"Life and Death Are Neighbours Nigh": Hardy's 'A Pair of Blue Eyes' and the Uses of Incongruity

Article excerpt

In both his fiction and his poetry Thomas Hardy could juxtapose deliberately mismatched elements in remarkably artful ways: one thinks, for example, of the striking effect he achieved by having the dying Jude's recital of verses from Job made to the accompaniment of hurrahs from the Remembrance Day crowd. In the case of A Pair of Blue Eyes, however, observations that the novel is fraught with incongruities have usually been made in derogatory ways. Even Richard Taylor, who more than any other scholar has called attention to many of the artistic strengths to be found in the system of parallels and symmetries in the novel, felt compelled to add that it had a "patchwork quality,"(1) and many other critics have been particularly lively--if sometimes remarkably contradictory--in describing the supposed defects of its mismatched elements.(2) Hence, even when due weight is given to arguments that the novel is more unified than has been commonly judged,(3) there remains a widespread opinion that A Pair of Blue Eyes is weakened by its incongruities. But a persistent pattern in Hardy's narrative--and evidences in his correspondence as well as in his revisions--all point to a different conclusion: that many of those incongruous features are not incidental to or undeliberate features of Hardy's craft. Rather, distributed as they are over many different levels of the narrative, they constitute a pattern that was calculated to play a major thematic role in the novel.

The culmination of that pattern was also the most widely criticized feature of A Pair of Blue Eyes--its ending, where Hardy conjoined the painful shock of Elfride's unexpected death with the comic absurdities of Stephen and Knight who first vie with one another to win her back and then quarrel over which of them had priority in her love. Yet Hardy's correspondence with Richard Holt Hutton makes clear he thought the strikingly mismatched elements of that ending were altogether consistent with the "truth" of the novel as a work of art.(4) In fact, Hardy had good reason to make that claim, for the ending of A Pair of Blue Eyes is an artistically appropriate working out of a much broader pattern of incongruities in which, with extraordinary variety, Hardy juxtaposed the fleeting and often comically inconsequential concerns of the living with pointed reminders of the inevitability and finality of death--so much so that it would be no exaggeration to say that one major theme of A Pair of Blue Eyes is, to use a line from Hardy's "Nature's Questioning," "Life and Death are neighbours nigh."

Evidences of how deliberately Hardy went about embodying that grim "truth" in A Pair of Blue Eyes are notable in his revisions of the opening of the novel. The history of those revisions can be traced from 27 July 1872, when Hardy wrote to William Tinsley mentioning a novel titled "A Winning Tongue Had He."(5) But by September 1872, when the first serial installment appeared, Hardy had altered Elfride's song in Chapter 3 from "The Banks of Allan Water" (which included the line, "A winning tongue had he") to Shelley's "When the Lamp is Shattered," from which he quoted lines emphasizing the incongruity of love's choosing its home in the weakest of vessels:

`O Love, who bewailest

The frailty of all things here,

Why choose you the frailest

For your cradle, your home, and your bier!'

(3.23)(6)

At its inception, then--and in a step that prompted a retitling of the novel itself--Hardy made revisions that introduced into A Pair of Blue Eyes a poem whose theme is the incongruous conjunction of love and death. Then, with the first book edition, Hardy made yet another change--this time calculated to heighten the mismatched elements of the novel's conclusion: he deleted his original opening, in which Elfride reads a romance that ends unhappily,(7) and, by removing that foreshadowing of his own conclusion, he intensified for his readers the shocking unexpectedness of Elfride's death and its jarring inconsistency with the comic struggle of Smith and Knight to best one another in regaining her love. …