It is always dangerous to try to peek into the heads of writers trying to find out what their motives and intentions were when they wrote something. It is still more dangerous to do so when one is trying to find out what accounts for a whole career. Nonetheless, we must do that if we are ever to know what to make of Thomas Hardy’s poems and novels. He said he was a meliorist, someone who believes that everything will slowly improve, but the general view is that he was a pessimist concerned with the role of an irrational fate in determining the shape of people’s lives. His poem, “The Convergence of the Twain,” would seem to be pessimistic, but “The Darkling Thrush” might be seen as either melioristic or pessimistic depending on how much certainty we credit to the voice in the poem’s vacuous conclusions. Let’s look at them.
The Convergence of the Twain
Lines on the Loss of the Titanic
- In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
2) Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres. thrid: thread
3) Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
4) Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
5) Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”
6) Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The immanent Will that stirs and surges everything
7) Prepared a sinister mate
For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
8) And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
9) Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.
10) Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event.
11) Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
This is an awful poem. Just look at the imagery. A lyre is a sort of harp. An Aeolian harp is a sort of harp with strings that are vibrated by the wind. In the second stanza we have steel chambers, presumably those of the engine room, through which the ocean’s currents somehow “thrid” to make them into lyres as if they were submarine Aeolian harps. This is a nonsensical pastiche. And of course, the fires must be “salamandrine”: it’s such a nifty word.
In the third stanza the sea-worms are dumb (voiceless), but the “moon-eyed fishes” of the fifth stanza ask an ungrammatical, philosophical question: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” In the next stanza, the answer to this question ludicrously begins with a place-holder, “Well . . . . . . .” It seems that the “Immanent Will,” which is some kind of power over our destiny, is up to no good, busily creating an iceberg. Meanwhile, the ship grows in height, grace, and hue. It grows in hue . . . in color? So finally the word “Now!” is spoken—not by the Immanent Will, but by the Spinner of the Years. This Spinner seems to be a sort of bastard amalgam of the Greek Fates (Clotho was the spinning fate; Lachesis was the measurer of the life-thread; Atropos cut the thread when its time came). But perhaps the Spinner really is the same as the Immanent Will. Who knows?
One could go on to look at the ship “This creature of cleaving wing.” Wing . . . ? Or to ask why the moon-eyed fish are “dim.” Or to wonder what the “gilded gear” is, or what sense it makes to talk about the “pyres” of “fires.” Or to ask what is gained by the sexual suggestions of “mate,” “consumation,” and even “welding” (wedding). (Something might have been done with this, but that would be in a different poem.) The list goes on and on. This is heavy-handed, turgid, ungrammatical, sententious drivel. The underlying idea is almost simple-minded: who could know that at the same time the Titanic was being built, an iceberg was being “prepared,” and that the two would collide? This slender notion is tricked out with pompous, portentous imagery. You can almost imagine “Phantom of the Opera” organ music rising in peals until we reach the climax. A sentimental audience might have thought this to be a moving poem in 1912, but why should it be a staple of literature anthologies today?
Perhaps I chose the wrong poem to look at, but in my behalf I can say that I didn’t dig out one of the thousands that gather dust in his collected works. Here is another of Hardy’s celebrated poems:
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate coppice: a thicket of undergrowth
When Frost was specter gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day. eye: the sun
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky bine: flexible stem of a shrub
Like strings of broken lyres.
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
This is very much better, but it still isn’t very good, certainly not good enough to deserve the acclaim it has received. The first four lines may be the best, and they have a sort of 18th century, pastoral quality, but what are “Winter’s dregs”? The most reasonable guess is that they represent the last vestiges of winter, but that would be a sign of hope and good things to come. The “eye of day” (the sun) is presumably “weakening” because evening is approaching, but how is it “made desolate” by “Winter’s dregs”? “Haunted” just means sought out, visited, or associated with, and it is rather effective because it is a pun suggesting the other-world and serves as a connection with the next stanza. (Did Hardy have that in mind, or is it merely my interpretation? Again, who knows? With a tightly controlled poem we would have more confidence in the poet.)
