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The Poor You Have Always With You

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So, I wasn’t going to post today–too much to do, it’s literally freezing outside, whatever.

But I couldn’t help myself.

Thomas Hardy.  Thomas HARDY.  Now, there’s somebody I’d call gritty.

Robert says I’m the only “English teacher” he’s ever heard admit that she doesn’t like something in the Canon, but now I can double or triple that, because I truly hate the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Okay, I’m not in love with the poetry, either.

And yes.  I do know that Hardy is, in fact, a Great Writer, in that his novels, objectively evaluated, are better than very good on any technical level, and interesting on every other level. 

But I’ve said it before:  what is objectively good is not the same as what is subjectively enjoyable.  

I’m with Jem–Hardy’s themes are a lot easier to pinpoint than James’s are, or even than Dickens’s are, but that’s mostly because Hardy’s approach to fiction was to bash his readers over the head with a mallet on the subject of what we would now call “social justice.”

With James, I seem to have missed a lot of the social realism because I was entranced by settings and characters.  I wanted to be Isabel Archer–not to have her life, but to be the kind of woman she was.  She seemed to me, and I think James meant her to be, a kind of icon of perfection, a woman who managed to be neither a frilly feminine child nor a scowling harridan, who had intelligence and culture and grace. 

Anybody who knows me in person will understand that this was a stretch, but it was a stretch I wanted to make at fourteen.

With Hardy, I like nothing about the settings, and nothing about the characters.  And although I do not shrink at social realism, what he provides is less realism than a downer that makes thorazine feel like speed.

Hardy’s idea of realism was to present characters who are neither admirable nor attractive, and to put them insituations so hopeless that suicide comes as a relief at the end–and at the end of more than one novel, too.  The only thing I really remember about Jude the Obscure is that scene of Jude and Susan’s children hanged and dead all at once. 

And, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t remember that all that well.

The life of the poor was grinding and harsh, and there was no escape–that was Hardy.  I think Dickens was a more popular writer because he did provide the possibility of escape, even if the possibilities he provided were a lot more like winning the lottery than pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

But it’s more than that.  Hardy’s poor characters live in misery, anxiety, and want, surrounded by stupidity and hopelessness, forever on the edge of despair.  Dickens’s poor characters have life and warmth and joy and are often quite happy in spite of their lack of luck in the socioeconomic lottery.

Which leaves us with the question of which are closer to the truth–Dickens’s quick-witted, enterprising scamps making the best of a bad situation and having a good time doing it, or Hardy’s downtrodden lower classes, to whom intelligence is a curse because it does nothing but make it impossible not to know how bad one’s life really is.

Dickens had, in fact, been grinding poor as a child.  Hardy was the son of a master mason, and later the protégé of  the local minor aristocrat–in other words a son of the working class who had indeed made the climb out, and therefore somebody who knew that that climb need not be doomed from the start.

On the other hand, Dickens’s escape from that grinding poverty came through his own work and professional success, something no main character in his books ever seems to do (although plenty of minor ones do it all the time). 

I wonder how accurate any writer’s depiction of the life of the poor even can be, even if he grew up as one of them. 

I recently saw the movie Precious, which comes from a novel by an African American writer who calls herself Sapphire, and it came as close as I’ve ever seen to the lives some of my students live–not just the poverty but the endless lassitude, the almost undistubable passivity.

But although Sapphire herself lived in Harlem and other inner city neighborhoods, she also graduated from college and went on to a master’s degree–as Hardy went on to a good school and Dickens went on to write novels.

In other words, no matter how they started, none of them were the kind of people they seem to want to write about.  The very fact that they were able to do these other things means they were, in themselves, different in character and temperament. 

I keep getting the feeling that they have as hard a time as I do trying to think themselves into the people who walk past the stairwell lightbulb every day, cursing the fact that the super doesn’t change it, and never think of changing it themselves.

There are no poor people in Henry James–but, unlike Dickens and Hardy, he didn’t grow up poor.  Write what you know.

I think I’d better go eat something before I fall over.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2010 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'The Poor You Have Always With You'

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  1. I didn’t like the focus in landscape in Hardy, but I’ve said that before. I read Tess, which I disliked, and for some reason I can’t remember a roommate’s required novel, the one about the fellow who sells his wife at a market, and act which comes back to haunt him later. I figured she was better off without him, and startled to learn that such things did take place in England, illegally of course, quite late.

