Norbert Lennartz – The Intrusion of Old Times: Ghosts and Resurrections in Hardy, Joyce and Beyond

The Intrusion of Old Times: Ghosts and Resurrections in Hardy, Joyce and Beyond

Norbert Lennartz

Published in Connotations Vol. 17.1 (2007/08)


Since Positivism, ghosts and revenants have, if not entirely disappeared, at least been subjected to severe scrutiny. Notwithstanding the fascination for vampires and other creatures of Gothic horror which the Victorians inherited from the Romantic age,1) Jane Eyre represents the new spirit of anti−Romanticism when she dismisses the idea of goblins "covet[ing] shelter in the common−place human form" (128). Despite the fact that he is twice confronted with the ghost of his father, Hamlet anticipates modern secular tendencies when he denies the existence of revenants and maintains that death is an "undiscovered country from whose bourn ⁄ No traveller returns" (3.1.78−79). While Hamlet considers death to be an unexplored realm, however, late nineteenth−century writers frequently incline towards an emergent nihilism that, in the wake of Darwin and Spencer, is bent on completely destroying the mystery of death and its manifold bodily representations.2) Thus, the fiendish clergyman in James Thomson B. V.'s The City of Dreadful Night (1870−74) not only suggests that there is "no God" and "no Fiend with names divine" (XIV.40); but he also stresses the fact that death is an everlasting sleep during which each man's body is dissolved and then, according to the idea of the earth as a tomb and womb, re−assembled into "earth, air, water, plants, and other men" (XIV.54). The ideas of death and rebirth held by Thomson's clergyman point ahead towards the later scepticism of James Joyce's Leopold Bloom who, in the 'Hades' episode in Ulysses (1922), sees the last judgement only in terms of a large−scale reassembly of [→page 15] rotten bodily organs: "every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps" (102).


In the context of the late nineteenth−century break with metaphysics, Goethe's apparently outdated maxim "die Geisterwelt ist nicht verschlossen"3) can only retain its validity if the reader is prepared to re−define traditional notions of ghosts and of resurrection. In 1881, Henrik Ibsen wrote the controversial play Gengangere (Ghosts), which was translated into English the following year. The ghosts, here "no less powerful because they are unseen,"4) are vices of the past, ancestral curses that relentlessly intrude upon the characters' lives and eventually destroy them. It is these Ibsenian ghosts from the past that also hold the eponymous heroine of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) in their clutches.

Ironically conjured up by the parson, who at the very outset of the novel proves to be less of an exorcist than a capricious necromancer, the ghosts of the past not only lead the haggler John Durbeyfield to be infected with the deadly sins of pride and luxury; but from then on, they also ruthlessly haunt Tess in a variety of manifestations. In this context, Alec D'Urberville's role is vexingly polyvalent: as a representative of the nouveaux riches who try to give their prosperity an aristocratic aura, he is a descendant of the Stokes family who adopted the name of the D'Urbervilles and thus brought about a spurious—and for Tess even fatal—resurrection of an extinct county family. In his dandyish appearance, which fails to gloss over "the touches of barbarism in his contours" (40), he, moreover, becomes an ominous agent of fate, an homme fatal who alerts Tess to the fact that the ghosts of the past can never be pacified or escaped. In her rape at the end of the first section of the novel, which is described as the appropriation of the refined by the powers of the coarse and which triggers off a chain of fatalistic events, the atrocities of the remote past are not only [→page 16] suddenly revived, but also inevitably linked with Tess's biography: "Doubtless some of Tess D'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same wrong even more ruthlessly upon peasant girls of their time" (74). In contrast to the popular genre of the bildungsroman which frequently shows protagonists disengaging themselves from the burden of the past, Hardy's novel persistently emphasizes the fact that Tess is not only hampered by the moral depravity of her ancestors, but also constantly exposed to intruders from her more recent past. Hardy visualizes this bleak and deterministic concept of the human condition by the image of the rat chase: seeking shelter in the corn fields as in a fortress, the rats, like the other small animals, are unaware of the extent to which their refuge is destroyed by the relentless movements of the reaping machines, until the last yards of wheat are cut down and they fall victim to the cruelty of the harvesters.

