- Hardy's Laodicean Narrative
In A Laodicean, stealthy observation leads to knowing. Characters prefer to be out of sight; they move uneasily among each other, enter and exit awkwardly, whisper within earshot of their enemies, and stand around waiting their turns to perform. Critics, who in the same breath call the work a spectator's novel and a failure, dislike its sensationalism and undeveloped characters (see Peter Larkin). One of its chief faults, writes Larkin, is an inconsistent vision. Paula Power, for example, "remains largely dependent for her existence on the impression she creates in other characters," but because we "rarely see, independently and in separation from the viewpoint of other characters, what they claim to see in Paula, we come to regard [her] presence as dangerously close to vacuity, and to see them as staring rather blankly" (84). In identifying the novel's problem, Larkin has exposed a phenomenological assumption about reading: by expecting to see "independently," but the way the characters [End Page 211] do, we set A Laodicean in the tradition of realism that builds an ascendant truth from objects in rapport with the reader's consciousness.1 This happy and passive reading does not work in A Laodicean. Its objects offer themselves to us, all the while belonging to their narrator, yet we cannot consciously play host to this other and intuitively assume its feelings. What prevents this apperception—as Georges Poulet has called it? Perhaps it is Hardy's uncertainty in a time of cultural transition. In this book, a hesitancy about the value of the present and its relation to the past surfaces in the female enigma; subdued, it underlies the all-too-clear affinities characters have with landscapes.
As previous studies of Hardy have shown, setting generally provides a crucial basis for phenomenological readings.2 Characters in Hardy's novels are caught in the rhythms of their landscapes; in The Return of the Native, written three years before A Laodicean, they project what we call their identities in acts of harmony or conflict with the spaces that claim them. Unsurprisingly, there is something odd about the land in the later book. Partly about choosing styles of architecture, it portrays characters at once dissociated from, and emblematic of, setting. The novel in fact contains two worlds: the first is cultural, one in flux, strewn with metonymic objects of the present and past to signify indeterminacy; the second is a universe of desire based on distance. These visual tracks, which both support the "Laodicean" theme, often disrupt the rapport of a phenomenological reading. The cultural definition of the "Laodicean," one caught and wavering in the shift from the values of the landed gentry to those of tradesmen and entrepreneurs, clearly situates Paula and makes her readable, whereas desire, because it requires individual shading of characters, implies depth and veils the object, making her unreadable. The Return of the Native synchronizes these forces. Eustacia wants what she cannot have partly because, as she realizes, she is restless and discontent by nature. But she is also a cultural misfit who hates Egdon Heath and isolates herself from its people. Her longing for Budmouth and Paris may be both a symptom of chronic desire and a sign of tragic incompatibility. Inner and outer forces fatally mix in her, but neither one wholly explains what she is and what happens to her. On the contrary, desire for Paula, as well as her wishes, has no inner dimension; it is simply behavior. All spying and eavesdropping have lost the pathological, sometimes mystical implications they carried in The Return of the Native. They seem wooden and unconvincing when viewed as personal impulses and make sense only in the conceptualized, cultural world they presumably dramatize.
Compared with the heath in The Return of the Native, the landscape in A Laodicean harbors less and tells more about its inhabitants. Stressing [End Page 212] the importance of Immanent Will in Hardy's more famous universes, J. Hillis Miller describes worlds in which unconscious energy moves through nature as "the ground of desire" (xiv). Tess, Bathsheba, and Eustacia, among others, embody the inchoate mythic possibilities written in the land; they animate...