Culture Clashes

Hardy and James

Yet the novel, despite its occasional satirical or light-hearted exponents (Sterne onwards) tended to find its way back to sad and serious themes. Thomas Hardy and Henry James (on the other side of the Atlantic initially) offered accounts of the changing world from the 1880s until the turn of the century. Hardy focused upon the rural, specifically Southern English, towns where he grew up and highlighted the difficulties inherent in the technological progress of the time. He wrote the only truly creditable English tragic novel in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and saw not so much the evil innate in man but the way in which cruel fate can drive ordinary men and women to wrongdoing. His ‘protagonist’ characters such as Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess in Tess of D’Urbervilles (1891) are little more sympathetic than his villains (Farfrae, Alec and so on). Hardy, then, uses the novel not to isolate an individual for being especially unusual but rather to pick out an ‘anybody’ (though never quite an ‘everyman’) who just like everybody else fails because life offers no way out of misery and deprivation except the indignity of death. It is unsurprising then that critics soon became hostile to Hardy the arch- pessimist. In fact, their critical mauling of Jude of the Obscure (1896) persuaded him to give up writing novels and become a poet only.

Henry James focused, meanwhile, less on tragedy than on the oddities of a trans-continental life made easier and more common by improvements in transport technology. Initially, it was the influence of European culture on America that fascinated him (in Roderick Hudson (1876), The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and others). In the 1890s he focused specifically and less successfully on English manners before returning in The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Aspern Papers (1888) to cultural contrasts. Just like Hardy with his juxtaposition of old and new, James was part of a short- lived group of writers who saw the world as a place of stark contrasts and showed an awareness of a whole culture through the actions and fortunes of a single man or woman.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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