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he literary term, 'cliffhanger', derives most likely from Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. The purpose of a cliffhanger is to end the plot of a serialised narrative at a point that leaves readers in suspense — leaves them, in other words, as if they found themselves hanging from a cliff awaiting rescue. This technique is meant to ensure that the reader will buy a magazine with the next instalment in order to find out how the story resolves the cliffhanger.

Although A Pair of Blue Eyes, the first novel to carry Hardy’s name, was regarded by earlier critics as a minor work, it occupies a special place in his output. It was first serialised in Tinsley's Magazine in eleven instalments from September 1872 to July 1873, after which Tinsley published the novel in the three-volume form in 1873. The book was also published in one volume in America by Henry Holt in the same year.

An anonymous critic wrote in the Spectator on 28 June 1873 that the story “is powerful, well-proportioned in its parts, and of varied and deep interest, yet not too harrowing for pleasure.” Another critic also praised the novel in the Saturday Review on 2 August 1873 as “one of the most artistically constructed among recent novels” (Gerber and Davis 21). Contemporary critics generally emphasised Hardy’s uncommon ability to render strong passion within a tragedy of circumstances.

The novel was admired by the American realist author and critic, William Dean Howells, who wrote: “Thomas Hardy I first knew in A Pair of Blue Eyes. As usual after I had read this book and felt the new charm in it, I wished to read the books of no other author, and to read his books over and over” (269). Coventry Patmore, famous for his narrative poem The Angel in the House, about an ideal, happy marriage, read the novel together with his wife repeatedly for many years. (Weber 59) Alfred Tennyson liked A Pair of Blue Eyes best of all the Wessex novels (McSweeney 132). Later criticism emphasised that it was the first novel to explore seriously the sources of human tragedy and the concomitant inevitability of social and historical processes. (Taylor 44-55) However, unlike Under a Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes did not succeed commercially.

A Pair of Blue Eyes, set in Cornwall, contains autobiographical elements, romance, suspense and a post-Darwinian message. The young heroine of the novel combines the features of both Hardy’s youthful loves, Tryphena Sparks and his first wife Emma, who had blue eyes and a cascade of blond hair. The motif of a poor young man of great ability who struggles with adverse circumstances will reappear in many subsequent Hardy novels, including in The Woodlanders, Return of the Native, and Jude the Obscure.

Stephen Smith, a gifted young architect’s assistant, arrives at Endelstow in Cornwall in order to restore the old church and soon falls in love with the vicar’s daughter, Elfride Swancourt. Hardy creates his heroine with a sufficient complexity; she is pretty, intelligent and, besides, reminds us of Shakespeare’s Miranda. The narrator, apparently fascinated with her eyes, describes them at length: “These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance — blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at” (1-2). Elfride’s father does not approve of the relationship because Stephen has a lower social status, so the lovers decide to run away. However, they postpone marriage until Stephen improves his financial situation; he goes to India to find a job that would allow him to maintain his future wife. In the meantime, however, quite unexpectedly Elfride becomes attracted by the handsome Lord Luxellian, whom she met in Hyde Park, and next she turns her attention to an older friend and mentor of Stephen’s, Henry Knight, an amateur geologist and intellectual, removed from the everyday world.

When Elfride and Henry are watching for the ocean steamer that is bringing Stephen home, Henry slips and falls over the edge of a precipice. He cannot ascend because the ground is slippery. In the famous cliff-hanging episode, one of the most notable scenes in Hardy’s fiction, which reflects the author’s profound interest in Darwinism, Henry Knight is suspended on the rock between heaven and earth, and while dangling over a deep chasm, he is confronted with millions of years of world history.

Opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now. [241]

In order to help her Henry, Elfride removes all her extensive Victorian underclothes and weaves a rescue-rope. Hardy, who was one of the first Victorian novelists who described daringly the female body, hinted at female sexuality by successfully employing the technique of voyeurism in his descriptions. Elfride is shown rescuing King while she is wearing, in piercing rain, only her skirt, which exposes her bare thighs, and a wet bodice which reveals the outline of her breasts.

Behind the bank, whilst Knight reclined upon the dizzy slope waiting for death, she had taken off her whole clothing, and replaced only her outer bodice and skirt. Every thread of the remainder lay upon the ground in the form of a woollen and cotton rope. [250]

Elfride, an early Victorian new woman, marks the emergence of Hardy heroines who do not conform to the stereotypical Victorian ideal of femininity and try not to succumb to the role prescribed by men. She anticipates Hardy’s future tragic heroines, such as Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure, who become victims of circumstances, environment, heredity and conventional morality.

Henry Knight, who anticipates Tess’s husband, Angel Clare, represents a typical Victorian male, who feels intellectually superior to women. When he looks at the extinct trilobite's eyes as he struggles for his life, he thinks regretfully that his death would be a greater loss than that of a primitive organism.

Knight, without showing it much, knew that his intellect was above the average. And he thought he could not help thinking — that his death would be a deliberate loss to earth of good material; that such an experiment in killing might have been practised upon some less developed life. [245]

Following Darwin's theory, Hardy shows ironically in the novel that man lives in an uncaring and indifferent universe without any special rights or privileges. In the cliff-hanging scene, Hardy illustrates Darwin’s idea that although man is “the most dominant animal that has ever appeared on the earth” (Darwin 131), he is still at the mercy of his environment, heredity, and adaptability. He can only survive as a social animal if he makes a good use of his greatest faculty — his brain. Paradoxically, it is Elfride who uses her brain effectively: she disregards the Victorian social conventions of decency, strips off her underclothing and saves Knight from extinction thanks to her skill of adaptability.

However, although Elfride has saved King's life, he abruptly breaks off the engagement after he has learnt of her earlier relationship with Stephen, because he finds it incompatible with his traditional ideal of pure womanhood. Knight, unlike Elfride, is unable to adapt to new circumstances. Eventually, Elfride decides to marry Lord Luxellian, who loves her truly until she dies at childbirth. The two early rivals for the hand of Elfride later meet by chance in Hyde Park and travel by train to Endelstow unaware of Elfride's death. They notice “a dark and richly-finished van” attached to the train, which carries the coffin containing her dead body.

After a long period of critical neglect, A Pair of Blue Eyes has been recognised as a significant precursor to Hardy’s two last novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, Hardy criticises Victorian relations between the sexes and outlines the foundations of a murky post-Darwinian world which will be elaborated in more detail in his major fiction.

Related material

References and Further Reading

Blooom, Harold, ed. The Victorian Novel. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004.

Clough, Peter W. L. “Hardy’s Trilobite.” The Thomas Hardy Journal. 4(2) (1988) 29-31.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.

Gerber, Helmut E., W. Eugene W. Davis, eds. Thomas Hardy. An Annotated Bibliography of Writing About Him, vol. I. De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Hardy, Thomas. A Pair of Blue Eyes. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Howells, William Dean. My Literary Passions., 2006; also available at Gutenberg Project.

Hyman, Virginia R. Ethical Perspective in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. Port Washington, N.Y.: National University Publishers, 1975.

Jekel, Pamela L. Thomas Hardy’s Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing, 1986.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

McSweeney, Kerry. What's the Import?: Nineteenth-Century Poems and Contemporary Critical Practice. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Taylor, Richard H. The Neglected Hardy: Thomas Hardy’s Lesser Novels. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy. New York: The Penguin Press, 2007.

Ward, Paul. “A Pair of Blue Eyes and the Descent of Man.” The Thomas Hardy Yearbook 5 (1975) 47-55.

Weber, Carl, J. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Last modified 26 April 2006