An Introduction to Hardy's Novels: Narrative Voice

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

If Hardy's handling of the plot mechanisms seems derived from the pot-boiler and Sensation Novel, his handling of narrative voice is highly sophisticated in diction, allusion, syntax, and tone, largely as a result of his modelling his narrative voice on that of the mid-Victorian Sage, George Eliot. A modern reader unused to the lengthy, carefully subordinated sentence that is the hallmark of Hardy's prose style may encounter some difficulty in comprehending the overall effect and meaning of the sentence. For example, the opening sentence of Far From the Madding Crowd requires that the reader distinguish the principal clauses from the subordinate elements in order to focus on the subject (Farmer Oak's face) and the narrative intention (the revelation of Farmer Oak's character): "When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to mere chinks, and divergent wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun." Wisely, editor Stephen has formatted this complex sentence as a paragraph by itself. After the initial subordinate clause (when...smiled), the sentence rushes by, the principal clause being a mere six words (the corners...spread),the remainder being the consequent effects of that smile. The closing of the sentence, actually a simple simile ("like the rays...sun"), identifies the force and vigour of Farmer Oak's genial nature with that of the morning sun, the source of the cornland's strength and fecundity. The tone behind the sentence suggests satire rather than straight exposition, an impression that the remainder of his physical description reinforces, for as a farmer he is unfortable and awakward in his Sunday best. The narrative voice is, in fact, working two ways at once, mildly satirizing Gabriel Oak inn his best clothes and yet praising him as "a young man of sound judgment" on "working" days.

To the urban Victorian reader, the sort of person who purchased The Cornhill Magazine month by month, such a protagonist would have been a conundrum, for he is not clearly middle-class, andcertainly not professional. Gabriel is a rustic, often a figure of fun on the London stage, but he is also the single character with whom Hardy wishes us to identify ourselves now and throughout the novel. Despite the complexities of the syntax, the narrator through direct analysis leaves us with an impression of congeniality, physical strength, massive size, diligence, and developing intellect. On the other hand, instead of presenting the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, directly, Hardy has others (Gabriel and the toll-booth operator) comment upon her and has the reader judge her from her actions and from others' responses to her. Thus, the narrator does not commit himself to unqualified approval of the heroine. Even though the undoubtedly amused, tolerant masculine narrator enjoys her beauty and vigour, he does not entirely approve of her willful nature.

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Content last updated 23 January 2001