Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

I got started on Thomas Hardy with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and have since read one or two more. Hardy tells a good story and his books are worth reading simply from that perspective. I choose The Woodlanders because I like the woods and thought that might interest me in itself. However, it had little to do with the book itself except to lend the characters an occupation and a place to live.

Again, the story was a good one, but this book irritated me a little because of the moral of the story, so to speak. Hardy addresses several issues, one of which is the education of women outside of their own class level. His Heroine, Grace Melbury, is the daughter of a timber merchant who felt the need to give her a good education and spent quite a large sum of money doing so. The results were that Grace was indeed, well educated, however, that particular education hurt her chances in the world by making her too good to marry her intended, Giles Winterbourne the cider maker, and not good enough by right of birth to marry a gentleman. This puts her in a precarious situation where her wants and needs can never be met. In the end, she marries the local doctor, who really only wants to possess her and ends up breaking her heart. Grace’s ensuing trials lead her to the conclusion that she would have been better off marrying Giles, who, despite his lack of education and position, really did love her. What Hardy is saying, in effect, is that educating women outside of their class is a poor choice, which, in this day and age, is a difficult concept to swallow.

Another “lesson” that sticks in the throat is Grace’s turnaround in the end. After Giles leaves the scene, Grace happens to pick up a religious volume and chances to re-read the marriage vows. Having read them, she realizes how lightly she had taken them at the time and to just what she pledged herself. She feels she has not kept those vows, but that having made them, she should keep them. This is a decisive factor in her choices at the end of the novel. It helps lead her to make a decision, which few modern women of sense would have made.

As with most of Hardy’s novels, the ending isn’t a happy one, rather it’s realistic. It reflects life as it most likely would have happened and leaves the reader neither with an ideal to reach, nor a true tragedy. As often is with life, the ending leaves everyone not quite happy with their outlook on the rest of their lives. This kind of ending may have made Hardy a happier man, but I think it kept him from being a truly popular writer, in the likes of Jane Austen, who tells a good story and leaves the reader with a happy outlook on life. That’s not to say that his books are not of the same quality, they just won’t appeal to the masses through the ages as much as happier endings might.

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