    Passivity or energy; depression or cheerfulness – they’re almost like the reactions of the extrovert vs those of the introvert, or whatever you call personality types today. You can also get passivity fueled by despair; or perhaps the realization of how much one’s present mess was determined by one’s own earlier choices. Personally, I’ve always tried not to get bogged down in brooding over why life is miserable and to get what pleasure I can out of it anyway, but it’s not only hard but often pointless to suggest living like that, and that it might be a good idea to start with some small and blindingly obvious changes for the better to someone that far down in despair. At least, I’ve never found a way to do it that wasn’t either dismissed out of hand or taken as a cause for offense, and when I’ve been down like that, I haven’t found a lot of helpful comments really helpful.

    I suppose it’s part of the human condition, that we react to poverty in a few different ways, dependent on our personalities and backgrounds, and if we understood how to get inside people like that, we’d all be saints or gods or something.

    Not that that’s an excuse not to try to understand the reactions of people living in poverty.


    11 May 10 at 9:15 am

  2. May I start by saying that Faulkner, 20th century writer and Southerner that he was, presented a very realistic (in my perspective) portrait of what has been referred to as poor white trash. He certainly never grew up in poverty. Erskine Caldwell, another 20th century writer of the South, was also not born in poverty. And he wrote quite realistically about the poor and downtrodden. So writing what you know does not always apply. One can observe and study the lives and economic conditions of another social class and with enough intelligence portray them realistically in fiction. Faulkner won the Nobel prize and Caldwell was considered for it.
    Also, the above posts appear to be a moral judgment of fictional characters. Art is art not a Sunday school lesson.
    Hardy was a fatalist but that is neither here nor there. Many poor people do and did live as he depicted them. Staying in the darkness rather then seeking the light is human if not preferable. And, as has been commented on many times in these posts, presenting reality and truth is a function of literature.


    11 May 10 at 9:55 am

  3. You shouldn’t make moral judgements about fictional characters? Or art? Why not? Moral judgements are an essential part of human life; without it, we’d have no basis on which to decide what behaviour to emulate and what to reject – which applies whether or not the moral judgement in question is based on any particular religious or secular moral code.And fiction and art are supposed to portray and possibly reflect on or comment on some part of the same human life of which moral judgements are so essential a part.


    11 May 10 at 10:14 am

  4. So what you are saying is any fictional character who does not make what you consider the correct moral choices is not to be considered a part of worthy art or literature. Gee, that leaves out a large majority of characters that I’m aware of: Gatsby, Holden Caufield, MacBeth, Iago, Hamlet, a large majority of Capote’s characters in fiction, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripply, a large number of Doctorow’s characters and on and on and on. That’s expecting literature, art, whatever you want to call it pendantic. And is it truth? Do we judge literature and accept it as a role model? Again I say it’s not a Sunday school lesson, it’s art in all its beauty and ugliness. Truth isn’t always nice. Is that not what most of you have been saying? Subjectity is one thing. Expecting art to teach morality is something else entirely.


    11 May 10 at 11:23 am

  5. No, I didn’t say that at all. I said I could form and express moral opinions on the behaviour of fictional characters (not that I think I’ve done it here and today, yet). I can’t and don’t decide whether art and literature is worthy for anyone but me – I’m strictly an amateur in that field – but like a lot of people, I enjoy reading about criminals and other villains who are, after all, people who lack proper moral behaviour by any standard.

    I also didn’t say I expected art to teach morality, and I didn’t say, although I do now, and I believe it, that you can’t understand truth – either the nice or the nasty kind – without morality. In fact, what makes some literature absolutely fascinating is the ability of some authors to take their characters and impale them on the kind of moral dilemmas I hope I never face, and then describe their reactions and the results of those reactions. People can – and must! – learn to make moral judgements, but the judgements themselves are absolutely essential to life and any kind of art that examines human life in any depth. Without morality, all you’ve got is a surface description – A did B, and then C and then D. Nothing about motivations or conflicts about the right thing to do, or whether there is a right thing at all, or whether life itself has any purpose – those are all moral questions, and I as a reader will decide what kind of an attempt the artist has made at them. In my amateur way, that is.

