I’ve been so busy lately with work and other stuff that I almost forgot about the last book I read which was Thomas Hardy‘s A Pair of Blue Eyes. While reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I resolved to read, if not all, most of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I don’t exactly know why I had this sudden urge, but it was what 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 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, an architect-apprentice from London, who visits their town to work on the local church. Stephen, though an aspiring young man with a promising career is seen as belonging to a lower class than Elfride’s and her father makes it known to both of them that he was opposed to the match. Stephen, devising a plan to earn money and raise his status in the eyes of Elfride’s father, leaves the country, but not without getting from Elfride her loving devotion and loyalty, promising to wait for him to return with a considerable fortune so they would finally be allowed to marry.
As Stephen works hard abroad gaining experience and his fortune, Elfride, in the meantime is stuck in the countryside with not much to do. Enter Henry Knight, an older, 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. Though thinking Elfide immature and naive, Knight nonetheless falls in love with her, despite her flaws. While their love affair develops, Elfride deliberately hides from Knight the fact that she is all but betrothed to Stephen. Knight, inexperienced as he was with women and such matters, idealises Elfride as an innocent, inexperienced maiden when it came to affairs of the heart. She, on the other hand, fearing rejection lest the truth be known, makes no efforts to tell Knight about Stephen or of their relationship. The story contains many more factors which make things more complicated than I have described, and being a Hardy novel, of course things take a turn for the worse with all three individuals finally confronting each other, leaving Elfride, in the end, with the most to lose.
Having read A Pair of Blue Eyes right after Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I couldn’t help but compare the two. Like Tess’, Elfride’s story does not end “happily ever after,” but unlike Tess, I felt a bit like Elfride deserved her fate to some degree. I was annoyed with Elfride’s wishy-washy, indecisive, and vain character as well as with Knight’s rigid, old-fashioned ideals. In fact, A Pair of Blue Eyes is filled with less than perfect individuals with flawed characters, Stephen Smith included.
This novel didn’t leave much of an impression on me other than annoyance towards most of the characters, and it certainly didn’t leave me depressed and empty as did Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Being one of Hardy’s earlier novels, I guess you can view it as a precursor of themes and things to come. There were some interesting tidbits about the novel though that made it more interesting; according to wikipedia and other sources I read, 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 serialised, and one instalment ended with one of the characters hanging on for dear life on the edge of a cliff, leaving readers to wait and wonder about his fate til the next time the story was published.
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) – Thomas Hardy
Penguin Popular Classics; 435 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 2.5/5