March, 2012: I've often wondered why I consistently like old novels more than new novels. I read Return Of The Native (1878) straight after Foal's Bread (see below), and was completely accepting of Thomas Hardy's dramatic suicide ending; whereas Gillian Mears's dramatic suicide ending left me annoyed and unsatisfied. Why? I started to think about the authors' moral purpose, and the fable their characters were playing out.
I grew up reading fairy stories - perhaps this is why I write with a moral purpose (and read in search of one). Every work I've made has a moral purpose that can be expressed in one or two sentences; for example, I wrote The Showgirl and the Brumby to illustrate the problems that occur when truths about the family are kept secret. Recently I asked a writer, "Do you write with a moral purpose?" She looked taken aback, even slightly offended, and said, "No!" I'd never uttered the words "moral purpose" at a dinner party before, and hadn't realised I was making a gaffe. I vaguely grasp how in our free-market, multicultural, areligious world, morals are seen as reactionary and narrow-minded, or even unsophisticated. But I would have thought that in a world where morals are shifting and indistinct, it was more important than ever to explore them.
Thomas Hardy's suicide ending is completely moral, which doesn't mean it's simplistic or 'black-and-white'. That's the whole point of morals, and why they're worth exploring: reconciling your conscience at the end of every day often requires delicate compromising, lowering of standards, cutting yourself and others a fair bit of slack, and embracing a passel of contradictions. It's a wonder anyone can ever reconcile their conscience. When Eustacia throws herself into the Shadwater Weir, it's an indictment; partly on Eustacia's restless, unsatisfied character, "an armful of wet drapery enclosing a woman's cold form, which was all that remained of the desperate Eustacia", but mainly on the times she lived in, which prevented her (as a woman) from seeking a life that would suit her better. All these desperate nineteenth-century heroines throwing themselves into weirs, under trains or stuffing their mouths with arsenic - the moral purpose driving their (male) authors was to illustrate how impossible the prevailing social conditions were for a certain type of woman.
Perhaps a reader could interpret these novels as condemnations of that type of woman, the ones that display traits such as quick intelligence, curiosity, ambition, passion, smouldering beauty. Often there's a counterpoint female character in these novels - in Return Of The Native, there's Thomasin Yeobright, who is quiet, gentle, unintellectual, sweetly pretty, perfectly content to live her whole life in the desolate backwater of Egdon Heath, and moreover, has a baby (while Eustacia somehow manages not to). Eustacia ends up drowned in the weir, while the widowed Thomasin, after a respectable grieving period, marries the nicest man in the whole book. But I don't believe Hardy is saying Eustacia deserves to die, and Thomasin to live happily every after. He has made Eustacia an attractive, complex, challenging character. We want her to live, to reach her potential! It's a tragedy that she can't. In 1878, his readership - Victorian englishmen - might not have been as sympathetic to Eustacia as I am. But, crucially, Hardy has made Eustacia sexy. Would any heterosexual male reader, on reading about the "wet drapery enclosing a woman's cold form", really be able to nod gravely to himself and think, "Well, that young lady got her comeuppance!" Wouldn't he have felt some shudder of regret? Eustacia must have played unsettlingly, ambiguously, upon the mind of even the most disapproving reader.
Thomas Hardy gives each of his main characters (five of them - Return Of The Native is a love-pentagon) an inner life. He describes their emotions in the same observational, factual way he describes the local mores or the landscape. It is plain reportage, rather than a clever conjuring trick done in words. A couple of sentences my eye lit upon is:
While the effigy of Eustacia was melting to nothing, and the fair woman herself was standing on Rainbarrow, her soul in an abyss of desolation seldom plumbed by one so young, Yeobright sat lonely at Blooms-End. He had fulfilled his word to Thomasin by sending off Fairway with the letter to his wife, and now waited with increased impatience for some sound or signal of her return.
In this excerpt, room isn't respectfully cleared away for the emotional content - Eustacia's profound desolation doesn't even get its own sentence, but is squeezed up between Susan doing voodoo on her, and her husband feeling lonely, then is followed by a sentence that, in story-telling terms, is a bit of humdrum-but-necessary housework. It's one of the things I love most about Hardy: intense emotions are an everyday occurrence for him. He neither avoids nor dwells on them. It is a good lesson for apprentice writers (such as me) - the way he can write about passion without ever descending into melodrama.
So how does he handle his dramatic suicide ending? The abyss of desolation is the last glimpse we have into Eustacia. The next we know of her is when Wildeve (her lover) and Yeobright (her husband) hear a "dull sound" that is unmistakably the fall of a body into the weir. There are a few lines of dialogue between the two men, "Good God!" etc., then they hurry to the weir with lamps. After this are two paragraphs of specifications about the Shadwater Weir, the circular pool fifty feet in diameter, the ten huge hatches, the sides of the pool that "were of masonry, to prevent the water from washing away the bank", and so on. I remember coming across this device when studying Latin in high school: just when things get interesting, throw in a whole lot of pedantic details. It probably has a name. Finally, at the end of the second paragraph, we find what we want: "Across this gashed and puckered mirror a dark body was slowly borne by one of the backward currents."
But Hardy doesn't pull a veil over the scene yet; over two pages, people plunge in, drown, get dragged out, are revived or not, all documented in the dauntless, plodding, Hardy way. From then on, the fire of the novel has gone out, and the remaining four chapters are a raking of the ashes. The last chapter is called Cheerfulness again asserts itself at Blooms-End, and Clym finds his Vocation - if the marriage of Diggory Venn and Thomasin is intended to compensate for the unhappy drownings, then Hardy was unsuccessful on this count, but in a few hasty sketches, he is making the simple yet important point, "life goes on".
Now I've started thinking about it, I've decided it's quite erroneous to think of suicide and/or marriage as a good ending for a story. They're much better beginnings. Best to end with a beginning, and begin with an ending. Andy bought Romeo and Juliet from Cowra Vinnies, so I have another suicide ending up ahead to examine.
Some lovely lines from Return Of The Native:
Rejected suitors take to roaming as naturally as unhived bees.
Wildeve meets his old flame Eustacia, after he has affianced himself to Thomasin. He replies to Eustacia, who has been trying to figure out whether he still cares for her:
"I care a little, but not enough to break my rest,' replied the young man languidly. 'No, all that's past. I find there are two flowers where I thought there was only one. Perhaps there are three, or four, or any number as good as the first."
Later, Eustacia manages to attract Wildeve away from Thomasin, but then loses interest in him:
She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter days of an ill-judged, transient love. To be conscious that the end of a dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of a passion and its end.
Of Clym Yeobright and his mother:
The love between the young man and his mother was strangely invisible. Of love it may be said, the less earthly, the less demonstrative. In its absolutely indestructible form it reaches a profundity in which all exhibition of itself is painful. It was so with these. Has conversations between them been overheard, people would have said, "How cold they are to each other!"
Yeobright says to Eustacia:
"But the more I see of life the more I do perceive that there is nothing particularly great in its greatest walks, and therefore nothing particularly small in mine of furze-cutting. If I feel that the greatest blessings vouchsafed to us are not very valuable, how can I feel it to be any great hardship when they are taken away? So I sing to pass the time."