Indie Book of the Week
Snail & Boy
Gal Kleinman

Your Book Here Free / IBOTW Archive

Author Guide: Thomas Hardy

"[Hardy]'s not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love." 
- Philip Larkin

Thomas Hardy author picture
Biography

Thomas Hardy (2nd June 1840 – 11th January 1928) was one of the best known and highest-earning novelists of the Victorian period, and a prolific poet who wrote verse throughout his life. His work focused on the diminishing rural communities of his fictional Wessex (based on his own county of Dorset – one of the poorest in Britain – and the surrounding area), which he depicted with sensitive realism. His fiction is often compared to George Eliot’s – another of the great Victorian realists – and his poetry finds its roots in Romanticism, particularly the writing of William Wordsworth as well as regional dialect poetry.

Throughout his life, Hardy was a man caught between the rural community of his birth and the industrious cities at the centre not only of Britain but of the British Empire. Raised in rural surroundings, Hardy was encouraged by his mother to read. He would take long walks in the peaceful surroundings of Dorset, taking in and attuning himself to the natural world about him, a habit he would continue his whole life. With his parents unable to afford a university education for him, Hardy made his way to London to become an architect. He hated the busy city, and it would not be long before he escaped the city and took up work in an office in Dorchester, Dorset. On an assignment that took him to Cornwall he met and fell in love with Emma Gifford, a woman from a good family. He would later marry Emma, much to the displeasure of both his and her families, and she encouraged and nurtured his writing.

With Emma’s support, Hardy began to earn small amounts of money from his writing. In 1885, eleven years after they were married, Emma and Hardy moved into Max Gate – a house that Hardy had designed, and which represented a blend of the urban and rural. He lived here for the remainder of his life, working fastidiously on his writing to the exclusion of his wife. Over the years, they became estranged despite remaining in the same house. However, Emma’s death in 1912 provoked an extreme mournfulness on Hardy’s part, and he revisited many of the places in Cornwall where they had first courted. This period produced some of his most personal and painful poetry and, despite marrying Florence Dugdale – a young secretary, many years his junior – in 1914, Hardy continued to be haunted by the strange relationship with his first wife. At his death in 1928, Hardy’s body was - against his wishes - entombed in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried with Emma in Dorset.

Hardy was a solitary man, caught between many things: the receding rural life and aggressive urbanisation, comfortable religiosity and progressive secularism, the practical people of his Dorset and the intellectual circles he was pulled into, the demands of publishers and his desire to record life as it was, and between the many women who captured his attention. Hardy’s role as an outsider was chosen as much as enforced, but there is a melancholy that spreads across his fiction, which, while rooted in his mourning for the simpler life being lost amidst the rapid changes to society and thought that he saw, is often a result of his apartness from life.

Hardy’s novels celebrate the rustic tradition of rural England, but more importantly they examine with uncompromising clarity the stifling social constraints under which people lived, often focusing on Victorian beliefs about marriage, religion, and education. These themes are perhaps most brutally explored in his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. The scandal and critical backlash to this book was such that Hardy vowed never to write another novel, a vow which he kept to assiduously. Until his death, he wrote poetry – a form which he had long favoured – and he became an important figure for young poets after the turn of the century. Hardy claimed that his poetry contained more autobiography than his novels and for a man as cautious and private as Hardy – he destroyed many of his personal papers and notes before his death, and wrote his own biography to be published under his second wife’s name – his poetry is invaluable in locating Hardy, and understanding him as a man – a hard task indeed.

Over the twentieth century, Hardy’s reputation evolved. He was admired by writers like D. H. Lawrence, but there was a tendency across the wider literary community to undervalue Hardy’s work. His early novels were seen as pleasant pastoral tales (his later, more controversial work, was seen as valuable very early by the literary establishment) and his poetry as not particularly sophisticated. Over the course of the century, his early novels were more deeply explored by newly developing literary theory, and were more valued. Thanks to the patronage of many poets, notably Philip Larkin, he came to be considered not just as a popular novelist, but as a profound English writer and an important poet.

