I’ve been so busy lately with work and other stuff that I nearly forgot about the last book I read, which is Thomas Hardy‘s A Pair of Blue Eyes. While reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I resolved to read, if not all, then most of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I don’t exactly know why I had this sudden urge, but it compelled me to read A Pair of Blue Eyes.
After Tess, A Pair of Blue Eyes seems comparatively light. Written a few years before Tess, A Pair of Blue Eyes has all the elements that Hardy expounds on in Tess and in his other novels, such as the double standards and hypocrisy in sexuality and morality and class struggles. The protagonist of A Pair of Blue Eyes is Elfride Swancourt, a rather sheltered, wishy-washy 19-year-old girl. Living in the English countryside with her father, Elfride falls in love with a young man, Stephen Smith, who is an architect apprentice from London visiting their town to work on the local church. Despite being an aspiring young man with a promising career, Stephen is seen as belonging to a class that is lower than that of Elfride, and her father makes it known to both of them that he was opposed to the match. Stephen devises a plan to earn money and raise his status in the eyes of Elfride’s father. He decides to leave the country but not without getting Elfride’s loving devotion, loyalty, and promise to wait for him to return with a considerable fortune, which would allow them to get married
As Stephen works hard abroad to gain experience and his fortune, Elfride, in the meantime is stuck in the countryside with nothing to do. Enter Henry Knight, an old, intellectual scholar, who, though not having much experience with women and love, impresses Elfride, who sees him as her superior whose approval she constantly craves. Despite considering Elfide immature and naive, Knight falls in love with her, flaws and all. As their love affair develops, Elfride deliberately hides the fact that she is all but betrothed to Stephen. Ignorant when it comes to women and such matters, Knight idealizes Elfride as an innocent, inexperienced maiden in terms of affairs of the heart. However, fearing rejection if the truth is revealed, Elfride makes no effort to tell Knight about Stephen or their relationship. The story contains numerous other factors that complicate matters further, and being a Hardy novel, things take a turn for the worse, with all three characters finally confronting one another, in the end leaving Elfride with the most to lose.
Reading A Pair of Blue Eyes right after Tess, I couldn’t help but compare the two novels. Like Tess’ story, Elfride’s does not end “happily ever after.” However, unlike with Tess, I felt a bit like Elfride deserved her fate. I was annoyed with Elfride’s wishy washy, indecisive, and vain character as well as Knight’s rigid, old-fashioned ideals. In fact, A Pair of Blue Eyes is filled with less-than-perfect individuals with flawed personalities, including Stephen Smith.
This novel didn’t leave much of an impression on me other than annoyance toward most of the characters, but it certainly didn’t leave me depressed and empty like Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Being one of Hardy’s early novels, I guess it can be view as a precursor of future themes and stories. However, the novel contains several interesting tidbits that make it compelling. For example, according to Wikipedia and other sources, A Pair of Blue Eyes was based partly on Hardy’s courtship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. The novel is also said to have been the original “cliffhanger.” When it was first published, A Pair of Blue Eyes was serialized, and one installment ended with one of the characters hanging for dear life on the edge of a cliff, leaving readers to wait and wonder about his fate until the next issue.
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) – Thomas Hardy
Penguin Popular Classics; 435 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 2.5/5