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"That's convenient, not to say odd": Coincidence, Causality, and Hardy's Inconsistent Inconsistency

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 92-107 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0028

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What is it about Thomas Hardy's use of coincidence as a plot device that strikes so many of his readers as distasteful? Known as a realist, Hardy tries readers' patience with plots that test the limits of the probable. His use of coincidence has long been a source of consternation to his critics; in 1957, critic M.A. Goldberg observed that attention to the mechanics of Hardy's plots and to his "reduc[tion] of character to formula and life to a series of fortuitous accidents" had become "the sine qua non of Hardy criticism" (375). More recently, Terry Eagleton notes that Hardy "can be scandalously nonchalant about the 'purity' of orthodox verisimilitude, risking 'coincidence' and 'improbability'" (40), and Lawrence Jay Dessner, who argues that Hardy's unusual perspective is simply part of his view of reality, admits that "Hardy seems to take considerable liberty with readers who come to him willing, even anxious, to suspend their disbelief " (154). These comments, and others like them, reveal an expectation that an author ought not to take advantage of the "pact of generosity between author and reader" (Sartre 1345) by violating expectations of genre.

Excessive use of coincidence in nineteenth-century fiction is usually associated with sensation fiction, while realism is expected to remain within what Brian Richardson terms a naturalistic system of causation. "A naturalistic causal world," he explains, "simply implies that recognizable and repeatable actions and events engender plausible consequences, without the meddling of supernatural entities, causal voids, or authorial meddling" (67). Coincidence, if overused as a plot device, draws attention to the construction of plot and disrupts our sense of the realist frame. But if "realism" implies a limit on the use of coincidence, where does the limit lie? As the narrator of A Pair of Blue Eyes points out, "strange conjunctions of circumstance, particularly those of a trivial everyday kind, are so frequent in ordinary life, that we grow used to their unaccountableness" (70). What is it in Hardy's fiction, then, that draws attention to "unaccountableness"? What sorts of "conjunctions of circumstance" qualify as coincidence, and at what point does coincidence trouble our expectations of realism?

Hardy's second published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873, henceforth PBE), is loaded with coincidences, thus providing a convenient case study for examining his use of this device. These coincidences increase in dramatic significance and frequency the farther we proceed in the text, producing the effect of a shift in or violation of genre—provided that the text is initially approached as a realist one. As Richard Nemesvari points out in his Bahktinian reading of Hardy's fiction, "Hardy's technique of generating generic expectations within his fiction, only to then subvert those expectations by introducing contrasting and at times contradictory discourses, is arguably his most consistent novelistic method" (102). I contend that while Hardy does indeed subvert generic expectations, it is his inconsistency in doing so that truly jars readers' complacency with narrative conventions and provokes uncomfortable questions about the nature of reality. As I will show, PBE begins in realist mode but shifts into something akin to sensation fiction before eventually giving way to a strangely metafictional world with distinctly surrealist overtones. I argue that by experimenting with scales of space and time, Hardy not only disrupts conventional realism by calling attention to the artifice of the realist frame but also challenges readers to recognize the frames we place around our own experiences of reality. For the purposes of this article, I use Richardson's terminology for describing causal systems in fiction—naturalistic, chance, and metafictional—and connect these causal systems to generic modes of realism, sensation fiction, and surrealism respectively. I see PBE's shift in narrative mode as a comment on reality as well as on realism and argue that Hardy's text invites readers to question whether our own expectations of probability are themselves flawed if we dismiss excessive coincidence as a legitimate possibility.

In order to proceed with a discussion of coincidence, we must come to grips with our understanding of the term. The OED's initial definitions are concerned with simple temporal or spatial conjunction, but the fourth entry hits upon...



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