The image of the land being laid in its crypt like a corpse is not ineffective, and it becomes a symbol for “the Century” (the poem was written in 1900). But the word, “sharp,” as a modifier of the land weakens the image of the corpse. “Dull” would have been better. The “pulse” of the land, its “germ” and “birth” (is this one thing or many?) is said to be “shrunken hard and dry,” and this is muddled in somehow with the notion of the Century, as “every spirit upon earth” seems “fervorless.” This is where the poem begins to go seriously awry: The poet’s voice can speak for what can be seen in the landscape at this one spot, but it can’t speak for “every spirit upon earth.” This is like the Freshman essay which begins: “Since the beginning of recorded time human beings have . . . .”
The word “evensong” in the third stanza tells us that we were right in assuming that the events take place in the evening. This joyful song comes from a thrush . . . and not just any thrush but one that is aged, frail, and gaunt. Come now! Even Roger Tory Peterson couldn’t look up into the “bleak twigs” in the failing light of evening and tell the age and state of health of a small bird. There is no way that the voice in the poem can attest to this. It is a manipulative ploy, just as the “every spirit upon earth” lines were, and it is intended to create generality where none is to be had. Now, the voice in the poem can draw its global conclusion that this may be a sign of hope–(which the bird can see but he can’t!)—not just for this year, but, one might guess, for the New Century. All of this because a bird is singing!
Things didn’t have to work out like this: we could have heard the voice in the poem saying that everything around him (not everything on earth) seemed fervorless, and that the singing of this little bird (not an aged and frail one) made him think that there was hope, even when everything appeared bleak and barren. This thought would not be adequately motivated—just as the other isn’t, but it would be honest. The manipulative touches (the hot air that puffs it up pretentiously) make it a mediocre poem.
Hardy is much better when he is ironic rather than trying to be portentous. Let’s look at two poems that show this side of his writing, “The Ruined Maid” and “Ah, are you digging on my Grave.”
The Ruined Maid
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”—
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
—“You left us in tatters without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes and spudding up docks; docks: weeds
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”—
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
—At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ barton: farmyard
and ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!”—
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
—Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!”—
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
—“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!”— megrims: low spirits
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
—“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”—
“My dear—a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined.” said she.
There is no bombast here, but even though the ruined maid is quite unrepentant (as she must be to make the poem’s point), a bright light is shined on the class distinctions of the time, on the lack of education of the poor, and on the backbreaking labor they had to endure. In her mindless appetites, the maid is a lot like Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, but the environment from which she came is like that described in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The poem is funny on the surface, but the ironic turn of last two lines is not merely a final humorous twist, but a cold and sobering truth: at that time a poor country girl could not expect to have nice clothes, baths, and skin creams without prostituting herself.
Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?
“Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one?—planting rue?” rue: an herb associated with remembrance
—“No: yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
‘It cannot hurt her now,’ he said,
‘That I should not be true.’”
“Then who is digging on my grave,
My nearest dearest kin?”
—“Ah, no: they sit and think, ‘What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin.’” gin: trap
“But someone digs upon my grave?
My enemy?—prodding sly?”
—“Nay: when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.
“Then who is digging on my grave?
Say—since I have not guessed!”
—“O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?”
“Ah yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog’s fidelity!”
“Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting place.”
This poem makes no political comment, but it exposes the vanity of the ever-popular sentimental thinking. And it is poles apart from the feeble hope expressed in “The Darkling Thrush”—so much so that it is difficult to imagine that the same author wrote both poems! And this is the crux of the question I want to raise: which is the real Thomas Hardy? Because the irrational false notes appear when he is trying to be tragic, or heroic, or profound, I think that his native impulse is towards ironic comedy which reveals a warm sympathy with ordinary people. These things can be seen even in the novels. Unfortunately, he wanted to reach beyond this, straining for a dark, tragic view. This might almost be seen as the malign effect of some sort of socially acquired ambition that runs against the expression of a related natural talent. Unfortunately, since his letters and notebooks were destroyed after his death, we have little to go on but the works themselves.
Despite the fact that he wanted above all to be a poet, and believed that novels were inferior to poetry as a literary form, his novels are clearly the best things he wrote. Three of these (Far from the Madding Crowd, 1874; The Return of the Native,1878; and Tess of the d’Urbervilles,1891) are particularly fine. The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) is interesting, but reading it is a grim exercise. The last, Jude the Obscure (which is very aptly named) is appalling—so the critics love it. I think Tess of the d’Urbervilles, despite its flaws may be the greatest. (These judgments are opinions, as all aesthetic judgments are. But, aesthetic opinions that have any real value emerge from sensibility, from feeling, not from a system of criticism. At this point, the ball is always in the reader’s court.)
