- Thomas Hardy, and: A Companion to Thomas Hardy
Dedicated to J. Hillis Miller, Julian Wolfreys’s latest book, Thomas Hardy, explores the “aporetic experience” of reading about which the older critic has written so compellingly through the years (30). Like Miller, Wolfreys assumes the destabilizing heterogeneity of Hardy’s work and considers doing so an ethical imperative: one must confront not only the undecidability of the text but the problems of reading one’s own “historically determined subjectivity” in the “fiction of the self” that informs Hardy’s canon (14). With this imperative in mind—and recalling the deconstructive work of the 1980s—Wolfreys has [End Page 173] produced a series of sensitive close readings in which Hardy’s work illustrates the performativity of all texts and emphasizes the reflexive act of interpretation.
Focusing on passages that embroil the reader in such interpretive tangles, Wolfreys “move[s] in and out of a range of texts” (8), almost all of them novels, through “readings of moments of unique experience, without the assumption of grand interpretive patterns” and without a central argument of his own (9), because, he emphasizes, it is “important to respect the singular nature” of each of Hardy’s eclectic novels and “to respond to that which Hardy’s text imposes” (2, 1). Motifs emerge in the book’s five chapters, nonetheless: Being as dwelling in the Heideggerian sense, the unstable category of realism, the textuality of the past and its haunting of the present. The most acute of these motifs is “cultural anachrony,” the co-existence of the archaic and the modern or “that by which the Janus-face of Victorian modernity is recognized” (11). Wolfreys is adept at analyzing this simultaneity and, therefore, most persuasive in his treatment of historical novels and historical elements in the other novels. In texts such as The Trumpet Major (1880) and A Laodicean (1881), he examines the “extent to which one’s modernity is informed and determined by anachronistic traces that haunt any ontological formation oblivious to the complexities of historicity and cultural memory” (148).
Wolfreys is most interested in what he views as the relatively neglected texts. Yet even these novels (he introduces a poem for illustration only) have been the objects of much attention. Indeed discussion of the less celebrated works, especially A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), The Return of the Native (1878), and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), is not new. Familiar tensions and issues are put to a specific phemonenological purpose, however. Wolfreys regularly recasts famous scenes into performative passages that reflect an act of reading: when, for instance, in the first three paragraphs of Two on a Tower (1882), “mise en scène gives way to mise en abyme” (106, emphasis original), he reminds us that “we are in a textual rather than a merely ‘natural’ world, and that there is a degree of signification beyond the purely mimetic” (105). Likewise, when Aeneas Manston in Desperate Remedies (1871) gazes at insects in a rainwater butt, the formal elements of his view and its association with another, very different scene in the novel invite the reader to ponder the links between “perception, consciousness, and composition” (51). I don’t have the space to cover more of the readings of specific passages. Many are ingenious and absorbing. Together with the book’s rambling discussions, they tend to obscure the “singular nature” of each work, however, until all the novels come to seem one continuous novel, like the beautiful films of Yasujirō Ozu. The effect is probably not unwelcome to Wolfreys: these are texts, after all—and literature, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, is but a single text. Yet sometimes the seamlessness of Hardy’s work here seems the result of Wolfreys’s verbose and repetitive argument rather than of methodical inquiry. The book could be half as long, and there are some spectacular editorial...