Three Books You Should Read

Hardy wrote a lot and in many different forms over his life and this makes it particularly difficult to select three books you should read. This difficulty is only compounded by the fact that different qualities in Hardy are admired by different readers: some will enjoy his writing on nature, others his intimate poetry, and some his tortured grappling with the modern world. Thankfully, there are, I think, two stand-out novels from Hardy’s career, which are essential reading, leaving just one spot in the top three books to read for me to agonise over.

1. The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking, 
     I look back at it amid the rain 
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking, 
     And I shall traverse old love’s domain 
          Never again.
(from "At Castle Boterel")

Hardy was rare amongst English writers in being successful across a number of forms of writing: his novels, short stories, and poetry are all celebrated, and he wrote a number of play and dramatised versions of his fiction too. But Hardy always thought of himself as a poet first and foremost, and so his poetry is a fitting place to start. His reputation as poet was solidified far later than his reputation as a novelist, and this eventual recognition was thanks in no small part to Philip Larkin’s writing on Hardy. Hardy himself saw the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes – a friend and mentor – as his predecessor, but Hardy would go on to write poetry that dealt with more than the regional pleasures of his home county. Perhaps his most emotive and powerful poetry was written in a burst during 1912-13 after the death of his first wife, Emma. But whether it’s his vivid descriptions of nature, his tender renderings of country life, or his intimate understanding of the personal, Hardy’s poetry offers a real variety of pleasures. The copious number of poems the he wrote illustrate, as Claire Tomalin puts it, “the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene inhabitant of the natural world.”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, 
Saying that now you are not as you were 
When you had changed from the one who was all to me, 
But as at first, when our day was fair.

      Thus I; faltering forward, 
     Leaves around me falling, 
Wind oozing thing through the thorn from norward, 
     And the woman calling.
(both from "The Voice")


2. Jude the Obscure (1895)

“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”

Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure – dubbed “Jude the Obscene” on its publication – is perhaps Hardy’s bleakest and most resonant novel. Its hero, Jude Fawley, is a bright boy who dreams of one day studying at Christminster University (a thinly veiled Oxford), but, without the means to carry himself away from his modest, rustic background and onto such an adventure, his life is doomed to obscurity. A failed marriage and a scandalous liaison with his cousin carry Jude no closer to finding his place in the world, and Hardy’s narration of a life doomed to failure reaches its denouement with a shocking infanticide (more specifically, siblicide). It’s a novel of brutal honesty, and deals with three of the most pressing issues that concerned Hardy: the inability of the poor and lowly to break into the bourgeois world; the stifling conditions of marriage, particularly for women in a patriarchal society; and the church’s continuing influence in a society still coming to terms with Darwin’s theory of life and evolution.

"People go on marrying because they can't resist natural forces, although many of them may know perfectly well that they are possibly buying a month's pleasure with a life's discomfort.”

“I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I cannot explain further here. I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine – if, indeed, they ever discover it – at least in our time. For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? – and who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”


3. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)

“...she moved about in a mental cloud of many-coloured idealities, which eclipsed all sinister contingencies by its brightness.”

Throughout his life Hardy had a great feeling for women (despite often treating them badly) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the novel that best reflects this. Charged with erotic energy and indignation, it is one of the most affecting of his novels. An innocent but beautiful country girl who lives in harmony with nature, Tess is soon stripped of her naivety by a world that punishes her continually for her crime of being an appealing but naive woman as she attempts to seek a mate and reclaim a birth rite she believes lost to her family. Abused by men, trapped by social convention, and provided with no support from family or church, Tess faces the world alone and wholly unequipped for its violence towards her female body. Of all his heroines Tess is undoubtedly Hardy’s favourite. His language, as he traces her downfall, is painfully intimate, and this is perhaps his richest, most vivid novel.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”

“Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man, many years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order”

“She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought.”

What to Read Next

Published in 1878, The Return of the Native combines Hardy’s feeling for nature with some excellent characterisation. The first chapter, which describes the heath on which the story is set, is often pointed to as an example of Hardy over writing a description of nature, but it sets the stage perfectly, for me, and demonstrates how finely Hardy understands the unchanging environment of his Wessex. The story revolves around the lives and relationships of some of Hardy’s finest characters: the dark lady killer Wildeve, and the wild Eustacia Vye who roams the heath are a Gothic pair to match Heathcliff and Cathy; Diggory Venn, a reddleman, is a comfortable slice of rural life fading out of existence; Clym Yeobright a well-intentioned, progressive man; and his sister, Thomasin a naïve but good country girl to contrast Eustacia’s wildness. As the characters’ lives intertwine, one gets the sense of a living community spread across Egdon Heath – arguably, the book’s main character.

Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography – Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man – offers a solid overview of his life, which should, I think, command almost as much interest as his writing. His poetry particularly is so tied with his personal experiences that being familiar with his biography can only help one enjoy Hardy’s writing all the more. Tomalin is strong on Hardy’s women, and this is very important to understanding him as a writer. She also writes well on his (grudging) loss of faith and the impact that had upon him. Hardy did himself compile a biography, which was published under the name of his second wife, Florence; a sign of his own desire for privacy and control over his legacy. Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate have also written biographies on Hardy and his work that are worth reading.

There is plenty of Hardy to explore, if these works have whetted your appetite. The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd are both worth reading, and there are some memorable scenes scattered across his fiction, but none of his novels can rival Jude or Tess for their completeness and power. His short stories are also worth reading, and can be found in various collections.

There is no shortage of critical work on Hardy, and so whatever area of his work you are interested in there is bound to be material available, however, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy has some valuable essays and is a good place to start.

Full Bibliography


It's hard to know what level of detail to go into for Hardy's bibliography - he did, after all, write a great deal. For example, he dramatised some of his novels, but I have not included those here. Rather, I have settled for listing his novels, short story collections, and poetry collections, and significant plays, and excluded published letters or shorter pieces that do not appear in collections.

Novels

The Poor Man and the Lady, 1867 (unpublished and lost)

Desperate Remedies, 1871 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Under the Greenwood Tree, 1872 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Hand of Ethelberta, 1876 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Return of the Native, 1878 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Trumpet Major, 1880 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Laodicean, 1881 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Two on a Tower, 1882 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Woodlanders, 1887 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Jude the Obscure, 1895 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Well-Beloved, 1897 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Short Story Collections

Wessex Tales, 1888 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Group of Noble Dames, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Life’s Little Ironies, 1894 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Changed Man and Other Tales, 1913 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poetry Collections

Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses, 1909 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Satires of Circumstance, 1914 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Moments of Vision, 1917 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles, 1925 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, 1928 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Plays

The Dynasts: Part One, 1904 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Two, 1906 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Three, 1908 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Play of St. George, 1921 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Reading Plan: October 2014

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis book cover
September’s been a really good month for me: the new academic year has kept me busy, the resumption of my book club has kept me sane, and the first signs of autumn have brought the promise of cosy nights curled up with books to come. Reading has been good, although very little course reading has been done (as ever), and writing has been good too (I’m 11,000 words into my second novel). I’m even considering taking part in NaNoWriMo in some form this year, despite my long-standing doubts about its value. So yes, in summary, everything’s pretty swell. Even as I type this I feel like I might be tempting some sort of backlash from fate, but there it is.

So what will I be reading this month? Well, my main read for October is a very easy one this time round. I’m going to be seeing Martin Amis at Cheltenham in a couple of weeks, so prior to that I will post something about his latest novel, The Zone of Interest. His second novel to address the Holocaust, it has had rave reviews so far, but, me being me, I’m swimming against the tide on this one, and am not wholly convinced. Stop back in a few weeks’ time to find out why (just promise you won’t tell dear Mart, or he might not let me into Cheltenham).

Another thing I’d like to do this month, is add to my Author Guides, which I kicked off (predictably) with a guide to Martin Amis a couple of months ago. I’ve been reading a lot about Thomas Hardy lately – he’s been an author I’ve felt a strong connection with for a long time – and I’d like to put together a post on him. He was such a strange, sad man – or at least he was if you read him like I do – that just exploring his life gives you so much to think about before you even get to his writing, which is by turns melancholic and brilliant.

I’m supposed to be reading A Clockwork Orange for my book club too, so there’s a fair chance that I’ll post something about that too. I am a huge fan of the language – even if people talk it down by pointing out that Burgess wrote in but a few short weeks – and would be glad to open up a discussion about it. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of literature of the twentieth century, largely (near-completely) because of Kubrick’s film adaptation, and books that are so much in the common consciousness are really great for sparking interesting conversation.

