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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hardy's narrative style - 3rd person v 1st person narration

The Mayor of Casterbridge was on the AP English reading list when I was a kid - I didn't take AP English (my high school offered no AP courses) but was nerdy enough to read most of the list - and haven't gone back to it since then so I remember nothing about it. Finding Hardy an increasingly appealing novelist - yes, his plots are over the top and rely in that quintessential 19th-century manner on coincidence - but he does know how to set the bone in the throat, and perhaps nowhere better than in Mayor: the book begins with the rather extraordinary scene of a young and threadbare couple, with young child, entering a market town, stopping at the fair for some refreshment, the husband becomes aggressively drunk and takes puts his wife, literally, up for auction - a sailor passing through buys her (and child) for 5 guineas. The husband falls into a drunken, stuporous sleep - wakes up and is mortified, unable to find any sign of his wife, he pledges 24 years of sobriety, and off her goes. Flash forward 20 or so years, wife now widowed, grown child, set off to find long-lost husband (not sure why, actually), learn he now lives in Casterbridge - mother tells daughter nothing about the back story other than that this man, Hencher (?), is a distant relative who might help them out, as they're left in near poverty. Great start to the novel, though Hardy, in his assiduous way, lets the plot play out a little too long: for the next 50 pages or so they gradually learn that the (ex) husband is now the mayor and a prosperous citizen in Casterbridge, they observe as he takes in a young traveling Scotsman to be the business manager of his farm, and the daughter, Elizabeth-Jane (?), is detailed to introduce herself to the mayor.  Hardy is in some ways the opposite of Charlotte Bronte, on whom I recently have been posting: Bronte in Jane Eyre, adopted a first-person narrative voice, which gives us a great deal of the interior life and the voice of Jane - but requires some long awkward passages of exposition as key plot points are "explained" to Jane - also requires us to know no more than Jane, which becomes kind of ridiculous when we're all fully aware that a madwoman is living in the attic, though somehow Jane never picks that up. Hardy uses third-person omniscient, which is great because we can see things from several points of view and from the long vantage of the entire community - but on the other hand this style, too, becomes ridiculous when we are fully aware that the major is the young woman's father and she hasn't a clue - don't you want to just lean into the book at tell her what's what?

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