I first read Return of the Native when I was in the seventh or eighth-grade. I thought it might be about savages (natives) and was disappointed when I found that I was on Edgdon Heath instead of Darkest Africa or someplace equally exotic—but I read it anyway, and for a long time, it was my favorite novel. Hardy’s comic gifts are revealed early on. Consider the conversation of the rustics who have been building a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire on Rainbarrow, an ancient burial mound. As part of an on-going conversation, one of them asks, “Didst thou ever know a man, neighbor, that no woman at all would marry?” A little while later a turf-cutter kindly asks Christian Cantle, who is not very intelligent, “What be ye quaking for, Christian?”
“I’m the man.”
“The man no woman will marry.”
“The deuce you be! Said Timothy Fairway . . . .
“Yes, I be he; and it makes me afeard,” said Christian. “D’ye think ‘twill hurt me? I shall always say I don’t care, and swear to it, though I care all the while.”
“Well, be damned if this isn’t the queerest start ever I know’d,” said Mr Fairway. “I didn’t mean you at all. There’s another in the country, then! Why did ye reveal yer misfortune, Christian?”
“’Twas to be if ‘twas, I suppose. I can’t help it, can I?” He turned upon them his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines like targets.
“No, that’s true. But ‘tis a melancholy thing, and my blood ran cold when you spoke, for I felt there were two poor fellows where I had thought only one. Tis a sad thing for ye, Christian. How’st you know the women won’t hae thee?”
“I’ve asked ‘em.”
“Sure I should never have thought you had the face. Well, and what did the last one say to ye? Nothing that can’t be got over, perhaps, after all.”
“’Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ was the woman’s words to me.”
“Not encouraging, I own,” said Fairway. “’Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ is rather hard way of saying No. . . . “
This is sad, but wryly amusing because the response is so understated, and again, it shows the inherent decency of the rustics who listen to Christian without putting him down.
But there is little humor in the novel, which is frequently claimed to be a tragedy. That judgement depends upon who the principal characters are thought to be. We have two couples to look at, the men, Diggory Venn and Damon Wildeve, and the women, Thomasin Yeobright and Eustacia Vye. To this mix is added Clym Yeobright, Thomasin’s cousin. And if this isn’t puzzling enough for people who want to break the novel up into pieces, putting each into its right box, there is the question who the “native” of the title is. We’ll begin with that. At the end of Book Four, Chapter 4 we have Eustacia speaking: “If you had never returned to your native place, Clym, what a blessing it would have been for you . . . . It has altered the destinies of ——-” and Clym answers, “Three people.” But Eustacia thinks, “Five.” This is the only reference to a “native” place or person that we have, and it is suggestive, but the title may be taken to identify another important character, and to assume that it is Clym might be a big mistake.
Many discussions of this novel show the kind of myopia seen in the following nutshell version.
Clym Yeobright gives up his life in Paris to return home, having decided he wants to start a school. He marries Eustacia Vie against his mother’s wishes, and her opposition leads to a separation between them. Eustacia, a sultry brunette, has had a relationship with Damon Wildeve, who owns an inn. Wildeve has married Clym’s cousin, Thomasin. Sadly, Clym’s studying causes his eyesight to fail, and he takes a job as a furze-cutter, though he had promised Eustacia that she would be able to live someplace where she could enjoy the more elegant society. Clym’s mother goes to his cottage to try to patch things up between them, but Wildeve has come to visit Eustacia, and Clym is asleep. Eustacia doesn’t immediately open the door because of the possible embarrassment that Wildeve’s presence might produce, and when she does, she finds that Mrs. Yeobright has left, feeling that she has been ignored by her son. Clym decides to go to his mother’s house, and finds her lying by the side of the road, exhausted and dying from an adder’s bite. Finding out that his mother had come to see him, but the door wasn’t opened for her, Clym assails Eustacia in a vituperative rage. She leaves him, and later, coming down to the inn to meet Wildeve, she throws herself (or falls) into pool behind the weir, and drowns. Trying to save her, Wildeve also drowns. Months later, Thomasin marries Diggory Venn, and Clym becomes an itinerant preacher.
This is the sort of thing you are likely to find in any book that offers you a short plot summary, and it makes the story center on Clym and Eustacia (they are even called the hero and heroine in some accounts). But it almost entirely leaves out Diggory Venn, who has always seemed to me to be the protagonist, and he has also returned to the area after an absence of two years.
There are six “books” in the novel, but Hardy had originally intended to end it with the conclusion of book five; thus, it would end with the death of Eustacia and Wildeve. In fact, he wrote a note that is appended to most modern editions.
“The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither—Thomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent.
Readers can therefore choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one.”
We need to ask ourselves two questions: what happens “book” by “book”; and how are the characters described?
Book One: As background, Thomasin had gone to be married to Wildeve, but he had carelessly gotten a marriage certificate that wasn’t valid in the community they had gone to be married in. This is the equivalent of being jilted, an incident that reflects ill upon the woman, not the man. Now the story begins. Running away in tears, she asks Diggory Venn if he will take her to her home. Diggory is a now a reddleman, a seller of the red dye used by the farmers to mark their sheep, and it has penetrated his skin making him red all over. Two years before, he had proposed to Thomasin, but although he was her best friend, next to her cousin, Clym, she had never thought of him as a potential husband, and her aunt with whom she lived, Mrs. Yeobright, was very strongly opposed to such a marriage, believing that his father’s dairy farm put him below their social class. It was after being turned down that he had taken the job as a reddleman, and he had come back to the Heath, now, because he is still in love with Thomasin.
Then we join the rustics who are celebrating Guy Fawke’s Night on an ancient burial mound, the Rainbarrow. Meanwhile, Eustacia has had a bonfire lit to summon Wildeve. It is a signal they have used for months. She is very beautiful, black-haired, deeply emotional, egotistical and narcissistic: she feels that she deserves great things—to be honored and loved by those of culture. She craves the chance to display her beauty in elevated society, preferably in Paris. She has dallied with Wildeve (a womanizer who was formerly an engineer, and is now reduced to running an inn), because he is the only man in the vicinity who stands out from the country gentry—and they are few and far between. She had lived in a coastal city with a higher level of society, but is now orphaned and must live near the heath with her grandfather, a retired sea captain. Diggory finds out about their liaison from the small boy who built the fire for her. He had hurt himself, falling down an embankment, and Diggory had bandaged his hand for him. Despite the fact that he loves Thomasin, he knows that the only thing that will counteract the disgrace that has fallen upon her is for Wildeve to marry her. He tries to persuade Eustacia to give Wildeve up, and failing in that, he goes to Thomasin’s aunt, with whom she lives, and offers to marry Thomasin, himself—but Mrs. Yeobright refuses to countenance it. Later, she tries to use the fact that another suitor has appeared to push Wildeve into marrying Thomasin, as he has sworn to do. But this information actually makes him think Thomasin will be taken care of, and encourages him to ask to Eustacia to go away with him. She declines, and this brings us to the end of the book. (In sum, the first book is mostly about Diggory Venn and his efforts to help and protect Thomasin.)
Book Two: The first part of this book is entirely about Clym Yeobright, who comes back from Paris, and is interested in forming a school, and about Eustacia, who sees in Clym a potential rescue from her life on the heath. Diggory Venn has remained on the heath solely to help Thomasin, so he is willing to do what he can to persuade Eustacia to sever the relationship with Wildeve. She is now willing to do so, and gives Diggory a letter to Wildeve that she would like him to deliver for her. When he does, Wildeve asks him if he is going to marry Thomasin, as Mrs. Yeobright had hinted. Diggory said he wasn’t, but that he was now going to immediately to ask for her hand. Wildeve’s response was to hurry to Mrs. Yeobright’s house to arrange for his marriage with Thomasin—all to spite Eustacia. Diggory arrives just a little, too late. He goes to witness the wedding, to make sure that Thomasin is all right, and then carries the news to Mrs. Yeobright who has chosen not to go. Eustacia, incognito in a heavy veil, had been asked to give the bride away, since there was no one else. She did it to spite Wildeve, and smiled as she raised her veil. After this, Diggory disappears for several months. (Again, he is central to the story if we think that Thomasin’s fate is important, as the first chapter persuades us to do.)
Book Three: Clym courts Eustacia and she agrees to marry him after gaining his assurance that they will not live on the heath but in some prosperous town with a social world she can enjoy. Mrs. Yeobright has opposed this courtship from the beginning, and Clym coldly moves out of the house into a small cottage on the heath. Thomasin visits her aunt and tells her that Wildeve doesn’t give her any money she can use for the small things she needs. A week or so later, Mrs. Yeobright thinks that the time has come to divide up the hundred guineas that her husband had left for Clym and Thomasin. She gives them to Christian Cantle in two bags, telling him to deliver them to Clym and Thomasin, and to no one else. Christian stops at Wildeve’s inn, and is persuaded to put a shilling on a raffle, which he wins. He is complemented on his luck, and filled with pride, he hints he could use his luck to make Thomasin very wealthy, while tapping his boots into which he has inserted the bags of coins. Observing this, Wildeve walks out into the heath with him, and persuades him to roll dice with him. They play by lantern light, and Christian loses all of his own money. Then Wildeve tells him that any money that was intended to go to his wife could reasonably go to him, and persuades him to play until he has lost all of the money entrusted to him by Mrs. Yeobright. Venn has been watching this from the shadows, and when Christian leaves, he reveals himself and dares Wildeve to play with him. Luck is on his side, and he takes all of Wildeve’s money and puts it into a bag that he gives to Thomasin. (Again, Diggory’s role in helping Thomasin is central.)
Book Four: Mrs. Yeobright gets a letter from Thomasin thanking her for the guineas and expressing surprise that there are so many. After some time without any word from Clym, she determines to visit Eustacia. Christian tells her what he believes to be the truth, that Mr. Wildeve has all of the money. Mrs. Yeobright fires him, and goes to confront Eustacia, who knows nothing about it and is insulted by the questions. Several days later, Thomasin, who has heard about the problem, gives Clym his share. As his intense study begins to bother his eyes, Clym decides that he will cut furze, as many of the rustics do, in order to bring in a little money and avoid hurting his eyes further. Perhaps they will get better. Eustacia is now abandoned during the day while he works, and she is isolated in their cottage. Frustrated by this, she tells Clym she is going to go to a festival at East Egdon, and he agrees that she might. There she meets Wildeve, and they dance together. Diggory, in talking to Thomasin, hears that Wildeve is often out during the evening, and he regards this as an unspoken plea for help.
As it turns out, Wildeve walks down to where he can look romantically at the moon, the stars, and Clym’s cottage. Diggory ties together some of the heather in the path Wildeave follows, so that it will trip him. It does, but Wildeve is not deterred. Going on to the cottage, he sees Eustacia sitting alone in one room—he catches a moth and releases it at the window’s slight opening, a signal they had used before. But before Eustacia can reply, there is rapping at the front door and Clym goes to answer it. There’s nobody there, but Clym keeps Eustacia inside. And when Wildeve is half-way home, several gun shots rattle the bushes near him. To himself, he thinks: if I can’t go by night, I will go by day.
Diggory stops at Mrs. Yeobright’s house and encourages her to visit her son and heal the rift between them. He wishes to alleviate Eustacia’s isolation. Mrs. Yeobright sets off to visit Clym, and sits down for a moment on a hillside where she can see the house. Clym has arrived shortly before, and she can see his tools on the front porch. Then she sees Wildeve arrive. She doesn’t recognize him, but thinks that having someone else present may make her visit with Eustacia and Clym easier. Clym is asleep on the hearth-rug, exhausted, and Eustacia and Wildeve carry on a whispered conversation about their fate and how things have worked out when they hear a knock at the door. Eustacia looks out the window and sees Mrs. Yeobright. As Eustacia is trying to figure out how to handle things. There is more knocking and Clym stirs in his sleep and says, “Mother.” Thinking he will open the door, Eustacia leads Wildeve to the back door and tells him to go, and never to come back, but when she returns to the other room she finds Clym still asleep, and when she rushes to the door, she finds that Mrs. Yeobright has gone.
Feeling that she has been rejected by her son, Mrs. Yeobright walks back in the heat, being joined by a small boy who had seen her leave the cottage. She begins to suffer from exhaustion and lack of water and sits down at the side of the road where she is bitten by an adder. Help comes for her, and she is carried to a house, where she dies. The small boy tells those caring for her that she said she was heartbroken because she was cast off by her son.
