- The Language of Thomas Hardy, and: Hardy the Writer: Surveys and Assessments, and: Thomas Hardy and His God: A Liturgy of Unbelief, and: Thomas Hardy
Even when they first appeared, Thomas Hardy's novels had the allure of the antiquated. Although they generally present a conflict between an older, agrarian existence and a progressive, metropolitan way of life, they are fundamentally regional novels, and they probably affected English-speaking readers as the dramas of Racine touched Proust: they held, that is, "all the beautiful outdated forms of language which preserve the memory of usages and ways of feeling that no longer exist." In Hardy's fiction Wessex is the ancient site of this obsolete language, both a physical and cultural circumstance. Its characters are extensions of inscrutable but compelling landscapes. Some of the most illuminating studies of the fiction in the last decade, like Bruce Johnson's True Correspondence (Florida, 1983) and E. B. Bullen's The Expressive Eye (Oxford, 1986), have approached characters as problems in perspective and as complex natures nonetheless diminished within overwhelming spaces. Two of the books here are predominantly studies of language, two of character, and all treat Wessex, and the narratives themselves, as various [End Page 291] sorts of cultural constructs. Two are part of general series, and one is a collection of essays. Because of the restrictions of form, perhaps, none is as ambitious in scope as the two earlier works.
Raymond Chapman's The Language of Thomas Hardy belongs to a series called The Language of Literature edited by N. F. Blake. Its overall goal, stated on the jacket cover, is to "show how an understanding of language can deepen our response to literary texts." Although the books assume "some knowledge of and interest in the language," they avoid "technical jargon." For a nonprofessional, maybe even nonacademic, audience, Chapman provides a survey of pertinent biographical and literary information in the first two chapters and groups his ideas under sections with titles such as "Language of Experience," "Language of Hearing," and "The Pattern of Words." In addition, he offers brief, helpful explanations, often simply in asides. The novice reader is advised that all language is metaphoric, that "Hap" is one of Hardy's poems, that open-ended or pluralistic readings are permissible. All terminology, even the familiar oxymoron, is defined. There is a short but good bibliography and indices of proper names, titles, and "language topics."
Appropriately, too, Chapman focuses his study of the language on diction, especially regional peculiarities such as dialect and the creation of voice. He writes delightfully, although in concentrating on word choice and avoiding the technical he often treats subject rather than style. Thus his discussion of allusions concerns specific works of art; Hardy's affinities with the natural world emerge not through metaphorical structures but in catalogues of trees and rustic implements; the aural qualities he lists are frequently names of objects associated with sound (like "contralto" and "piano") or sound realized through simile (a child piping "like a melancholy bullfinch"). Yet his attention to diction and the visual reveals significant patterns in Hardy's perception and its source in rustic experience. Chapman highlights the influence of William Barnes on Hardy's use of dialect, pointing out differences in technique; he shows how changes in word choice can signal shifts in the social status of characters, and how infelicitous phrasing results from blending an authoritative with a colloquial voice. In the book's only analysis, of a passage from The Return of the Native, Chapman recreates a reading in process, charting his responses to syntactical structures as they unfold. Here, he is admirably diffuse and does not reduce his observations...