That’ll about do for me, I think. I hope you all have a beauteous October – see you again in a month!

Notable Posts from September
Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë book cover
Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë is an empowering, erotic Victorian novel, brimming with Gothic tropes and explosive energy. Its eponymous heroine, an orphan, is brought up, alongside her antagonistic cousins, under the hostile care of her aunt, Sarah Reed. When Jane is sent away to Lowood School it seems that she has escaped a terrible situation only to be thrown into one more dire. Though she finds friendship at Lowood, the conditions are harsh, and when things come apart, Jane forges for herself another escape, this time to be a governess at Thornfield Hall. Her master there is Mr. Edward Rochester; a dark, brooding man. Though Mr. Rochester pursues another – Blanche Ingram; a beauty, with whom Jane’s plain features cannot compete – a bond develops between master and governess. Eventually, Mr. Rochester’s affections turn to Jane and he proposes marriage. But all is not well at Thornfield, a fact that Jane will soon discover. As secrets are revealed, Jane is forced from the house and it seems that there can be no union between her and the man she loves.

At its most basic level, Jane Eyre is a love story, between the orphaned and trapped heroine and her Byronic partner. All the Brontës seem able to tap into a visceral, wild passion that still stirs readers almost two centuries after their writing was first laid on the page. Doubtless it is this, coupled with the gripping unfolding of Jane’s love story, which forms the greatest reason for Jane Eyre’s longevity. But Jane Eyre – though it considers the different kinds of love, and indeed the absence of love – is much more than a romance. It is clearly a petition for the equal rights of women, even if it is a wholly complicated text: full of contrasts, its rebellious elements are counter-balanced with its conformist ones.

Throughout the novel, Jane has her voice quieted and her agency restricted yet she refuses to accept her own lack of independence, and insists on her strict sense of self as an individual. She develops this strength of character through a series of experiences, reminiscent, structurally, of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progess. It is Rochester’s eventual acknowledgement of Jane as an intelligent, genuinely caring person that allows her to fall for him. This too goes some way to navigating the difficult dynamic of their early relationship: that of master and servant. Increasingly, Jane Eyre has been read as a feminist tract, but this central dynamic – somehow reminiscent of that between Pamela Andrews and Mr. B in Richardson’s less progressive novel Pamela – creates a potential problem for a feminist reading. That Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolves from a typically patriarchal affair to something approaching a palatable equality allows room for the relationship to be read as a transformative one, rather than an oppressive one. With her sharpness of mind and stubborn individuality, Jane is set apart from her literary predecessors like Pamela Andrews and Fanny Price by her strong sense of self. Unlike heroines of manorial fiction past, she does not seek to assimilate into the culture of estate but remains apart from it, and it is this sense of Otherness that allows a more sympathetic reading of Jane’s conformist tendencies, and offset them against her rebelliousness.

Jane’s passion is not just for Mr. Rochester: contained in her small, unremarkable body is a fire that quietly blazes against those that seek to oppress her and constrict her agency. For Brontë as for Jane, life can only be satisfying when lived fully and on one’s own terms. This causes conflicts, both between Jane and other characters, and within herself. Similar to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, there is a clash between natural passion and reason, here blazing within Jane. As the novel progresses, Jane acknowledges that one must be tempered by the other: Rochester may be where Jane’s passion lies, but she must navigate the difficult path between a prudent match, and a fulfilling one, just as Rochester himself must have his Byronic excesses quelled. Certainly, in contrast to the other (potential) matches in the book, it is, eventually, a meeting of two independent people who value one another not for what they can offer but simply for themselves. But Rochester remains problematic. As a hero, even a Byronic hero, Rochester appears without merit for most of the novel: he is controlling towards Jane, hideous towards Bertha (his first wife), a serial bigamist/adulterer, and with a very short list of pleasant characteristics to balance these less desirable ones. Even as a character that appeals to the emotional, he lacks the unbearable passion that Heathcliff represents, and has no true redemption/revelation like Darcy. Instead, he maintains an odd patriarchal appeal; on a visceral level this works, but beyond it is problematic.

