On the Western Circuit

I’ll be discussing the Thomas Hardy short story “On the Western Circuit” with my class this week; I’ve always liked Hardy, in all his darkness and gloom, but I fell in love with him when I came across this sentence while preparing for class — at this point the story’s heroine is riding on a carousel, having just met the handsome Charles Bradford Raye:

Each time that she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair.

When I read this long list of the results of one smiling gaze, I couldn’t help but laugh — it’s not really funny, of course, but it’s just so perfect and so much like Hardy to have one eye on the story and one eye on universal despair. I love how he mixes the positive in with the negative — it’s not just heartache and drudgery but also union and content we experience — because the presence of these positive experiences makes the overall despair seem even worse in contrast. And I love how he mixes the personal with the impersonal; it’s not just heartache and despair but also overpopulation we’re dealing with. Personal tragedies lead directly to social ones.

No, this is not a happy story. It’s about Anna, a country girl who has come to the small city of Melchester to live with Edith, a woman who has offered to train her as a servant. While riding the carousel, Anna meets Charles; they fall in love and he “[wins] her, body and soul.” Hardy describes this “winning” very briefly and without judgment. It’s something natural Anna has done, and although society might judge her for it, Hardy won’t. Work takes Charles away, and when he writes her a letter, Hardy reveals Anna’s dilemma: she is illiterate and cannot read the letter. She begs Edith to write a letter for her, which she does, and they fall into a regular correspondence, Charles and Anna/Edith. Anna begins by dictating the letters, but soon Edith edits and embellishes and even writes entire letters without Anna’s knowledge. Charles is astonished that an ill-educated country girl could write so well, and he begins to fall in love with the letter-writer. Then Anna finds herself “in a delicate situation,” as they say, and the plot thickens.

The moving thing about this story is that everyone does something wrong and yet no one is really at fault, and the story doesn’t judge them, but rather presents their actions and the consequences dispassionately, as though nothing could possibly have been any different. Charles should not have seduced an innocent girl, Anna should not have allowed herself to be seduced, Edith should not have deceived Charles by writing Anna’s letters, and yet each of the characters finds him or herself in much deeper trouble than any of these actions would suggest. Each one is portrayed sympathetically. They are trapped, caught by nature and by fate, and they suffer undeservedly. Such is the universe.

I’ve read five Hardy novels, some of them twice; I guess I’m drawn to this kind of clear-eyed pessimism, as well as to a well-told story. I read these novels quite a while ago, however; perhaps one day I’ll reread some of them or pick up ones I haven’t experienced yet. This short story has certainly whet my appetite.

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

15 responses to “On the Western Circuit

  1. Your post has whet my appetite for Hardy. I like his darkness and gloom as well. I had to laugh at the quote – I think it sums up Hardy’s perspective so well. I haven’t read this story, but I’d like to read more Hardy this year and continue reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of him; ‘The Time-Torn Man’.

  2. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Hardy as I was afraid it was a bit gloomy for me (odd considering some of the things I read, but then so much is easier in a foreign language due to the distance that comes from not looking up as many words as I ought to). However, I do like the sound of this story with its Cyrano de Bergerac touch. And a short story is a good place to start with a new author, right?

  3. verbivore

    I’ve never read Hardy and had no real sense of his style or subject so thank you for clearing up that a bit! You’ve definitely gotten me curious to try him, I like the sound of what you’ve mentioned here – one eye on the story and another on universal despair.

  4. adevotedreader

    I love everything of Hardy’s I read, and enjoyed the quote.

    Which novels have you read?

  5. This post reminded me that I really need to put Hardy on my list of authors to read this summer. And since I’d rather look to the summer than the work I’ve left to do this semester, I’ll put his name on the list immediately! :)

  6. Danielle

    You make pessimism sound so appealing! Actually I loved the one Hardy novel I read and have wanted to read more by him. I will have to track down this story and read it soon. You’ll have to let us know what your class thinks of it!

  7. No, the quote is really funny. “Overpopulation”!

  8. Cam

    I laughed aloud when I read ‘overpopulation’. It’s a wonderful sentence. I like the meter of the sentence too — I didn’t realize at first that she was on a carosel, but once you said that I could see the up & down of the life after the glance: union, disunion…content…despair.

  9. I’ve always liked Hardy’s constant appeal for your heart and compassion. He’s also one of my favorite turn of the century poets as well–gorgeous language.

  10. TJ

    I found you through a friend. How perfectly you capture Hardy. I can’t imagine not having read him (especially if you love the novel). But I admit to being entirely biased. Have you read any of the poems? Among his most famous (or at least most heavily anthologized) is “The Darkling Thrush;” it’s very title bespeaks his love of dichotomies. It’s also strangely appropriate to our own ‘dark’ times. Thank you, TJ

  11. I’ve never read Hardy I’m sorry to say. I think I might have Tess on the bookshelf waiting for my attention. If you’ve read some of his books more than once, he has to be good and well worth my time.

  12. I love Hardy so much, but haven’t read him for a good long while. My husband picked up Tomalin’s bio for me, so perhaps a read of that and one of the novels would do me good. I agree that it’s his very pessimism which appeals somehow.

  13. Caroline

    Oh, Dorothy, I’ve wondered for years what was the title of that story. I can’t have been more than eight or ten when I saw an adaptation of it on TV – my parents were watching it – and I’ve always remembered the story vividly because I was so surprised at the (unhappy) ending. At that age, I suppose I didn’t realise that stories could end that way! I knew it was by Hardy, and I’ve read many of his novels and even a collection of short stories, but have never come across this particular one. Now I know what it’s called, I will go and find myself a copy – thanks!

  14. Jenny

    I tried Tess a few years back and was bored stiff by it, I’m sorry to say. It seemed like a bodice-ripper without the excitement of the bodice-ripping. But I will always try again if encouraged. Thanks for the encouragement!

  15. BooksPlease — oh, that biography does sound interesting! I’d like to know more about his life and times.

    Litlove — There are various types of gloom, I’m certain, some enjoyable and some not, so it makes sense to me that you might not be drawn to Hardy. But yeah, this story would be a good place to start. It does have some wonderful writing in it.

    Verbivore — oh, I’m glad to introduce him a little bit! If novels of despair interest you, you’d certain like Hardy! :)

    Devotedreader — here’s what I’ve read: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. These last three I don’t remember well though.

    Sarah — I hope you enjoy him; I’m ready to jump into my summer books too, most definitely.

    Danielle — my class really liked it, at least those who expressed an opinion liked it. They were all ready to run out and read Jude the Obscure!

    Amateur Reader — oh, okay, I laughed out loud because the quote was funny then :)

    Cam — oooh, nice point; I hadn’t thought about the rhythm of the sentence and the carousel working together; I need to point that out to my class …

    Snackywombat — I really like his poetry too; I’d like to read more of it, in fact. I think critics these days rate his poetry higher than his novels.

    TJ — thanks for the comment! I looked at “Darkling Thrush” with my class — such a great poem! I like the way it rewrites Romantic-era bird poems like “To a Skylark.”

    Stefanie — well, I certainly enjoy him, although the reason I read some of his books twice is because they were assigned to me in grad school! But I might have reread them anyway.

    Melanie — I’m interesting in returning to him too, as well as looking at that biography — how nice of your husband to have given you a copy!

    Caroline — well, I’m glad to help out! What a wonderful coincidence! And what a lesson to learn from Hardy — that must have been shocking.

    Jenny — well, I can see why not everybody would love Hardy! I wouldn’t blame you if you decided you two just don’t work — but maybe it’s not a bad idea to give it another try??

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