This essay argues that Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders registers a historic shift in the political imaginary of late nineteenth-century Britain: the emergence of a fantasy of the state as a heroic actor endowed with the capacity to step in and ameliorate one's pain. While The Woodlanders seems to foster sympathy for rural folk who get caught up and reconfigured in state fantasy, it ultimately indicts sympathy and, by extension, its appropriation by the modern liberal state. With its radical doubt about the stability of the subject and its incisive critique of the politics of compassion for rural folk, The Woodlanders undermines the project of sympathy on either an individual or national scale.

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