Thomas Hardy's novels are notorious for the grim inevitability with which their characters fall prey to biological and sociological forces beyond their control. Jude the Obscure in particular, culminating in the suicide of its protagonist's children “because we are too menny,” looks not just overtly Malthusian but deterministic in every sense: a brutal lesson in the impossibility of equality. Whether one approaches it, via Michel Foucault, as an illustration of power's inexorable grasp on life or, via Georg Lukács, as symptomatic of naturalism's dehumanizing ideological bent, the story seems bound to enforce the logic of the existing social order. This essay reads Hardy's last novel in quite another political light. Turning to Jacques Rancière's analysis of the politics of literature, it suggests that the novel genre finds a basis for radical political transformation in such unnecessary lives as those that populate naturalist fiction. Hardy's characters exceed any assigned social position, yet the surplus that shapes their stories is not just demographic; it is a surplus of words and meanings, a deliberate crowding of figural space that compromises the narrator's prescriptive claims for the causality of heredity on the one hand and the division of labor on the other. Jude ultimately demonstrates that literature is, in essence, superfluous—and that “the count of the uncounted,” which Rancière recognizes as the stake of politics, is also the stake of fiction.
Emily Steinlight; Hardy's Unnecessary Lives: The Novel as Surplus. Novel 1 August 2014; 47 (2): 224–241. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2647167
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