Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

New Book by W&L's Keen Reveals Thomas Hardy’s Knowledge and Use of Psychology

Suzanne Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English and dean of the College at Washington and Lee University, has published a new scholarly book: “Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination,” part of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series (Ohio State University Press, 2014). It is available as both a hardcover book and on a disc.

In the book, Keen examines Thomas Hardy’s knowledge of the psychology and neurology of his own time and observes the changing imagery of brain and nerves he employed in more than half a century of writing. “For readers who are familiar with Hardy, I recover a sense of what 19thcentury psychology before Freud was actually like,” said Keen. “I show that Thomas Hardy’s representations of brains were conceived in light of Victorian brain science and his imagery of nerves depicted in keeping with Victorian medical neurology. So it’s about the psychology that was there for Hardy himself as opposed to the psychology that 20th and 21st century critics see when they look back through the lens of what we now know about human behavior and anatomy.”

Describing Keen’s work as “brilliant and original,” one reviewer notes that “as far as I know no other book approaches Hardy from just this angle and with just this degree of authoritative knowledge of the topic. It is certain to have wide influence and to change the way readers, teachers and scholars read Hardy’s work.”

While Hardy and Freud co-existed in the world, according to Keen there is no evidence that they ever met and Hardy would not have been familiar with Freud’s work. “Sometimes Hardy’s psychology feels Freudian, as if he’s anticipating things about Freud’s work, but it really is drawing on what was a lively field of psychology and philosophy during the period he was writing,” Keen said. “It was very much in the popular magazines and would have been the subject of discussion at the men’s clubs Hardy belonged to. It was certainly represented in reference works like the Encyclopedia Britannica and was very much a part of learned culture. Hardy was a serious student of the psychology of human behavior, which he started reading in his early 20s.”

Although there are many books that examine Hardy’s Darwinism, his interest in astronomy, archeology, philosophy and science in general, his knowledge and use of psychology in his fiction has not been treated in depth. Keen’s book is completely different and looks at the lines of influence from what Hardy read and how it affected the way he imagined his characters and chose narrative techniques.

She also had access to Hardy’s elaborate reading notes that showed what he knew about psychology and, to some degree, philosophy of science when he was thinking about and writing his fiction. Those notebooks survived because his second wife did not burn them after his death as Hardy had requested and, along with his published works, show he was a psychologically-informed writer.

When Hardy was a young man psychology hadn’t really developed. For example, early in his career the idea of reading bumps on people’s head (phrenology) to interpret their personality and character was popular.

In “Under the Greenwood Tree,” Hardy makes fun of phrenology as a pseudo-science by having his characters look at lasts—shapes used to make a shoe—to read the characters of people they already know, and implies that these characters are really reading other kinds of social cues. Keen pointed out that Hardy had his skull read as a young man by a quack phrenologist who dismissed him and said he would come to nothing, probably reacting to Hardy not having a high-class accent and being a little shabby.

Hardy also rarely used the common19th century technique of “free and direct discourse,” to represent the thoughts and feelings of characters, which separated him from most of his fellow Victorian novelists. While he used a lot of dialog, he was very fond of telling the reader what his character was not thinking and what he or she was not aware of. “I think that’s very much influenced by his reading of psychology, because he felt that people were driven much more by unconscious impulses. It’s not a Freudian unconscious, it’s just humans not being conscious of why they do things and always acting on impulses they couldn’t possibly explain because they don’t understand them,” said Keen.

Keen said that sometimes the tragedy in Hardy’s novels is hooked to that impulsive action and “when I read ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ I want to say ‘Don’t do it!’ to Tess’ character when she feels compelled to tell Angel Clare that she is not a virgin and bore a child as the result of a seduction. He has a terrible double standard response and dumps her, although he realizes the error of his ways at the end.”

According to Keen, there are a lot of clues scattered throughout Hardy’s work that he was alert to psychology.

In “The Woodlanders,” for example, Dr. Fitzpiers is a psychologist who is always lusting after people’s heads because he wants to put them under a microscope to do brain anatomy. “What’s funny is that Hardy represents this character as an absolutely untrustworthy man on the make,” said Keen. “He’s a terrible person and there’s nothing admirable about the psychology he is practicing in the story.”

From the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, the tools and techniques for studying the structures and function of the nervous system developed rapidly and Hardy moved steadily toward realizing a more physiologically-accurate rendering of brains and nerves.

This is illustrated in his epic poem “The Dynasts” about the Napoleonic Wars, which he wrote at the end of his career in the early 20th century. It is full of passages where the universe and the cosmic will that fills it are represented by flashing electrical impulses of neurons. “It’s clear that Hardy was taking what was then a quite up-to-date sense of synapses and neurons and imaging the universe as this giant cosmic brain pulsing with energy that pushes people around as unconscious agents who don’t understand why they do certain things,” said Keen.

“I’ve been reading Hardy’s work since I was about 16 years old and I’ve not gotten tired of him yet,” she continued. “I really love both his poetry and his fiction and, while I am a Hardy scholar, what I’ve done most with Hardy is to teach undergraduates about his work.”

Keen is a narrative theorist and an internationally-recognized authority on literary empathy. She holds an A.B. in English literature and studio art, an A.M. in creative writing from Brown University and an A.M. and Ph.D. in English language and literature from Harvard University.

Her books include “Empathy and the Novel” (Oxford, 2007), “Narrative Form” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), “Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction” (Toronto, 2001), “Victorian Renovations of the Novel” (Cambridge, 1998) and a volume of poetry, “Milk Glass Mermaid” (Lewis-Clark, 2007).

She is U.S. co-editor of Contemporary Women’s Writing (an Oxford University Press journal) and teaches the novel in English, postcolonial Anglophone literature and contemporary British fiction.

If you know any W&L faculty who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.