Book Five: Clym is “out of his senses” for four days, and for three weeks he is terribly despondent to think that his mother believed he didn’t love her. Christian tells him that Diggory had talked to Mrs. Yeobright before she went to visit him, so he sends for Diggory. Diggory says that when they parted she blamed herself for the trouble between them. Then Clym goes to talk to the little boy who had been with her on the road. He says that another man had come to the house, and that when Mrs. Yeobright went to the door, a woman’s face appeared in the window, but the door remained shut. Clym goes back to the cottage and assails Eustacia brutally, like a mad man, not giving her a chance to say anything that would explain what had happened. Eustacia leaves and goes back to her grandfather’s house. Wildeve tells her of an inheritance he has received, and leaves open the possibility that they might leave together.
Clym visits Thomasin, who now has a baby, and tells her about what had happened. Thomasin urges him to write to Eustacia, and he promises to do so. His letter begins, “I must obey my heart without consulting my reason too closely,” and it is not an apology so much as a self-justification. The letter is delivered when Eustacia is outside, and her grandfather leaves it on the mantlepiece for her before he goes to bed. She never finds it. Lighting a piece of furze on fire, she waves it in the air at eight o’clock, the time she promised Wildeve she would signal—if ever she did. She is terribly distraught, despairing and feeling crushed by circumstances, and she knows that Wildeve is unworthy of her.
It is a stormy night. Thomasin hurries to Clym, carrying her baby, and tells him that she fears Wildeve is running away with Eustacia. He had told her he had to go on a trip, and sent her to bed. Later, thinking she was asleep, he had opened a chest and taken out what she believes to be a roll of money. Clym tells her to stay in the house while he goes to the inn. On the way, he meets Eustacia’s grandfather who is looking for her. He tells Clym that a boy who worked in the house had hidden a pair of pistols from Eustacia because he had seen her looking at them for a long time, and had feared that she might commit suicide. Thomasin now decides that she must go back to the inn, but loses the path in the dark and rain. Coming upon Diggory’s van, she asks him to show her how to get there. He takes the baby from her and leads the way. As they approach the inn, they can see a light, and Diggory tells her that it is well below the inn, and that they must go around it since it marks a marsh. Thomasin insists that they must go towards it rather than towards the inn.
Wildeve is waiting on the road for Eustacia when Clym comes up. And before they can speak there is the sound of a body falling into water near the weir. Clym takes one of the carriage lanterns and runs to the side of the pool, followed by Wildeve. Clym holds out the lantern and Wildeve, seeing a dark body circling in the eddy, jumps in. Clym leaves the lamp where it will light the scene and runs to the lower side of the pool, where he wades out into the deeper waters. Diggory, seeing the cart and horse as they approach, hurries ahead and sees something floating in the water. He returns and gives the baby to Thomasin, telling her to go to the inn and tell the stable boy to gather men from nearby houses and send them to the weir—that someone has fallen in. Taking the lantern, Diggory picks up a wooden hatch and carries it down to the shallower water. Lying across the hatch, he lets the current carry him out, and kicking with his feet, goes around the pool in circles. Finally, something comes to the surface beside him and he seizes a man by the collar, and holding the lantern in his teeth, and paddling with the other arm, he manages to get into the shallower water. Men come running down the embankment to help, and they find there are actually two bodies, for Wildeve is clinging to Clym’s legs. Diggory asks someone to bring a pole, and one of them men tears off a handrail from a footbridge. Then, with two men helping him, Diggory goes into the shallows and rakes the pole down into the deepest waters. Together, they pull something towards them, and Diggory immerses himself and catches hold of Eustacia’s clothing.
The three bodies are placed in the cart, and Diggory leads the horse, while supporting Thomasin. Back at the inn, Clym is revived, and Diggory goes back to his van, feeling like he is an outsider. He lays his clothes out to dry, but can’t sleep, and changes into new clothes. At the inn, he learns that Clym is better, but that nothing could be done for Eustacia or Wildeve. One of the maids tells him that thomasin had said he should be given anything he needs and that she was sorry he had gone. As he stands before the fireplace, drying himself, a maid comes in with a roll of wet bank-notes and begins to pin them to a piece of twine she placed across the front of the hearth. The obvious conclusion is that Wildeve was not intending to come back. Diggory is hesitant to leave, since, “all on earth that interested him lay under this roof.” The boy who had hid the pistols from Eustacia, and had tried to make her comfortable knocks on the door and asks if he could see her. Clym, now on his feet, has entered, and he bids both Diggory and the boy to come upstairs. Eustacia has been placed in a bed upstairs, and is very beautiful. Clym blames himself for her death, though Diggory tells him his goal has always been for the good, and he shouldn’t say such desperate things. Clym replies, “No, they are not desperate. They are only hopeless; and my great regret is that for what I have done no man or law can punish me!” These are the last words. (Although much of this is about the two couples, Diggory plays a vital role once more.)
