This novel tells the story of the hot-tempered Michael Henchard, who rises in the world after selling his wife at a fair, yet ultimately cannot escape his past and brings about his own downfall. The book also charts the changing fortunes of his family, friends and enemies. Some people have branded it as depressing but I agree with Michael Irwin’s introduction, which notes that ‘Too often overlooked, however, is [Hardy’s] regular escape from melancholy reflection on “life” at large to a counter-balancing insistence on what can be the passionate excitement of living.” From what people had told me, I assumed that the denouement of the book would result in devastation on the scale of Hamlet, yet for many of the characters it ended reasonably happily.
However, the novel did remind me of Hamlet in other ways – for example, on the many occasions when Henchard agonised over whether or not to kill Farfrae. The lower-class characters provided brief comic interludes and a different perspective on the story, like Hamlet’s clowns, or perhaps the players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I would certainly agree that the novel was ‘Shakespearean in its tragic force‘; the way one unfortunate event led seamlessly to another as the story drew to its dramatic conclusion was masterful.
I also really admired Hardy’s use of language. Some passages of description were beautiful and thought-provoking, such as when Henchard was looking at the sleeping Elizabeth-Jane and observed that ‘In sleep there come to the surface buried genealogical curves, dead men’s traits, which the mobility of daytime animation screens and overwhelms.’ Or the simple but effective description of her hair: ‘the rays streamed into its depths as into a hazel copse.‘ I also liked Hardy’s use of black humour: ‘pitchforks of prongs sufficient to skewer up a small family’ certainly livened up the descriptions of farming equipment! Many of the words used were archaic, but interestingly some, such as ‘volk’, ‘burghers’ and ‘leery’ were close to the German, so I was able to work out their meaning. I was also amused to stumble upon the colloquialisms ‘dumbledores’ and ‘hag-rid’!
The four main characters were believable and three-dimensional. I liked Elizabeth-Jane with her warm heart and quiet determination to do her best. I also liked Farfrae (though some of his dialogue was written phonetically to show his Scottish accent, which I found jarring and inconsistent). I did not warm to Lucetta, who seemed fickle and was blind to Elizabeth-Jane’s feelings for Farfrae even though she was supposedly her friend. For much of the book I was ambivalent towards Henchard, not sure whether the sincerity and strength of his feelings outweighed some of his impetuous actions, but in the end I pitied him.
If you’re looking for a light read, this is probably not for you, but it is certainly compelling, dramatic, and not quite as miserable as everyone says!