A Summary and Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Here’s a question for you. What was Thomas Hardy’s last novel? Easy, some might say: Jude the Obscure, the 1895 book whose hostile reception convinced Hardy to abandon novel-writing and return to his first love, poetry. But in fact, Jude wasn’t Hardy’s last ever novel – at least, not exactly. For in 1897, two years after Jude’s appearance, a final novel was published: The Well-Beloved. It’s an overlooked novel, but deserves more attention and analysis – not to mention a wider readership – than it tends to receive.

We say ‘not exactly’ because The Well-Beloved wasn’t an entirely new work. Instead, it was a reworking of an earlier novel, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, which had been serialised in 1892. The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved: A Sketch of a Temperament appeared in the Illustrated London News between October and December 1892, but was only reprinted when Penguin Classics reissued both the original serial version and the later 1897 rewrite, The Well-Beloved.

This is the edition we recommend for the devoted Hardy fan: The Pursuit of the Well-beloved and the Well-beloved (Penguin Classics). There are suggestive plot differences between the two versions of the novel.

The Well-Beloved is, like A Laodicean, one of Hardy’s most neglected novels. It is often overlooked altogether, but, unlike A Laodicean, it is easier to map the themes and style of The Well-Beloved onto Hardy’s fiction more generally. J. Hillis Miller, in his introduction to the Macmillan edition, even suggests that The Well-Beloved opens up, and even parodies, aspects of Hardy’s worldview which had been more subtly treated in his earlier fiction.

But not everyone had seen fit to praise the novel. John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and, it should be added, usually an admirer of Hardy), went so far as to say of The Well-Beloved that ‘taken straight, the book cannot be judged as anything but a disastrous failure by Hardy’s standards elsewhere’. But is it too easy to write this novel off as a failure? Is it simply doing something markedly different from conventional ‘realist’ fiction of the nineteenth century, and we need to approach it in the right spirit?

Readers who want to avoid spoilers might want to avoid the following (brief) plot summary. (The summary we’ll provide is for the rewritten 1897 version, simply titled The Well-Beloved.) In short, The Well-Beloved has the feel of a fairy-tale to it, given its use of the motif and patterning of three. The novel’s protagonist, a sculptor named Jocelyn Pierston, has returned to the Isle of Slingers (Hardy’s name of the Isle of Portland, actually a peninsula off the Dorset coast), having spent a number of years in London.

Throughout the course of the novel – which charts his development at intervals of twenty years – he falls in love with three generations of the same family: a young woman named Avice Caro, her daughter, Ann Avice, and then her daughter, Avice. Each of these women is viewed by Pierston as the embodiment of an ethereal, timeless quality he calls ‘the well-beloved’. As Patricia Ingham sums up these three Avices in her detailed Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition: ‘the first [is] a romantic ingénue, the second a knowing coquette and the third a shy, well-educated and virginal creature.’

Pierston is twenty when he falls for the first Avice, forty when he loves the second, and sixty when he meets the third. He nearly marries the third, but on the night before their wedding, Avice elopes with a younger man whom she loves. There are also a few marginal characters: Somers, Pierston’s male friend and confidant; and Marcia Bencomb, with whom Jocelyn has a brief affair, and with whom he ends up at the end of the novel, marrying out of companionship as much as love.

There are several ways of analysing the novel from a psychoanalytic perspective, given the central theme or focus of The Well-Beloved. Here are two of the most popular readings:

A Lacanian reading of the novel, using the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and in particular his work on desire. Lacan argues that desire is founded on a lack, on something we don’t have (to see how deeply this idea is ingrained in our language, consider the two meanings of the simple English word ‘want’, meaning both ‘desire’ and ‘lack’, as in ‘I want that’ and ‘he was found wanting’).

This stems from childhood where the child desired the mother but the father prevented the child from getting what it wanted – i.e., the mother.

As a result, the child projects this desire onto other objects, each of which represent the thing originally desired (the mother, in other words). Desire is an endless chain that can never be completed or satisfied: we are always desiring something.

We can see this in The Well-Beloved in the way that Jocelyn Pierston is always following the well-beloved from one woman to another – this spirit of perfect womanhood moves from the first Avice to Marcia to Avice’s daughter and on to her granddaughter. Jane Thomas, in her book Thomas Hardy and Desire, has recently undertaken a Lacanian reading of the novel.

Alternatively, one might undertake a Jungian analysis of The Well-Beloved, drawing on the theories of the psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (follower of, but also detractor from, Freud), in which we see Pierston’s pursuit of the ‘well-beloved’ as a version of what Jung calls the anima, whereby femininity is embodied in two principal forms, the goddess and the witch. The anima is really part of the male subject’s own psyche – in other words, Pierston is in search of his own femininity, his ‘feminine side’ or repressed feminine aspects of his personality.

We could alternatively opt for a contextual analysis of The Well-Beloved, and make a case for Pierston being a victim of Victorian male repression, where certain behavioural attributes and characteristics were acceptable for the Victorian man while others were not. Or we could be more theoretical, or psychoanalytical – in short, more Jungian – and see Pierston’s well-beloved or anima as something that is common to all men, regardless of when they lived.

It is significant – indeed, symbolically so – that Jocelyn Pierston is a sculptor: this means that his most obvious counterpart from classical mythology is Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with the statue of Galatea he created (a couple of decades after Hardy’s novel, George Bernard Shaw would use the same story as a metaphor for the unlikely friendship between Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in his 1913 play Pygmalion).

But there are other ways of reading significance into Pierston’s trade: for instance, the stony figures of beauty which Pierston is known for sculpting are fixed and permanent, whereas the women he desires are all too human, and as such are subject to the ageing process. The hard stoniness of Pierston’s productions forms a cold contrast to the reality of the women he admires. The well-beloved never sits still for long.

Hardy’s novel raises additional questions to ponder: is he positing a connection between erotic desire and artistic creativity? Pierston’s trade as a sculptor is significant again here, though we don’t gain much insight into how this affects his worldview (if it does); nor do we see him doing much sculpting.

Is this an artistic flaw in the novel, or has Hardy deliberately chosen not to draw too clear a link? Is he suggesting that this link between erotic fantasy and artistic imagination is more abstract and more common than this – that it’s not just found among sculptors and writers, but among all men (and, indeed, women)?

When Thomas Hardy divided his novels up into three categories, he placed The Well-Beloved with his ‘Romances and Fantasies’. This was not a realist novel like The Return of the Native or Tess of the d’Urbervilles (though how closely those novels follow the tenets of realism is open to analysis and discussion), but rather a fairy-tale-esque examination of male desire.

Despite this, it is a must-read for the Thomas Hardy fan for the light it sheds on themes found in Hardy’s earlier fiction. It’s a curious and surprising swansong for Hardy’s fiction-writing career, but worth reading despite – or perhaps because – of its unusual style and structure.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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