There could scarcely be a novel more searingly critical of social contradictions than Thomas Hardy's last, and arguably the last Victorian one, Jude the Obscure. Between its Pauline epigraph (“the letter killeth”) and its unforgettable tragedy (“done because we are too menny”), Jude bears out in its plot an indictment of law's inherent abjections and an interrogation of the value of life that seem to precociously articulate the consensus of today's hegemonic biopolitical theory: that human institutions tend inexorably to subjugate humanity itself. Yet the form of the novel develops another theory of the political, another conception of the letter of the law. In ways legible from the presentation of the epigraph onward, that form is conspicuously experimental about typography, the lining and lettering of the letter. The form is also, as Hardy himself repeatedly maintained, “geometrically constructed,” riveted by the study of lines and shapes. Reading Jude's manifold geometric imagery in the context of the revolutionary non-Euclidean break in Victorian-era mathematics and tracing the novel's bold typographic experiments, this essay highlights Hardy's surprising exuberance about the shape of letters. Typography and geometry are unexpectedly crucial to the political imaginary of Jude the Obscure, which projects the malleability of social lineaments even as it tells the tale of lethally rigid norms.
Obscure Forms: The Letter, the Law, and the Line in Hardy's Social Geometry
anna kornbluh is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Realizing Capital (2014). She is currently at work on a book called “The Order of Forms,” which links the novel to mathematical formalism to consider the origins of structuralism.
Anna Kornbluh; Obscure Forms: The Letter, the Law, and the Line in Hardy's Social Geometry. Novel 1 May 2015; 48 (1): 1–17. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2860293
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