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  • Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved:Love’s Descent
  • Annette Federico

Thomas Hardy's last published novel, The Well-Beloved (1897), is a focused dissection of one man's pursuit of individual fulfillment along two paths: love and art.1 The hero, Jocelyn Pierston, is a sculptor in search of perfection in both body and soul. His life is an obsessive, involuntary chase for the permanent embodiment of the ideal feminine, the well-beloved. He has glimpses of her everywhere—on the streets, in drawing rooms, at railway stations. She has beckoned to him from boyhood, throughout adolescence and young manhood, and well into maturity. The well-beloved seems entwined with his artistic imagination, but at the same time she lives apart from his ambitions as a sculptor: he does not seek a model for his Venus statues or a Pre-Raphaelite stunner. Pierston wants something he can hardly identify; the well-beloved is simply a "phenomenon." There is such a mixture of hope and anguish in Pierston's pursuit that his wishes almost seem outside of consciousness or volition, and he often feels cursed by his desires. His life's story—and so, his life's pursuit—finally centers upon three generations of women, youthful reincarnations of the original Avice Caro from his native Isle of Slingers, with whom he fell in love at the age of twenty. He loves the daughter of the first Avice when he is forty, and the granddaughter when he is sixty, but time and life defeat him. Pierston never finds happiness with the well-beloved. Relieved at "the extinction of the Well-Beloved and other ideals," he gives up his London studio with its collection of statues, retires as an Academician, and takes up urban planning in the Isle of Slingers.2

Both love and beauty in The Well-Beloved are imagined as a means to connection or unity with a nonrepresentable source of perfection outside of the experiential world. One question Hardy determinedly confronts in this novel is the desirability of transcendence. Like many [End Page 269] writers in the 1880s and 1890s, Hardy was interested in philosophy and spiritual matters, but he was also a student of Darwinian theory and biological determinism—The Well-Beloved displays his awareness of heredity, genealogy, and geological time alongside Platonic striving.3 Pierston's pursuit does not propel him in only one direction. The Well-Beloved ironically dramatizes a modern intellectual and spiritual situation: released from God and religion, is there a non-metaphysical idea of transcendence, a means of self-overcoming that nevertheless embraces corporeality and the mutability of human life?

In several of her philosophical essays, Iris Murdoch has sought ways to return the concept of transcendence to moral philosophy without the benefit of metaphysics. Murdoch is interested in retaining the idea of transcendence in a post-Freudian intellectual world, that is, in a "non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense." For Murdoch, false transcendence is too easy: attached to the human will, it relegates "the moral to a shadowy existence … a consoling dream projected by human need on to an empty sky."4 But another idea of transcendence may be rehabilitated for moral theory, and that is the redirection of attention outward, away from the self toward the real world and the other human beings who occupy it. For Murdoch, the idea of realism and the idea of transcendence are related in the apprehension of beauty:

"The link here is the concept of indestructibility or incorruptibility," Murdoch writes. "What is truly beautiful is 'inaccessible' and cannot be possessed or destroyed. The statue is broken, the flower fades, the experience ceases, but something has not suffered from decay and mortality. Almost anything that consoles us is a fake, and it is not easy to prevent this idea from degenerating into a vague Shelleyan mysticism."5

The Well-Beloved describes this kind of fake consolation, the Shelleyan mysticism that deteriorates into a self-involved fantasy. In Jocelyn Pierston, Hardy dramatizes a modern philosophical problem: the need for a form of transcendence that yet calls us to the things of this world. Pierston's discipline as an artist nourishes his capacity to be arrested...


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pp. 269-290
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Will Be Ceasing Publication
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