Part 3 of the author's "Tartarus and Promethean Symbolism in Conrad and Hardy: The Return of the Native and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'". In-text citations refer to the linked bibliography of selected readings.

Writing shortly after the death of Joseph Conrad, Richard Aldington credited the impressionistic novelist with both a "brooding poetic fire" and "powers of evocation" greater than those of another senior British novelist, Thomas Hardy. Aldington's casual dismissal of Hardy as merely a regional novelist (recording characters and customs fast becoming extinct, but unable to tell a good story) seems somewhat surprising from a late twentieth-century perspective. However, since Conrad began to publish fiction at the very time that Hardy ceased, Aldington was doubtless responding to the biases of his own generation against the tastes of the previous generation. Aldington finds Hardy's chief defect to be his style, which he pronounces "never particularly beautiful and . . . sometimes almost clumsy" (8). In contrast, he feels that Conrad's prose is of a higher quality — 'wondrous' and 'mysterious' — because of its power to make the reader visualise the scene described. In other words, he evaluates Conrad's imagery as being of a higher denotative as well as a higher connotative quality than Hardy's.

While Aldington's essay may be categorized as something between an appreciation or eulogy for Conrad and a depreciation of Hardy, Aldington's method is largely anecdotal; he makes little rational justification for what amounts to a purely personal preference . In contrast, in the next decade Richard Gordon Lillard addressed himself to the question of "Irony in Hardy and Conrad" more analytically, concluding that "Hardy's irony is more objective, more systematic, more dramatic, Conrad's more introspective, more reflective, more psychological." Lillard observes that Hardy works from a formal, logical, almost architectonic plan, Conrad from feeling and connotation. Put another way, Hardy was by nature a story-teller and observer of human nature; "Conrad's vision," as Arthur Kay remarks, "was instinctively symbolic."

In their applications of the techniques of symbolism and imagery Hardy and Conrad are likewise different. Hardy enriches his descriptions and narrative commentary with allusions to great deeds, thoughts, and persons, to music, art, philosophy, and mythology to create a sense of the eternal lurking behind the aspirations and passions of his Wessex characters, whose significance as individuals Time works to diminish. Conrad's method is quite different, more recognizably Romantic and less Classical than Hardy's. For the most part, Conrad couples the general symbol with a straight-forward simile: his symbolic patterns draw their energy from the very nature of things, from the ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water, from darkness and light and all the colours in between, from the great chain of being itself, connecting the lowliest beast and tormented devil to the noblest man and the enigmatic creator of all. Whereas Hardy is overt in his use of images and symbols, Conrad in his speaks what Shakespeare terms "a kind Of excellent dumb discourse." In his novels, Hardy attempts to state a meaning through his symbols; in his novels, Conrad is content to imply rather than define. Hardy's symbolism is neither so elemental nor so readily apprehensible as Conrad's; often Hardy's symbols are oblique, shrouded in garments which only informed readers may see through, a legacy in narrative technique that Hardy received from his reading the works of the erudite George Eliot.

Other Sections of this Discussion

Victorian Web Joseph Conrad Thomas Hardy Bibliography

Last modified 6 December 2000