Friday, June 6, 2014

The Hardy perspective

Somebody defined comedy as tragedy plus time. Reading Thomas Hardy's 1882 novel Two on a Tower I was reminded that the difference between comedy and tragedy can be even finer than that. It can merely be a matter of perspective. If you step into a puddle of water, it's a tragedy. If someone else steps into that puddle of water, it's a comedy.

Have you ever listened to someone tell a story that could go either way? You had to closely watch the other person's face for clues as to whether you should be prepared to laugh heartily or express sympathy. That is a little what it's like reading this Hardy novel. The obstacles that pop up to interfere with the plans of his two lovers, Viviette Constantine and Swithin St. Cleve, are like those in a romantic comedy. But this is Thomas Hardy, and although he could write very funny scenes, especially early in his novels, you can usually expect a tragic ending. His modus operandi doesn't change much in Two on a Tower.

Viviette is an attractive woman of about 30 whose husband left two years before to explore Africa. He has not been heard from since. This lonely woman begins to take an unseemly interest in Swithin, an amateur astronomer who has been using a tower on her husband's property to observe the heavens. She may be married and he may be nearly 10 years younger than her and interested only in science, but she is drawn to him just the same and becomes his benefactor, purchasing costly equipment for his use.

When she learns her husband died in Africa, the romance becomes more two-sided, so much so that Swithin can no longer focus on his work. They decide to secretly marry, while continuing to live apart and secretly meeting at night (as if this will help him concentrate on astronomy). Then a bishop proposes marriage to Viviette, and her brother urges her to accept. And a girl in the village begins to take an interest in Swithin. The potential for comedy continues when Viviette learns her husband, while still very dead, did not die until much later than had been earlier reported. In fact, she did not become a widow until after she married Swithin. The complications go on from there.

Someone else might have made a great comedy out of this material, but not Hardy. He did not even make a great tragedy. Two on a Tower is a pleasure to read, but it is easy to see why it is not considered one of his greatest accomplishments.

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