I’ll be discussing the Thomas Hardy short story “On the Western Circuit” with my class this week; I’ve always liked Hardy, in all his darkness and gloom, but I fell in love with him when I came across this sentence while preparing for class — at this point the story’s heroine is riding on a carousel, having just met the handsome Charles Bradford Raye:
Each time that she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair.
When I read this long list of the results of one smiling gaze, I couldn’t help but laugh — it’s not really funny, of course, but it’s just so perfect and so much like Hardy to have one eye on the story and one eye on universal despair. I love how he mixes the positive in with the negative — it’s not just heartache and drudgery but also union and content we experience — because the presence of these positive experiences makes the overall despair seem even worse in contrast. And I love how he mixes the personal with the impersonal; it’s not just heartache and despair but also overpopulation we’re dealing with. Personal tragedies lead directly to social ones.
No, this is not a happy story. It’s about Anna, a country girl who has come to the small city of Melchester to live with Edith, a woman who has offered to train her as a servant. While riding the carousel, Anna meets Charles; they fall in love and he “[wins] her, body and soul.” Hardy describes this “winning” very briefly and without judgment. It’s something natural Anna has done, and although society might judge her for it, Hardy won’t. Work takes Charles away, and when he writes her a letter, Hardy reveals Anna’s dilemma: she is illiterate and cannot read the letter. She begs Edith to write a letter for her, which she does, and they fall into a regular correspondence, Charles and Anna/Edith. Anna begins by dictating the letters, but soon Edith edits and embellishes and even writes entire letters without Anna’s knowledge. Charles is astonished that an ill-educated country girl could write so well, and he begins to fall in love with the letter-writer. Then Anna finds herself “in a delicate situation,” as they say, and the plot thickens.
The moving thing about this story is that everyone does something wrong and yet no one is really at fault, and the story doesn’t judge them, but rather presents their actions and the consequences dispassionately, as though nothing could possibly have been any different. Charles should not have seduced an innocent girl, Anna should not have allowed herself to be seduced, Edith should not have deceived Charles by writing Anna’s letters, and yet each of the characters finds him or herself in much deeper trouble than any of these actions would suggest. Each one is portrayed sympathetically. They are trapped, caught by nature and by fate, and they suffer undeservedly. Such is the universe.
I’ve read five Hardy novels, some of them twice; I guess I’m drawn to this kind of clear-eyed pessimism, as well as to a well-told story. I read these novels quite a while ago, however; perhaps one day I’ll reread some of them or pick up ones I haven’t experienced yet. This short story has certainly whet my appetite.