Hardy's third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, has often been critically pilloried for its lapses in realism, characterization of rural life, and choice of narrative structure. Indeed, instead of recognizing the text as having literary merit in itself, numerous critics have only assigned it value as either an example of the weaknesses of Hardy's early writing, or as a precursor to his later and more celebrated novels, specifically Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). The problem derives from the scholarship of early critics such as Edmund Blunden, Lascelles Abercrombie, and J. I. M. Stewart, who are too focused on trying to expose the novel's artistic inconsistencies to be concerned with Hardy's handling of its complex motifs. For example, while discussing the novel in Thomas Hardy (1941), Blunden negates the text before allowing himself a reasonable opportunity to investigate it: "We do not get far in A Pair of Blue Eyes before we are entertained, not as the author can have intended us to be, by his remarkable spasms of contorted and straggling English" (190). Naturally, this approach can only lead to imprudent attempts to remedy the text by adopting a corrective strategy:
Hardy in A Pair of Blue Eyes begins to work in a cause which moved him strongly--the boy Smith is not of the social rank of Elfride, and there lies the foundation for the real tragedy, thence could have proceeded the drama, towards a triumphal or a lamentable end, which would have employed these lovers as symbols of a far wider world than themselves. Or again, in the sketchy character of Knight, I believe that there is the sufficient source for a complete story with a combination of love's winding ways and of a special dilemma in it--the effect of a great intellectual passion and pursuit upon the man's capacities and experiences in emotional relations. (Blunden 196-97)
This sort of critical mindset has prevented a number of subsequent scholars from recognizing how a close scrutiny of the particulars of Hardy's novel--for instance, its use of a controlling chess metaphor--can benefit textual analysis.
Fortunately, some recent criticism has done a significant service to Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes in re-evaluating elements of the novel that have been traditionally reproached. For instance, in Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities (1986), Pamela Jekel begins by observing that "[i]n an exploration of the critical commentary available on the character of Elfride Swancourt, it seems clear that many reviewers have misunderstood--and consequently misrepresented--one of Hardy's most provocative and revealing heroines" (44). Jekel recognizes that although critics like Norman Paige and D. H. Lawrence have made perceptive insights into Elfride's characterization, their arguments prove limiting and underestimate both her strength and complexity of character:
Lawrence's implication is that, indeed, the tragedy is not very great at all, since Elfride has not had the strength to throw off even "the first little hedge of convention." In fact, the story of Elfride is at least poignant if not a classical tragedy, precisely because she does have the potential for such strength, because she does have many heroic qualities, and because she is betrayed by love--both false and true--and sadly, betrayed with her own complicity. (45)
Thus, the critic acknowledges that Hardy gives Elfride sufficient complexity that her striving for happiness and control over her life becomes heroic, "and that the inability of most to see that truth, creates Hardy's ironic tone and, ultimately, his pessimism" (51-52). Although Jekel is at times critical of Hardy's text, she recognizes and appreciates those elements of the novel that make it decidedly modern: "Hardy explores still-uncharted psychological frontiers, behaviours and explanations for them which were not then familiar. His instructive understanding of the reasons for Knight's 'spare love-making' and Elfride's distaste for Stephen's 'pretty,' almost feminine handsomeness, gives the novel a contemporary flavour in spite of its gothic construction" (55).
In Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (1988), Rosemarie Morgan sees A Pair of Blue Eyes as a radical text in which Hardy strikes back against the Victorian convention of regarding female sexuality as a pathological disorder and denying women a sexual reality (2). For her, the "contradictions and shifting perspectives" (28) which critics frequently cite as evidence of the novel's faulty construction are crucial to Hardy's textual strategy
Alternatively displacing and reinstating his heroine as he grapples with propriety on the one hand and an unconventional characterization on the other, Hardy ingeniously maps a course of increasingly fruitless voyages to mirror that unrewarding journey to womanhood which offers no prizes to the female challenger. (28)
Morgan notes that only through a process of meticulous critical scrutiny can the novel's inconsistencies be understood as part of a literary stratagem that takes a radical approach to the exploration of gender issues:
The more important part of this analysis... lies in the close attentive reading that is, to my mind, critical to an understanding of Hardy's radicalism, his defiance of convention, his rejection of prevailing sexual codes and practices, his commitment to the sexual reality of his women. (28).
It is precisely because of the work of contemporary critics like Jekel and Morgan that A Pair of Blue Eyes has come to take its rightful place as an important early novel by Hardy.
Blunden, Edmund. Thomas Hardy. 1941. London: MacMillan, 1962.
Jekel, Pamela L. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1986
Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 1988.
Last modified 20 September 2000