Jane Eyre met with a difficult critical reception on its publication. It was not, as might be supposed, the brooding and overt sexuality of Rochester that offended Victorian society but the refusal of Jane to submit to her expected role and perceived ‘anti-Christian’ sentiment within the book. As has been noted elsewhere, a (fictional) woman who desires a Byronic partner can easily be accommodated, but a woman who desires escape from much of what society holds to be ‘proper’ cannot. By representing a woman who combines these unrepressed passions, Jane becomes a dangerous heroine and one who was identified as such by many reviewers. Brontë defended Jane Eyre against claims of irreligiosity in an introductory note to the second edition, despite her own dim view of many facets of religion. In the novel, Jane encounters three religious characters – Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers – each of whom have their evident (religious) failings, which Jane rightly comprehends. Consequently, none are able convince her to share their views. She is aware, however, of the need to balance transient pleasure with moral duty. Her rejection of the religious characters is less a sign of her disavowal of religion and more a sign of her own autonomous morality. For Jane is in touch with her own, personal form of spirituality – a state common to many Brontë characters.

Throughout the text, Jane is silenced and has her own position identified, and history told, by others. Whether Jane is constrained by man or society, she feels a constant need to escape the sense of powerlessness and commodification of her own body and she achieves this by retaining control of her imagination, which carries her far from the hold of society. Jane fears that marriage will cause her to lose her identity and it’s not until this fear is assuaged that she can countenance the idea. However, her submission to marriage by the novel’s close, even seen through the active role she plays in the decision as typified by the novel’s famous assertion “Reader, I married him,” leaves Jane as typical domestic triumph – wed and removed from the independent life she has forged for herself. It is a carefully negotiated union, which re-positions Jane as a collaborator in the conceit, rather than an inactive object in it, but still a problem that feminist readings of the text must overcome.

Jane’s sense of self – perhaps of particular import to her as an orphan – is embodied by her strong narrative. She asserts the ‘I’ of her story and addresses the reader with a commentary on her own life, affirming the value of her own inner monologue. This strong sense of individual importance chimes not only with nineteenth century feminism, but economic individualism and political liberalism too. It was a period when the idea of the autonomous individual being as relevant as the state/society was becoming entrenched in Anglo-American society, and Jane Eyre’s narrative forces the feminine voice to intersect with this growing sense of the individual. It was a change that was reflected in literature, with the development of stream of consciousness narratives, which positioned the inner life of characters as more important than the outer life of the world. In this sense, Jane Eyre is a progressive character both in terms of her personality and her literary worth.

It’s odd to think that a novel of such potent feeling was first published under the pseudonym Currer Bell – Brontë was, after all, well aware that male authors were afforded a greater gravitas than their female counterparts. Almost two centuries latter and Jane Eyre is rightly considered one of the most thrillingly powerful novels of the Victorian period; a novel with feminist, individualist, and gothic charm in abundance. In a Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf would later write that Brontë was an author, who "had more genius in her than Jane Austen," but whose anger made her books “deformed and twisted”, but it is this wild, untameable passion that runs through Jane Eyre, which makes it so readable today. Certainly the emotions are both overwrought and overwritten, but Brontë’s writing sweeps the reader up in the tornado of dark emotions that run through the text, and gives them no choice but to continue on until the storm has abated and the last page has been turned.

I first read this after I visited Bath for the first time and really enjoyed it. I think it was only the second Austen I'd read at the time, and I found it to be so different from what I'd expected. I'd gladly hand it to Austen fans and cynics alike.


Useful Links
Reviews of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Jane Eyre on Amazon (US)
Television Film of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)
Television Film of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)

You Might Also Enjoy...

