Woman the Supreme Illusion*

New York Times Saturday Review of Books

July 27, 1907, p. 468

New York Times Saturday Review of Books:

THE editorial on Thomas Hardy in your issue of last Saturday will be read by thousands of persons who no doubt will be moved by what you said to reread the greatest novelist that England has yet produced, one who will rank finally with Turgeneff and De Maupassant.

All those, however, who understand the greatness of Thomas Hardy must dissent vigorously from your contemptuous reference to “Jude” and “Tess,” two novels which, above all his others, embody his philosophy of human existence.

Thomas Hardy occupies the same place in modern imaginative literature that Sophocles does in dramatic literature. The English novelist’s characters—especially his women—are the mere playthings of an inscrutable Fate; fine instruments on which Destiny in her infinite sweeps pipes a major or a minor and then flings to the cosmic rubbish heap. Neither Hardy nor Sophocles has formulated a theory of causation. Life is a series of relations; effects proceed from causes not because this cause must produce that effect, but because the gods have willed that this or that should come to pass.

And to understand Hardy’s women, we must glance at them in their relations to his conception of the gods that rule our destinies. Into the mesh of chance his women take their logical places. They never dominate. Their lives are ordered for them. They are stray angels in bonds, and stand forever in mortal fear of losing their reputations. Social law is everywhere in conspiracy against their souls. They are fickle and disloyal, but of necessity. To be loved is woman’s one aspiration, and she is carried along on the stream of her impulses with slight regard for the object of her desire. Physical propinquity is sufficient to arouse her emotions. Elfrida Swancourt, in “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” loves four men in rapid succession; and her disloyalty troubles her very little. Like most all of Hardy’s womankind, she is in love with love, not with the lover. She is a female Edgar Fitzpiers, the hero in “The Woodlanders,” who loves three women at one time. Yet for all Elfrida’s vacillations, she is a beautiful creature, a true woman, sinned against by the gods, but never sinning.

Woman is the supreme illusion. She beckons on to a divine world, and in trying to attain it men waste their lives and build the house of pain. This disillusionizing spirit is everywhere discernible in the Wessex novels. Humanity never attains. In the morning of life we dress for a feast. But it is a perpetual postponement. In the evening of life we sup on the memory of what might have been. We are stripped of our last few rags and prepared for the tomb. In that remarkable, but little read, book, “The Well-Beloved,” the whole mechanism of illusion is laid bare. A man is doomed to pursue for sixty years of his life the ideal which he believes resides in woman. It leads him from form to form. As he is about to clasp it, it darts away and embodies itself otherwhere and beckons him on again. Release from the anguish of everlasting pursuit comes only with the extinguishing of all passion; when the intellect, released from the slavery of the imagination, emerges in a calm survey of its feverish and futile past.

The trivial and incidental often decide the fate of the heroines of the Hardy novels. I say “trivial” and “incidental.” But to the seer these words have no meaning. In real life there are no worked-up climaxes, few dramatic moments. These latter, when they do occur, are often trivial, and of less importance in the evolution of character than ordinary events, unnoticed and disregarded. In “A Pair of Blue Eyes” it is not the episode of the elopement of Elfrida and her lover in itself that wrecks the lives of the three principal characters. It is an incident connected with the episode. In “The Return of the Native” it is Eustacia Vye’s momentary indecision in opening the door to let in her husband’s mother which caused the death of that personage, the suicide of Eustacia, the death of her lover, and changed the subsequent career of the central character. A woman’s mischievous prank, innocent in itself, in “Far From the Madding Crowd” set in motion forces which culminated in murder and insanity. Even in “Tess” the climax is incidental—a mere culmination of things gone before, the momentary incarnation of the spirit of the drama.

Hardy’s women are nothing in themselves. They are merely corks on a “stream of tendency.” Of all stupid human beliefs Hardy believes the doctrine of the free of the will to be the most stupid. He believes that an omnipotent, non-moral force sways the affairs of men. Fate, to which the Greeks, truckling to the grosser symbols of the current polytheistic belief, gave a local habitation and a name, in the Englishman’s pages goes unswathed, unnamed, unnamable, dwells in infinite spaces, nowhere, everywhere. It is subtle, unappeasable, and rules with a knout. She strikes down here and upraises there. The individual is nothing. Law flows, and the human débris flow with it. We are day files, sun-midges, spawned in sport and finally snapped up like flies by the voracious world-beast, viewless to us.



This letter appeared under a larger title collecting several responses to an opinion piece on Hardy that The New York Times Saturday Review of Books had published the week before. The full title was:

Is He the Modern Sophocles?—
Fate and Human Life—
Woman the Supreme

I chose “Woman the Supreme Illusion” as the title for this piece to distinguish it from De Casseres’ earlier essay “Thomas Hardy’s Women” in The Bookman (Oct. 1902), of which this is an abridgment and slight reformulation. However, it is clear that this was not De Casseres’ title for the piece.