Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Hardy's Geography of Narrative Empathy

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Hardy's Geography of Narrative Empathy

Article excerpt

When it came to the reception of his novels, Thomas Hardy was an anxious man. He had some reason to be this way, given the censorship that most of his work faced when it was serialized in literary magazines. In the essay "Candour in English Fiction" (1890), written when he was having problems with the serialization of Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Hardy bemoans the power that the editors wield over what gets published, lamenting that, "acting under the censorship of prudery," they "rigorously exclude from the pages they regulate subjects that have been made, by general approval of the best judges, the bases of the finest imaginative compositions since literature rose to the dignity of an art" (Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings 129). His anxiety continued when his novels were published in their full and unexpurgated form, and at various points he attributed his decision to stop writing novels to the vitriolic critical response to Jude the Obscure (1895).

Hardy's comments suggest, in large part, his crankiness about being misread, yet they also provide important background to the revisions he made when consolidating and reworking his novels for publication in later editions. Although he stopped writing new novels after the public outrage over Jude, Hardy continued to obsess over the reception of his prose work. His books were, according to Virginia Woolf in 1916, "already accepted among the classics" (57), but Hardy's own perception of his standing was less sanguine. In his efforts to consolidate both his reputation and his economic security, Hardy actively sought further publication opportunities for his novels, revising them in ways that have been carefully charted by scholars such as Simon Gatrell and Michael Millgate (chapter 18).

By the late 1890s, Hardy's publication projects were shaped by his combined emotional and economic desire for an appreciative reading audience. This essay explores Hardy's methods for achieving an audience that would understand and, on some level, feel with his characters. I argue here that Hardy uses geographic descriptions to promote empathic engagement with his characters and that he worked to literalize the experience of narrative empathy by orienting his readers in both real and imaginary spaces, creating what I will call a "geo-empathy." Hardy's characters are often deeply compelling in their own right, of course, but by examining the role played by geographic perspective-taking in the creation of empathy for these characters, I posit that he turned to strategies other than the representation of characters' interiority in order to facilitate readers' connections. Exploring this conjunction between geography and empathy in the novels and in surrounding texts suggests that Hardy offers an alternative narrative practice in which subject-making--the imagining of interior life and emotions--is no longer the primary method of engaging empathy.

In doing so, Hardy brings together two genres of perspective-taking that are seemingly at odds: the geographic viewpoint, which is most often associated with an "objective" or scientific gaze, and the empathic perspective, which involves an inherently subjective point of view. He thus combines the omniscient viewpoint described by the contemporaneous geographer George Taubman Goldie as "the ideal flat map" that "would include every datum with which the science of Geography in its most advanced state would deal" (6), with what Vernon Lee, in her discussion of empathy, describes as the "curious merging of the subject's activities in the qualities of the object" (59). With this move Hardy anticipates the intersection of the cognitive and the affective theories of perspective-taking that are central to studies of empathy today; as Suzanne Keen writes, "[e]mpathy studies have from the start challenged the division of emotion and cognition" (27). His use of geography suggests, moreover, an ethical implication of geo-empathy: the possibility of empathy across difference. …

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