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen’s first published novel, and is typical of her satires of social convention, love, marriage, and propriety. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are sisters, but very different. Elinor, the elder of the two, is ... [Read More]

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut book cover
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is Kurt Vonnegut’s cult-classic war novel that deals with the Dresden bombings of World War II and the absurdity of war generally. In truly post-modern style, the first chapter is devoted to the novel’s narrator as he agonises over the writing of the story, and ponders the difficulty and futility of anti-war books, before starting on his protagonist’s tale. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is a child soldier – too green for war but sent to Germany to assist in the effort. Captured, he is put to work in Dresden as a Prisoner of War, and sees the allied bombing of 1945 (as Vonnegut himself did), which destroyed 15 square miles of the city and killed 25,000 people (less than a fifth of the number estimated in Slaughterhouse-Five, according to current figures). Billy has seen the arbitrary cruelty of humanity, and struggles to reconcile this knowledge with the normal life he is expected to lead when he returns home from war. His solution is to lose himself in science-fiction, literally. His chosen place of refuge is Tralfamadore, a planet many miles from Earth where Billy is kept in a Tralfamadorian zoo and forced to mate with Montana Wildhack, a fellow detainee, for the alien public. In the real world, Billy is an optometrist and lives a quiet suburban life, but his story drifts – he is “unstuck in time” – and, like the Tralfamadorians, Billy doesn’t view life as a linear series of events but rather sees all events of a life at once.

The reality of Dresden is sobering and highlights the confused moral standards during war. That Vonnegut was a PoW in Dresden at the time of the bombing in 1945, and worked at Slaughterhouse-Five only roots the novel more firmly in reality, no matter where Billy’s mind may take him. Indeed, Billy’s mind twists furiously as it tries to escape the guilt he feels not only for his survival of the massacre but for his complicity with the Allied bombers who wreaked the devastation upon Dresden. While Billy’s descent into delusion might appear a descent into madness it is, perhaps, a rational response to what he has witnessed, and it is the world around him, which reconciles the horrors that so traumatise Billy, which is the mad one. Either way, Billy’s travels through time and space are certainly a coping mechanism brought on as a consequence of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Slaughterhouse-Five it is the innocent who suffer; Billy and his companions are wrecks of men, the war ravaging their bodies through illness, lack of food, and poor hygiene. The soldiers are treated as (killing) machines by their country, sent out beyond their will to act as pawns in a game they have no control over. In war, violence is arbitrary and human life is devalued almost to the point of worthlessness. While the Dresden issue is undoubtedly complex, Slaughterhouse-Five represents the worst (/reality) of war; there is nothing heroic about Billy and his companions, and those characters that glorify war are those most sneered at.

Like Billy and the narrator, America itself suppresses the memory of Dresden (information on the bombings is still denied the narrator when he requests it). As with a PTSD patient who cannot look the root of their illness squarely in the eye, the narrator dances around the memory of Dresden, never engaging with, and relaying it fully. For Billy, returning to innocence and freeing himself of responsibility is hugely important. A particularly famous scene, in which Billy views bomber planes in reverse, scooping up their destructive discharge and returning home, emphasises Billy’s hopeless desire to return to a state of innocence. On Tralfamadore he is the only human male – special, unique – he embraces his body and the attention he receives from the Tralfamadorians and his fellow-detainee and sexual partner, Montana. She is his Eve, and the zoo itself is strongly reminiscent of Eden – another indication that Billy wishes to retreat back to a time before Knowledge. While interned in the zoo, Billy is expected to perform for the public who are in his thrall. Thus, as well as representing a safe cocoon away from responsibility for Billy, the zoo is also a comment on how humans treat ‘lesser’ creatures.

Following on from his war experience, Billy receives little to no support back in the USA. Vonnegut attacks the psychiatric profession by showing psychiatrists misdiagnosing the root of Billy’s mania and failing to look after him post-war, and it is clear that Billy desperately needs the support of someone who can help him cope with his PTSD. But Billy is alone – no one depends on him, and he depends on no one. Alone in time and space, he is unstuck not just from time but from humanity too. Indeed, many of Billy’s fantasies revolve around being accepted as part of a group, loved and cared for; they are desperate, internal cries for help. Billy is closed, emotionally, to the world. He lives a numbed existence where he does not react to things that happen around him. Instead he sees them off with the passive, emotionless mantra, “so it goes,” which marks every death in the book.

