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American Imago 59.1 (2002) 3-26

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Psychoanalysis and Romantic Idealization:
The Dialectics of Love in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd

Barbara A. Schapiro

In Memory of Stephen A. Mitchell

Perhaps the single most pervasive theme of Thomas Hardy's fiction, as J. Hillis Miller (1970) has pointed out, is that of "fascination--the love of a human being who radiates a divine aura" (114). In many of the novels, characters are driven by a romantic infatuation with an idealized other. Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native (1878), for instance, is described as "idealizing Wildeve for want of a better object" (98), then replacing him with Clym Yeobright because of "the fascination which must attend a man come direct from Paris" (141). Angel Clare initially regards Tess as an immaculate "visionary essence of woman" (Hardy 1891, 103), while Tess loves him so passionately, he was "godlike in her eyes" (142); and Jude never loses his sense of Sue as an "ideality," indeed as "almost a divinity" (Hardy 1895, 164). Hardy's last published novel, The Well-Beloved (1897), presents the most focused elaboration of this theme as it follows Jocelyn Pierston's pursuit of an elusive idealization, the "Beloved," as it is incarnated in three generations of women in a single family.

From a Freudian or traditional psychoanalytic perspective, such romantic idealization is generally regarded as rooted in primary narcissism, in the infant's original experience of omnipotence and blissful merged union with the mother. The idealized other is considered to be a projection of the ego ideal, a substitute for the once primary and now lost narcissistic perfection. 1 Freud saw romantic love, like religion, as an illusion, and he believed the idealization that fuels romantic passion to be immature and dangerous. More recently, however, [End Page 3] theorists from the relational school of psychoanalysis have suggested that idealization and narcissistic fantasy may in fact be necessary, healthy components of mature adult life. This revisionary psychoanalytic perspective allows for a less pathological or bleak view of romantic love, and it offers a useful lens through which to view the powerful theme of romantic idealization in Hardy's fiction.

As I have argued elsewhere (1986), the origins of Hardy's fascination with an idealized, erotic other can indeed be found in the dynamics of infantile narcissism and in the author's highly dependent and enmeshed relationship with his mother. While the focus of this paper is on the psychodynamics of Hardy's texts, not on his life, a brief look at his early personal history offers a context for examining the issues of idealization in the fiction. Hardy was the first of four children born to Jemima and Thomas Hardy. His conception was a premarital accident that led to a marriage that neither party reportedly wanted. Jemima suffered a difficult delivery, and one account tells of her casting the baby aside as dead before the midwife discovered that the child was in fact breathing. Biographer Michael Millgate (1982) suggests that that story may be apocryphal, but he describes how "Hardy was for some time after his birth no better than a 'vegetable,' so lacking in motion or discernible intelligence as to convince Jemima that she had borne an idiot" (16). Millgate speculates further that "Thomas and Jemima perhaps took little interest in, or feared to make any great emotional commitment to, a weakly child whom they had not wanted and who was unlikely to live" (16).

Such presumed neglect of the child's early emotional and narcissistic needs, particularly of the sort of mirroring and idealizing demands described by Heinz Kohut (1971), may have contributed to what Millgate calls Hardy's "prolonged immaturity" and to his "extreme emotional dependence upon his mother" that lasted well into his adulthood (1982, 22-23). In addition, Jemima was a moody, controlling, and strong-willed woman who dominated the household. Hardy's intensely ambivalent maternal attachment lay behind his unhappy, problem-plagued marriage with his first wife. Throughout his life, moreover, Hardy was...


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