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Triangulated passions: love, self-love, and the
other in Thomas Hardy's The Well-Beloved.
Studies in the Novel
December 22, 2002 | Deangelis, Rose | Copyright
... but when I try to imagine a faultless love Or the life to come, what I hear
is the murmur Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
W. H. Auden
In W. H. Auden's poem "In Praise of Limestone," faultless love reminds the poet
of a seamless limestone landscape. In Hardy's The Well-Beloved (1897), faultless
love is a vanishing ideal, and a landscape of marble, the metamorphic form of
limestone, unveils the connection between the erotic and the creative aspects of
desire. Limestone, produced from the conjugal melding of micro-organisms with
calcium from shells, has its origins in the beds of ancient oceans. In The
Well-Beloved, Jocelyn Pierston's birthplace is an island forged by nature from "a
solid and single block of limestone four miles long," where, as Hardy notes,
"Fancies ... seem to grow up naturally" (9, 3). (1) The island emerges from a
creative process and brings forth "the form of Pierston the sculptor, whose first
use of the chisel that rock had instigated" (139). (2) The island is itself a natural
work of art from which Pierston inherits the artistic imagination that crystallizes
his perception of the feminine ideal and "the peculiar characteristic of [its] always
seeming the same despite the passage of time" (Ryan 182). Avice III underscores
the connection between Pierston and the island from which he is carved when she
visualizes him as "a strange fossilized relic in human form," and the narrator
reinforces Jocelyn's kinship with the island when he compares him to a "stone in
a purling brook" (167, 58). (3) In the same way that the accumulation of fossilized
shells brought forth new limestone structures over time, "the elusive idealization" that the artist "called his Love ... flitted from human shell to human shell," each time forging new configurations of the feminine ideal (13).
As this language of shells suggests, The Well-Beloved (1897) explores fully Hardy's morbid fascination with necrophilic love. (4) This "fantastic little tale," as Hardy called The Well-Beloved, provides a bizarre variation on the Continental love triangle (Hardy, Life 304) and may have provided Hardy with a literary forum in which to acknowledge what Michael Millgate calls "a growing discrepancy between his increasing age and his undiminished-or even reawakened- sexual susceptibility," freeing the novelist to examine a lifelong love affair with his own feminine ideal--Tryphena Sparks (330). (5) As Hardy himself wrote, "No man loves the woman--only his dream" (Literary 143). In the novel, first a preconceived, though unvisualized, female ideal and then a necrophilic love image shape Pierston's yearning for three generations of women from a single family--Avice I, II, and III. In the first configuration of triangulated desire, a disembodied female ideal stimulates Pierston's subjective desire, for he seeks to discover his feminine ideal incarnated in a living woman. From the start, however, this female image becomes model and rival, as various real women unknowingly compete with his conceptual ideal. The idea of the "well-beloved' also creates a rivalry within Pierston's psyche: the lover in search of feminized perfection competes against his own artistic self; it is the artist who can and does create the ideal only in marmorial works of art.
The manifestations of desire in Hardy's The Well-Beloved are triangulated. (6) Periodically disrupted, intersubjective, linear relationships generate patterns of action, reaction, and interaction amongst the players. (7) The result of these momentary passionate interludes is a narrative in which the protagonist must continue the repetition if passion is to be sustained. In Hardy's novel, the perfected image Jocelyn Pierston creates of his love of and for Avice I shapes his love for her daughter Avice II and granddaughter Avice III. His love for them is, in fact, wholly dependent upon the vitalizing power of their remembered predecessor; and since, in a sense, the beloved is both present and absent, the patterns of desire repeat themselves indefinitely because, while Avice II and III are the "living representative[s] of the dead" Avice I (99), they are not, and can never be, Avice I. Thus, Jocelyn's primary object of desire is one with whom he can never consummate his love. He is separated both by death and by the epistemological barrier of his idealizing imagination evident in his "chiseling" of his "well-beloved." As J. Hillis Miller justly observes, Jocelyn and his lovers "are driven hither and thither in the ever-renewed dance of love" (Distance 175), forever in the throes of a desire that is beyond consummation. At the end of the
novel, the thrice frustrated Pierston finds himself building an ideal town. In doing so, he transfers his desire for idealized creation onto "kindred undertakings which followed the extinction of the Well-Beloved and other ideals" (205). Thomas Hetherington notes that the "search for an Ideal at the expense of the real was not a new concept for Hardy" (xiii). Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood, Angel Clare, and Edred Fitzpiers all share some elements of Jocelyn Pierston's obsession with a feminine ideal. These men are all searching for the woman who embodies their cherished conception; and if they cannot find her, they will not hesitate to effect the necessary transformations, real or imagined, in the woman who becomes the beloved. (8) In The Well-Beloved, Pierston refuses at first to assign a visual image for his shadowy well-beloved. However, after he believes she has been embodied in the dead Avice I, he reveals a penchant for transforming other women into images of her; for example, when looking at Avice II, he reflects, "But, after all, it was not the washerwoman that he saw now. In front of her, on the surface of her, was shining out that more real, more inter-penetrating being whom he knew so well!" (89). Like his fictional male predecessors, Pierston exhibits narcissistic tendencies in his choice of an object/beloved. In his essay "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914), Freud observes that "the human being has originally two sexual objects: himself and the woman who tends him, and thereby we postulate a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in the long run manifest itself as dominating his object-choice" (4: 45). These two primary love objects are so closely allied in the mind of the developing individual that the pursuit of an external love object later in life often contains a narcissistic urge within it. Jocelyn selects women who reflect some perfect infantile version of himself and, at the same time, indirectly recall (or substitute for) his absent mother in some way; however, neither the characteristically male or female type of narcissism manifests itself as dominating Jocelyn's choice of object/beloved. While Jocelyn is far more self-conscious about object choice than his predecessors, in theory, all of Hardy's male protagonists in some way choose and love the object/beloved with a model in mind; and all of them transfer the self-love that qualifies them as perfect onto another person who resembles the earliest sexual object--mother or themselves. (9) The Well-Beloved, in particular, as J. Hillis Miller notes, investigates "the theme of ... a narcissistic loving of oneself in the beloved" (Fiction 148). The idealization of the beloved can then follow this diagram: ego libido [right arrow] object libido = ego idealization [right arrow] object idealization.
Jocelyn Pierston's search for the feminine ideal, therefore, may reflect his pursuit of an idealized sense of self represented in his artistry. The imaginative creation of "dream figures" becomes "sober business," for "all these dreams he translated
into plaster" (50, 52). Hardy and later Proust, as Milton L. Miller notes, make clear "that a man's deepest love may very well be for a nostalgic phantom which inhabits the bodies of a series of individuals, and provides artistic inspiration" (117). (10) The search for a feminine ideal creates a void that Pierston constantly tries to fill; the condition of absence propels him into a repetitive pattern of embodiment, pursuit, and failure that is essential for desire to flourish. And each failure in the pattern created by desire marks a new starting point in Jocelyn Pierston's ever-renewing quest for a perfected serf. Since the beloved is more an idealized mirror than a living human being, she can never be possessed, and Jocelyn's initial inability to visualize his feminine ideal and his repeated failure to possess her coincides with his inability to define himself to his satisfaction. Were he to possess one of the Avices, he would lose his ego in carnal union but gain nothing of his dream. As J. Hillis Miller writes,
The goal of the desire is to find that something missing, to
achieve completion, to fill the gap.... The male [Jocelyn] wishes
to complete himself or to make up for a lack by joining himself …