In "Thomas Hardy's Comedies and Tragedies of Fickleness," a section of his Flirt's Tragedy, Richard A. Kaye argues that the novelist relies upon plots that explore Darwin's theories of sexual selection in which "a powerful female" runs what is essentially "an elaborate male beauty contest" (85):
Thomas Hardy's novels — and some of his poetic work — are permeated by a nearly obsessive preoccupation with the effects of female choice, in which heroines find themselves in romantic cul-de-sacs encompassing two and sometimes more lovers. Beginning with Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy's entire fictional oeuvre comprises an extensive exploration of the concerns that would find their culmination as scientific principle in The Descent of Man. In Under the Greenwood Tree, the young schoolmistress Fancy Day succumbs to the protracted attentions of Dick Dewy, yet as their marriage plans proceed Dick realizes his wife has a distressingly roving eye. In A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), Elfride Swancourt, engaged to the handsome architect Stephen Fitzmaurice Smith, ends up abandoning him for another man when her father disapproves. But the results of her choice destroy her engagement when her fiancé discovers her previous affair. The capricious Bathsheba Everdene of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), passionate but fickle in her judgments, at once embodies an archetypal flirt and flies free of the type. . . .
By the time we confront Sue Bridehead of Jude the Obscure, Hardy has, grafted hazardous female coquetry onto the figure of the New Woman, where she represents indecision not so much as erotic overreaching as an unconsciously driven paralysis in judgment. In The Well-Beloved (1892, revised 1897), Avice Caro is courted by her social superior Pierston, all the while married to her cousin Isaac. In two later incarnations of the same affair, Pierston courts and loses a second Avice, who is secretly married, and then fails to capture a third Avice, a governess. In differing ways, all of these works depict female coquetry as throwing the rules of sexual selection into disarray through the prolonging of the moment of choice that Darwin discerned as simply a key stage in the process of courtship. Hardy continually implies that the flirtatious female may, if she chooses, interrupt evolutionary "progress," as the novelist explores the forms of disaster that proceeds from the overdetermined logic of sexual selection. [141-42]
Kaye, Richard A. The Flirt's Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Last modified 12 October 2002