In the real world, he tries to find companionship and escape in marriage but Valencia, Billy’s wife, is distinctly unappealing despite being rich. She is a gluttonous consumer and Billy marries her in no small part to access her family wealth and the connections the match brings. But money is no solution to his problems; it is merely a temporary anaesthetic. A big part of the development and / or recovery from PTSD is the society which supports the sufferer. Billy’s descent is as much a comment on the community he returns to after the war as the city in Germany where the bombs fell. Many of the characters share Billy’s isolation, and Vonnegut here forces the reader to reflect on the fractured state of community, individuals caring too little for the collective. Interestingly, modern technologies and scientific advances are treated as barriers to humanity within Slaughterhouse-Five, whether it be the lack of real help the newly developing field of psychiatry can offer Billy, or the technology that allows for the great destruction of Dresden in the first place.

Tralfamadorian beliefs – that death, free will, and time do not exist as they are understood by humans – help Billy. Morality is a concept alien to the Tralfamadorians – without free will, there is no right or wrong to be aspired to, only the continual trudge through existence. Tralfamadorian philosophy essentially focuses on the good in the world and ignores the bad, deeming it impossible to change. It’s a comfortable escapism that suits Billy down to the ground. If, as with the Tralfamadorians non-linear view of time, all events have been decided then free will is an illusion – even though our perception is limited to the present, nothing we can do will alter our future. It’s a thought that simultaneously absolves Billy of all responsibility for himself and provides a suffocating structure under which to live.

The narrative perspective and tense shift at different points in the novel. Nevertheless, Billy’s future is in fact an interpretation of his past. As he flashes through time, the different stages of Billy’s life are placed beside one another, intermingling, and perhaps suggesting that there is less difference between his war experience and his experience of society than one might imagine on first thought. The timescale is as fragmented as Billy’s own personality. However, literature itself follows, almost by definition, a temporal order, if not in terms of plot then at least in terms of the reader’s consumption of the plot. Slaughterhouse-Five, though, creates more of a circular structure which wraps back on itself without reaching conclusions. This circularity reflects the theme of regeneration that runs throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut’s style is dry, both in humour and in prose. While more restrained than in many of his other works, here Vonnegut’s humour is at its blackest, and the sharp prose, too, which remains unadorned by expansive adjectives, highlights the simplicity and matter-of-factness of the state of things.

Vonnegut is not the disengaged narrator; he sits above, pondering a species who can look on death and repeat atrocities again and again. The writing of Slaughterhouse-Five was in itself a cathartic process for Vonnegut, and sets him apart from his main character, in that he chose to face the facts of Dresden and engage with the reality of its consequences. Slaughterhouse-Five does not suggest that escapism is the best way to cope with the horror of existence, but to engage and empathise with the world (indeed, nearly all the problems in Billy’s life are caused by quietism and an inability to empathise on someone’s part). This is how future atrocities, big or small, might be prevented.

Really enjoyed this - an interesting way of dealing with the effects of war on the individual, and more than that even.


Useful Links
Reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five on Amazon (US)

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell book cover
Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) by Malcolm Gladwell is a quirky look at what makes people successful. Why are the vast majority of ice hockey stars born between January and March? What propelled Bill Gates to stupendous success? Why are so many corporate lawyers Jewish? Where did the Beatles musical talent come from? Gladwell attempts to answer all of these questions and more in his exploration of what makes an outlier (a person who enjoys exceptional success, by Gladwell’s definition). His aim is to counter the American success story paradigm, which lauds exceptional individuals whose tenacity and talent forces them to the top of their field: the ideal of the perfect meritocracy. Gladwell, instead of propagating this myth, sets out to explain how vitally important each outliers’ personal circumstances and opportunities are. His method for doing this is to recount a number of stories – scientific investigations of anomalies made personal by Gladwell – and tie these together to support his thesis. Through this chatty style of inductive reasoning, Gladwell lays out some interesting ideas and provides a starting point for the reader who wants to investigate further some of the ideas we hold about success.

Gladwell’s positioning of the outstandingly successful as ‘outliers’ is a brilliant piece of marketing, which encapsulates his great talent for taking relatively mundane or well-known information and spinning it into something far more tantalising. Gladwell’s definition of outliers ties in with the scientific definition of the word; that is to say, those anomalies so far off the chart as not to be worth mapping with the regular data. But, while Gladwell might start by discussing the truly exceptional – the one in a billion, where it is quite clear that a large number of variables need to align to facilitate success – for the most part he is actually considering those who are successful in a more everyday sense; those at the top of the chart, rather than off it altogether. Naturally, this makes the stories far more relatable for the reader, even if it somewhat muddles the theme of the book.

