Anna West, Thomas Hardy and Animals

Anna West, Thomas Hardy and Animals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 210 pp. $80.00 PDF, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107179172

Animals play an important role in Thomas Hardy’s work, but, with honourable exceptions, Hardy scholars have tended to overlook them. In Thomas Hardy and Animals, Anna West has at last made Hardy’s literary response to the non-human a subject in itself. In so doing, she has taken full advantage of the emergence of human-animal studies as a field of study, an ‘animal turn’ pioneered by the philosophical interventions of Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Emmanuel Levinas, and others.  As West explains in her introduction (1-14), her aim is to relate Hardy’s views both to the debates of his own day, and to ours (4).  Nevertheless, ‘this book is about Hardy’s animals’ (4), and the various ways in which animals manifest themselves in Hardy’s work.

Focusing primarily on the novels, West’s study opens with a chapter that asks ‘What Does It Mean to Be a Creature?’ (15-45), a question she relates to the recent ‘discourse of the “creaturely”’ (10).  Classifying Hardy’s use of the word ‘creature’ in seven of the novels, she identifies and explores three main meanings for the word: that of ‘inanimate beings, animals, and humans’ (21).  As she notes, names ‘assert boundaries’, but they may also ‘signal similarity’ (15), and Hardy’s own use of this semantically slippery term functions as a marker for ‘his feeling of a “shifted … centre of altruism”’ (16), a feeling linked to the way ‘the word “creature” in his texts often calls upon a sense of Biblical loving-kindness’ (19).

The next chapter, ‘“The Only Things We Believe in Are the Sheep and the Dogs”’ (46-84), takes it cue from Henry James’ famous (if perhaps facetious) comment on Far from the Madding Crowd.  Developing her discussion of the word ‘creature’, West notes how intimately the lives of animals are caught up with those of the human characters in the novel (47), and from this builds towards a two-part analysis, firstly, of the extent to which animals might ‘possess something like moral sense’, and secondly, of the question of ‘moral responsibility to animals - human or nonhuman’ (48).  As West concludes, the novel illustrates Hardy’s own belief in the possibility of the former, and the necessity of the latter (83); its power lies in his ability to invest himself imaginatively in his subjects, whether it ‘be Fanny Robin or a homeless dog or Bathsheba Everdene or a newborn lamb’ (84).

In the next three chapters, ‘“Artful Creatures”’, Parts I (85-109), II (110-128), and III (129-155), West further explores Hardy’s interest in ‘[t]hinking with animals’ (87), and his willingness to reconsider ‘what it means to be part of “the whole conscious world collectively”’ (87).  Part I discusses language, ‘perhaps the most closely guarded boundary dividing humans and animals’, and ‘the capacities for reason and abstract thought supposedly implicit in it’ (89).  Analysing the various ways in which language is itself defined, West relates those definitions to Tess and her experience at Trantridge, where she is set to work teaching captive bullfinches ‘new airs’ (88).  West also discusses the poem ‘Winter in Durnover Field’ (105), linking it to passages in Jude (106-107), and more generally, to Hardy’s ‘fascination with the idea of voices in nature’ (108).

In Part II, West extends her discussion to include Levinas’s seminal engagement with another putative boundary between human and non-human: the face (88).  Focusing on Mrs. Yeobright’s encounter with an adder, West considers ‘the possibility of faces as sites of encounter, deflection, and exposure’ (110).  Drawing on work by Charles Darwin (113-115), West analyses Hardy’s portrayal of human features in The Return of the Native, and relates Levinas’s work to Mrs. Yeobright’s own, fatal encounter. For Levinas, West notes, ‘the face speaks more clearly than speech itself’ (117), and in looking away from the snake, Mrs. Yeobright conveys not only her own, instinctual aversion, but her recognition that it represents ‘the other, unknowable and potentially powerful’ (122).

In Part III, West engages with the question of whether or not animals can be said to suffer, a question to which Jeremy Bentham first drew attention, and to which Hardy’s own work is always responsive.  ‘For Hardy,’ she notes, ‘there is no doubt that animals can feel pain’ (142), and he recoiled from it; indeed, Hardy offered ‘the infamous pig-killing scene in Jude […] to the Animal’s Friend for publication as a stand-alone commentary on slaughtering practices’ (130).  Exploring the pig-killing scene in depth (130-137), and drawing variously on Bentham, Mill, and Derrida, West broadens the discussion to other novels (such as Under the Greenwood Tree) that reflect Hardy’s concerns (142-147).  She concludes by examining Tess’s own identification with non-human suffering (147-153), once again emphasizing Hardy’s willingness to ‘shift perspective […] into unknown worlds’ (155).

In a final chapter, ‘Useful Creatures: Rethinking Hardy’s Humanitarianism’ (156-189), West tests the limits of Hardy’s ‘sense of kinship’ (156) in three ways.  Firstly, she examines Hardy’s depiction of horses, in peace and war (168-170) and the realities of his own, day-to-day needs in a society still heavily dependent on them as a means of transportation (165).  Next, she interrogates Hardy’s ‘image as the poet-humanitarian of his day’ (171) by looking more closely at his (in fact moderate) views on vivisection (174-9) and his reluctance to take up ‘a public stance’ against it (177).  Finally, West considers Hardy’s feelings for his beloved pets, particularly cats, as ‘an exceptional counter-example to traditionally useful creatures’ (184).  As she concludes, ‘Hardy’s most enduring legacy as a humanitarian exists in his depictions of animals’; they represent ‘an alternative framework for how humans might think about and relate to animals in their everyday environments’ (186).

Throughout, West compares Hardy’s stories of animal encounter to the Möbius strip, which embodies a connection that is at once ‘inseparable and indeterminable’ (84).  As she insists, his work represents a spur ‘to imagine voices and meaning’ outside our own understandings (91); and, as she also adds, there is much more to be written on Hardy’s animals (188), not least as they appear in the verse that he regarded as the most personal part of his work.  Nevertheless, West’s excellent study provides a very welcome introduction to the ‘creatures’ that play so notable a part in Hardy’s oeuvre.

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar