Excerpt from “All Fall Down: Hardy’s Heroes on the 1990s Cinema Screen,” Thomas Hardy on Screen,

ed. T. R. Wright (Cambridge UP 2005), 76-95


Film adaptations of Hardy, like those of other classics, generally satisfy filmgoers’ desires for both narrativity and ‘gentrification,’ simply by virtue of their status as representations of nineteenth-century novels.  As for their capacity to satisfy a longing for a return to stable gender roles in the context of a safe, familiar past, however (something Austen adaptations, for example, can generally be counted on to do), most adaptations of Hardy fail abysmally.  We cannot look to Hardy to provide us with a reassuring past in which gender roles are comfortably resolved, because for him they never were.  Like the postmoderns, Hardy constructed himself to some degree as ‘post-Victorian,’ in that he assiduously resisted the gender norms and classifications of his time.  The present in his texts is frequently represented as hazardous, repressive and unsatisfactory, and in its tenuous hope for the future it constitutes our own past only uneasily.  Jude’s statement (to which I will return) that he and Sue had ideas that were ‘fifty years too soon’ (VI x 423)[1] now resonates ironically, especially as it situates this more promising future for gender relations in the period just before the ideologically repressive1950s. 

Patricia Ingham, who reads Hardy’s novels in terms of their narrative syntax, outlines two common narrative ‘sentences’ in which heroines of nineteenth-century novels were typically immersed: that in which the heroine is chastened, ultimately choosing the right husband, and that in which she redeems her faults through ‘shame, guilt, self-hatred, good works or forms of self-immolation and/or death or exile.’[2]  As a group, Hardy’s male characters also tend to be subjected to a recurring syntax, an even starker narrative ‘sentence’ – one that reads simply, ‘He failed.’  The two-suitor plot abounds in Hardy’s fiction, for instance, but the masculinity embodied in these Girardian rivalries[3] is consistently portrayed in terms of losing, rather than winning.  The eventual outcome is frequently the loss of the female object of rivalry, by not only one but both rivals: Henry Knight and Stephen Smith both lose Elfride; Bishop Helmsdale and Swithin St. Cleeve both lose Lady Constantine; Clym and Wildeve both lose Eustacia; Henchard and Farfrae both lose Lucetta; Winterbourne and Fitzpiers both (at least figuratively) lose Grace; Alec and Angel both lose Tess; Jude and Phillotson both lose Sue; and even in the absence of such rivalry, the older and younger Pierstons both lose all of the Avices.  It is not only the poor man who does not get the lady; often, indeed, no one gets her.  In ‘Candour in English Fiction’ Hardy famously disparaged ‘the false colouring best expressed by the regulation finish that “they married and were happy ever after,”’[4] and the happy marriage, a conventional sign of successful closure in the nineteenth-century novel, is signally absent from his fiction.  Even in novels in which there is a clear ‘winner,’ such as Desperate Remedies, A Laodicean, or Far From the Madding Crowd, the female ‘prize’ frequently undergoes a process of modification (usually a version of Ingham’s ‘chastening’) in the course of the contest, so that the winner’s victory is significantly muted.  Only in the pastoral fantasy of Under the Greenwood Tree, in which Dick Dewy remains blissfully unaware of his rival, is the enjoyment of the hero’s victory untrammeled – for the hero himself, at least, though not for the knowing reader.

Material success, too, eludes most of Hardy’s heroes, and ‘Our Exploits at West Poley’ (1883), Hardy’s ‘Story for Boys,’ provides us with a paradigmatic figure of this kind of masculine failure.  ‘The Man who had Failed’ haunts the text, reappearing at all the key moments.  Significantly, he has no name apart from this self-designation (it is what he ‘calls himself’ [115]).[5]  Significant, too, is the perfect tense: his failure has already occurred; it has become a fixed part of his identity.  He can speak from a position of freedom, as he has opted out of the ‘normal’ struggle for success (he ‘has been all over the world, and tried all sorts of lives, but he has never got rich, and . . . has retired to [West Poley] for quietness’ [115]).  He is thereby absolved from further effort, and his advice is regarded by the townspeople as ‘worth attending to,’ even though it is fairly banal (he cautions the boys to adhere to ‘quiet perseverance in clearly defined courses’ as opposed to ‘erratic exploits that may do much harm’ [163]).[6]  The authority of this overtly emblematic figure of failure paradoxically derives from failure itself; Leonard, the narrator of the story, reports that he was not old enough at the time to realize that ‘the losers in the world’s battle are often the very men who . . . have the clearest perceptions of what constitutes success; while the successful men are frequently blinded to the same by the tumult of their own progress’ (115). 

