive this kind of lucid, sustained development are, unfortunately, rare. Instead of having been liberated by his adoption of a materialist perspective, Wotton most often seems imprisoned by...


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