In essence, Gladwell argues for the Matthew effect, that success is "grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances". For him "no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone". Gladwell’s contention is pretty simple: hard work + opportunity = success (as opposed to innate talent = success). Of course, there is more to it than that, as he discusses (tenacity and social skills are particularly important), but this construction is fundamentally what Outliers sets out to prove.

After positing this (albeit unexceptional) idea Gladwell goes over a series of examples drawn from theories and research already published, and uses these to illustrate the point in one way or another. While most of these are spun into interesting, personal stories, too much time is spent on some. To offer an example of one of the early chapters, Gladwell starts off in interesting territory by demonstrating that Canadian ice hockey players are more likely to be born in the first quarter of the year than at any other time. The reason? Most youth teams are split by age, determined by the year a child is born, i.e. if a child is born in January he will be playing with other children who are up to twelve months younger and less developed than himself. This being the case, he is more likely to appear a superior player and thus have resources poured into his development, only accentuating the difference.

The style of recounting stories and tying them to empirical research is engaging. It is, however, important to acknowledge that Gladwell digs into his examples in a superficial way – as one would expect in a book like Outliers – and that the conclusions he draws must be viewed in this light. For any of the examples he uses to demonstrate his point, there are more nuanced readings available and a broader range of opinion not covered by Gladwell. This is inevitable, but it is worth bearing in mind when assessing the validity of some of the conclusions drawn here. So, while there is no real data or statistical analysis provided to support Gladwell’s line of thinking (which is not always fully explicated), there are interesting snatches of information, some of which may be new to the reader.

One significant problem with Gladwell’s method is that, on the whole, he examines those who have succeeded in isolation, rather than comparing them to others who were presented with comparable opportunities and put the work in. Equally, taking a success story and then looking back to identify the events of greatest significance to that success is problematic – after all, this can be done from any starting point, but no firm conclusion can ever be drawn. Humans love to draw patterns from information, but Gladwell never truly considers the randomness of success, and this feels like a missed step.

Gladwell has honed his remarkably clear writing style at both the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and is today one of the most readable pop. sociology / economics journalists. That style is evident here, as he relays each new piece of scientific knowledge in an easy and relatable manner. Certainly, a lot is over-simplified because of this approach and the readability-reliability balance may be slightly off, but this is a difficult balancing act, and Gladwell pulls it off fairly well. That said, when one sits down at the end of reading the book and evaluates what has been learnt, the new information can be covered in a handful of bullet points (see most reviews / synopses of the book). While reading Outliers, it might feel interesting, but ultimately there is little of true originality and it doesn’t expand one’s mind greatly. It would be a worryingly disengaged mind that finds any of Gladwell’s conclusions here paradigm-shifting, but he lays out his argument relatively well and succeeds in drawing together and dressing up different examples, which should engage the reader.

Gladwell closes with the vague conclusion that society ought to be better shaped to support and nurture all people and not explain away success by the myth of innate talent. It’s a message that’s hard to disagree with, although it’s ambiguous enough that each reader can take what they want from it (somehow, one suspects the underlying socialist slant of this conclusion is not one neoliberal America is likely to leap to embrace in its purest form).

One should be very cautious when a book / author takes a position that either (a) means it’s possible for anyone to succeed if they follow certain steps, or (b) explains away their lack of success by something other than lack of talent or effort on their part. Outliers does both (firstly by suggesting innate talent is less important than putting in a significant amount of practice, i.e. 10,000 hours, on a particular skill (as found by Anders Ericsson in 1990), and secondly, by making clear that to succeed one also has to been presented with prime opportunities over which one has no control), and so one must be careful when dealing with its findings. Through this slant it’s not difficult to see why Outliers has been one of the most popular pop. science books of the last few years, but it certainly has its limitations. If Gladwell’s aim is to explain why some people are successful and some aren’t, he fails. If his aim is to expound a theory to which he subscribes, then he does so relatively engagingly.

Engaging enough while it lasts, but not particularly satisfying.


Useful Links
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (US)