That is essentially the end of the novel, as Hardy would have it, but the ending he provided in Book 6 (which we will look at next) is exactly what we would imagine a reasonable conclusion to be. Of course, we don’t know when Hardy found that he had to make changes to satisfy his publisher, but it was probably very late since it was being published in installments, and the publisher was probably receiving these as they were finished. I am assuming they were made very late, perhaps after the publisher read Book 5.
In this book, Diggory returns after a year, a well-dressed and prosperous dairy farmer with the reddle gone from his skin. He helps Tomasin in various ways, she falls in love with him, and they are married. But of course, Hardy, being Hardy, tells us that this isn’t the ending that anyone with “an austere artistic code would recognize as being “the true one.” As you have seen, he tells us that Diggory, who has a weird character, disappears, never to be heard of again, and that Thomasin remains a widow. Is this plausible at all?
Let’s look at the descriptions of the characters. Wildeve is said to be “one in whom no man would have seen anything to admire and in whom no woman would have seen anything to dislike.” When he came back, still unmarried, Eustacia set a signal fire, and he responded to it. She is exultant, and asks if this means that he couldn’t bear to give her up, that he loves her best of all. He assents, but adds: “However, the curse of inflammability is upon me, and I must live under it . . . . It has brought me down from engineering to innkeeping—what lower stage it has in store for me, I have yet to learn.” He is a womanizer.
Clym is described this way. “Had Heaven preserved Yeobright from a wearing habit of meditation, people would have said, ‘A handsome man.’ Had his brain unfolded under sharper contours they would have said, ‘A thoughtful man.’ But an inner strenuousness was preying upon an outer symmetry, and they rated his look as singular.” Mrs. Yeobright warned Eustacia, “though he is as gentle as a child with you now, he can be as hard as steel.” He is narrow and rigid, one of the least attractive characters in the novel.
Diggory is described this way. “His figure was perfect, his face young and well-outlined, his eye bright, his intelligence keen, and his position one which he could readily better if he chose.” And his love for Thomasin reveals his character better than anything else. Early on, we have this, “ . . . he never intruded upon her who attracted him hither. To be in Thomasin’s heath, and near her, yet unseen, was the one ewe-lamb of pleasure left to him.” She feels the need to be married to Wildeve, “and dismissing his regrets, Venn determined to aid her to be happy in her own chosen way. That this way was, of all others, the most distressing to himself, was awkward enough; but the reddleman’s love was generous.” When he is trying to persuade Eustacia to abandon Wildeve, she recognizes this quality in him: “Eustacia looked curiously at the singular man who spoke thus. What a strange sort of love, to be entirely free from that quality of selfishness which is frequently the chief constituent of passion, and sometimes its only one! The reddleman’s disinterestedness was so well deserving of respect that it overshot respect by being barely comprehended; and she almost thought it absurd.” (This tells us a great deal about the quality of her feelings!) And then, we have those words in Book Five, when Thomasin and her baby are in bed, and we are told that, “all on earth that interested him lay under this roof.” Now, is he really “weird,” as Hardy tells us when he is trying to make a case for his philosophy, or is he admirable? And is it likely that Diggory will now ‘disappear mysteriously,” forever? That’s preposterous!
It’s always seemed clear to me that there are three intertwined stories here, and the important one is the one we begin with and end with: Diggory’s love for Thomasin and his role in protecting her. The problem he faces is created by Wildeve and Eustacia, and it is further complicated by Clym’s arrival and his ill-conceived marriage to Eustacia. It’s not at all clear that Eustacia has committed suicide, as opposed to simply hurrying forward in the dark and falling into the pool (which we have seen to be a concern of Diggory’s when he and Thomasin are rushing to the inn during the storm). We have no reason at all to like Wildeve, and Clym is far from admirable. Eustacia has stature that is brought about only by her beauty, ego, and passion. Thomasin is caring and sweet, but had been under her aunt’s power. The one wholly admirable character is Diggory.