    You seem to have read an entire view of literature and morality that isn’t in what I wrote.


    11 May 10 at 11:41 am

  6. “And fiction and art are supposed to portray and possibly reflect on or comment on some part of the same human life of which moral judgements are so essential a part.”
    Supposed to? Why?

    People can – and must! – learn to make moral judgements, but the judgements themselves are absolutely essential to life and any kind of art that examines human life in any depth. Without morality, all you’ve got is a surface description – A did B, and then C and then D. Nothing about motivations or conflicts about the right thing to do, or whether there is a right thing at all, or whether life itself has any purpose – those are all moral questions, and I as a reader will decide what kind of an attempt the artist has made at them.”

    Can and MUST?
    Prescriptive. And this is the way I understand what you’ve written.
    Or, does the right to free speech whether written or spoken only guarteed to one particular viewpoint and not to antther?


    11 May 10 at 12:27 pm

  7. Have I tried to stop you from expressing yourself? If so, how? If not, why do you consider accusing me of such to be part of the debate?

    Yes, I suppose my opinions could be called ‘prescriptive’. It’s difficult for me to imagine how I could describe how I see the world and art and literature without mentioning the aspects I consider to be essential, but I hadn’t really expected anyone else to take them as prescriptions. Mostly, people don’t, having prescriptive views of their own. But I can see how they might be taken that way. I have to admit it doesn’t worry me much.

    To respond to your points, I think that really good art and literature is supposed to reflect on real life and morality because it’s a good tool for the job, and because doing the job – of figuring out someone else’s (the artist’s) view of humanity, life and all that is part of exercising the most human part of oneself and good in and of itself (I could bring God into this at this point, and secular philosophers, but I won’t; I’m basically just saying that understanding humans through their moral dilemmas is a good thing to do because it increases our knowledge of and our ability to relate to our own kind without backing it up).

    The other stuff – the light fluffy fun kind of literature and art – is enjoyable, but kind of by the way.

    Can and must? I suppose people can drift through life without making moral decisions, either because they don’t know how or don’t believe in doing so (which is, in and of itself, a moral decision) but I don’t quite know how. If I walk away from my computer now, I immediately face some. How should I speak to people I meet? Should I leave that money I see lying on the floor, pick it up and take it, or pick it up and bring it to lost & found? I decide to buy a snack and the clerk offends me in some way. Should I respond in kind? More strongly? Ignore it?

    Actually, I think “can and must’ is too weak. I think all human beings will make moral decisions every day, lots of them, and if they’re going to make the best use of their human qualities and to generally improve the quality of human life for themselves and those around them, they have to make these decisions consciously, based on some kind of a moral code – preferably one that’s uses reason and values all human beings, even the ones who aren’t relatives or friends.

    Yes, that’s prescriptive, but it’s a prescription that I am happy to make.

    You and any other readers, of course, are perfectly free to ignore it.


    11 May 10 at 1:14 pm

  8. Whatever.


    11 May 10 at 2:38 pm

  9. (I winced a little at “English teacher” at the time, but “professional educator from Grade 7 up expected to assign fiction readings to his or her class” seemed a tad longwinded. My apologies for any offense.)

    I would consider that the authors may not contradict one another in the slightest. Hardy’s rural poor may not, generally, have thought and behaved like Dickens’ Londoners. In any event, to decide who most accurately depicts poverty, we’d have to have an agreed single non-fictional view of the historical condition of the English poor. Good luck with that. Remember, no generalization is worth much–including this one.

    As for the present day, generations of public schools, student loans, affirmative action and scholarships may mean the poor of Western Europe and North America today are not the poor of Britain under the Corn Laws. Hard to believe Bob Cratchitt wouldn’t have a house in the suburbs and a 401(k) today–with health care and special arrangements at school for Tiny Tim. But consider Mr. Price–Fanny’s father from MANSFIELD PARK, a disabled Marine with an inadequate pension, a drinking habit and no interest in a civilian career. Not too hard to find in the Legion hall today would be my guess–and still poor.

    Art Buchwald used to claim the problem with prison rehabilitation was the poor quality of the prisoners. If we don’t have Dickensian poor, it doesn’t mean Dickens didn’t.


    11 May 10 at 4:05 pm

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