It is not surprising that Hardy’s narratives of embattled masculinity and its failures resonate with postmodern audiences.  Like Hardy, such audiences view gender as a vexed category, and its new plurality of expression is experienced – much as we can imagine Hardy might have experienced it – as both liberatory (in theory) and anxiety- producing (in practice).  At the fin-de-siècle, fin-de-millenium turn of the twentieth century, a cultural moment in which, according to Michael Bracewell, ‘veracity has become synonymous with confusion and dysfunctionalism,’[7] Hardy’s narratives of failed manhood appeal to our sense of contemporary reality.  And the ways in which his heroes fail are noteworthy as well, as Hardy is not interested in standard configurations of masculinity so much as in characters who fall short of such configurations in oblique and complex ways, thereby revealing the inadequacy of such gender norms.  Few conventionally ‘virile’ or ‘gentlemanly’ heroes inhabit his works; ‘Our Exploits’ – significantly intended as a story for and about boys becoming men – is uncharacteristic in its clear mapping of this conventional binary(although even here the Man who had Failed positions himself outside it).  Steve, the hero of the story who grows up to be ‘the largest gentleman farmer of those parts’ (163), initially exhibits a kind of raw virility ‘(a Carlylean ‘‘Doughtiness – the courage and faculty to do’’’ [114]) but succeeds in the end, Leonard conjectures, by adopting the sober restraint advocated by the Man who had Failed.

That this traditional polarity between forcefulness and restraint continues to inflect current models of masculinity there is no doubt, as witnessed by the large numbers of action heroes in contemporary cinema, in perpetual tension with ‘new’ models of gentler masculinity.  Susan Jeffords contends that the 1990s produced ‘a changed image of U.S. masculinity, . . . an image that suggests that the hard-bodied male action heroes of the eighties have given way to a “kinder, gentler” U.S. manhood, one that is sensitive, generous, caring, and perhaps most importantly, capable of change.’[8]  Real men, of course, like Hardy’s heroes, fit neatly into neither of these familiar configurations; but ‘doughty’ virility and manly gentleness remain the defining terms of normative masculinity.   To a large extent, popular paradigms of successful manhood have not changed significantly since Hardy’s radical questioning of them.  The film-length adaptations of Hardy’s work made in the 1990s question them too, albeit not so radically.  Gold’s Return of the Native (1994), Agland’s Woodlanders (1998) and St. Paul’s Scarlet Tunic (1998), as well as Winterbottom’s Jude (1996) and The Claim (2000), portray a variety of masculine failures, a group that gives rise to a remarkably consistent iconography, that of the (literally) fallen hero.  The function of these icons of failure, I will argue, is primarily one of consolation.  Peter Widdowson contends that the ‘softened’ film representations of Hardy ‘speak only to fictions of the present in a consoling way,’[9] and one way these films console their viewers is by enhancing the unheroic in their heroes.  They thereby literalize late twentieth-century anxieties about gender, confirming the postmodern viewer’s sense that masculinity itself is a fiction, contradictory and impossible to perform, but one that continues to be privileged as the accepted site of male success.



[1] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, ed. Patricia Ingham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).  All subsequent page references are to this edition.

[2] Patricia Ingham, Thomas Hardy (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 38.

[3] René Girard outlines his well-known theory of mimetic desire, in which the object of desire is invested with erotic interest as a result of being desired by a rival, in Deceit, Desire and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1966).

[4] Hardy, ‘Candour in English Fiction,’ The New Review 2 (1890), 17.

[5] Thomas Hardy, ‘Our Exploits at West Poley: A Story for Boys’ in An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and Other Stories, ed. Pamela Dalziel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).  All subsequent references to the text are to this edition.

[6] This advice is offset, of course, by the excitement of the ‘exploits’ of the story, which include finding the headwaters of a river and acquiring the godlike power of changing its course and thus affecting the fortunes of the citizens of two communities – clearly a fantasy of origins and ultimate power (and possibly a figure for writing fiction, an activity which also sets out to find the source, and alter the course, of human behaviour). 

[7] Michael Bracewell, The Nineties: When Surface was Depth (Hammersmith: Flamingo, 2002), p. 70.

[8] Susan Jeffords, ‘The Big Switch: Hollywood Masculinity in the Nineties’ in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins (New York: Routledge, 1993), p.197.

[9] Peter Widdowson, ‘Thomas Hardy at the End of Two Centuries: From Page to Screen’ in Thomas Hardy and Contemporary Literary Studies, ed. Tim Dolin and Peter Widdowson (London: Palgrave, 2004), p.198.