In the same way as the rats are persecuted by the "teeth of the unerring reaper[s]" (87), i.e. the modernized version of the Grim Reaper, Tess is haunted and tracked down by the numerous ghosts of her past. Vainly striving to "dismiss the past" (192), she cannot shut her eyes to the threats of "gloomy spectres" prowling and "waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light" (195) and always on the point of eclipsing the rare moments of pastoral happiness she enjoys in Talbothays. While Tess goes to great lengths to stave off the ghosts of her Tantridge past, and hopes that the loss of her virginity will remain secret until after her marriage, gory legends revolving around the D'Urberville coach and forbidding life−size portraits of her ancestors make it patently obvious that all endeavours to break with the past will be as futile as Osvald Alving's efforts to cope with the consequences of his syphilitic heritage in Ibsen's Ghosts. While these various features of the uncanny are usually considered to be illustrative of Hardy's indebtedness to the gothic novel, the reader tends to overlook the fact that they are functional parts of an intricate pattern of images which Hardy uses to subvert Christian ideas of eschatology and to grimly parody hopes of restoration from death. The ghosts [→page 17] from the past that accompany Tess's descent into the hell of her existence are, thus, closely interwoven with several passages in the novel in which the notion of resurrection is inverted and subjected to cynical comment.

The first instance of such an inverted resurrection is an (implicit) reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," which Hardy uses to make the location of Tess's bridal feast a locus terribilis. While the newlyweds are depicted sitting at the tea table, "the restful dead leaves of the preceding autumn were stirred to irritated resurrection, and whirled about unwillingly, and tapped against the shutters" (218). In Shelley's poem, the dead and "[p]estilence−stricken multitudes" of leaves, "chariot[ed] to their dark wintry bed," supply the seeds of regeneration and ultimately triumph over disease and death;5) in Hardy's novel, however, the spurious resurrection of the leaves prefaces not so much a dialectical process of renewal as the ongoing decline into the realms of death and hell. Having listened to Tess's confession and associated her lack of purity with the moral degeneration of effete aristocratic families—"Decrepit families postulate decrepit wills, decrepit conduct" (232)—, Angel walks about with his wife "as in a funeral procession" (233); later on, while sleepwalking, he takes her to a dilapidated abbey church where he carefully lays her in the empty sarcophagus of an abbot. The motif of the beloved rescued from death, as in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydike, has now been replaced with that of the girl entombed alive. When Tess sits up in the coffin and sees her husband lying beside it in a "deep dead slumber of exhaustion" (249), the effect is hardly less aporetic than in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet awakes in the family vault to find her husband beyond help. Although Angel fancies in his dream that Tess has risen from the dead and, like a modern Beatrice, is leading him to heaven, the allusions to resurrection and Dantean bliss are the result of a temporary eclipse of reason and cannot prevent the protagonists from coming to grief.

When Hardy's narrator goes on to connect the theme of resurrection with the sinister character of Alec D'Urberville, the effect is not so [→page 18] much one of contradiction as one of cynicism and Mephistophelean sarcasm. When Tess accidentally re−encounters Alec, the former dandy has miraculously turned into a preacher and exchanged his crude hedonistic desires for the strict principles of Paulinism. He warns Tess not to look at him and accuses her of being the re−incarnation of the witch of Babylon, thus not only anticipating the misogyny of Iokanaan in Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1892), but also amply confirming Tess's suspicions about his sudden conversion; he eventually gives her "an almost physical sense of an implacable past which still engirdled her" (307). Reminded of the fact that "the break of continuity between her earlier and present existence" (307) is a fallacy, she is horrified to see how rapidly the zealous preacher becomes a sensual tempter again. This metamorphosis is described using words associated with death and resurrection:

The corpses of those old black passions which had lain inanimate amid the lines of his face ever since his reformation seemed to wake and come together as in a resurrection. (324)

Hardy, via his narrator, relies on his readers to notice the religious discourse which he utilises for blasphemous and provocative ends. The corpses reanimated in Alec's face are his "old black passions" which, in a world listlessly watched by a deus absconditus,6) have replaced the time−honoured symbols of resurrection such as the phoenix7) and ultimately show the rapist for what he is: a luciferic creature that enjoys the change of masquerades in the places Tess is doomed to wander—clearly identified as infernal by references to Tophet, Pluto, and the confusion of Pandemonium (325, 335). When he has grown tired of the role of the preacher, he quickly re−assumes his chameleon identity and resurrects himself in the persona of the fiendish dandy, "dressed in a tweed suit of fashionable pattern" and "twirl[ing] a gay walking−cane" (327). From then on, Tess, identified as "a bled calf" (335) about to be sacrificed on the pagan altar slab of Stonehenge, is tied to her tormentor, who likes to pose as the "old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal" (349).

[→page 19] In what manner the devilish Alec likes dallying with Tess's beliefs and epistemological habits is amply shown when he makes a mockery of the idea of resurrection in the churchyard. Evicted from her home and, after her father's death, compelled to seek refuge with her family under the churchyard wall, Tess wanders about the graves and eventually faces the sepulchre of her ancestors, the negative endpoint towards which her life in this inverted bildungsroman has always been gravitating. As if meant to recapture the scene in Henry Bowler's 1855 painting The Doubt: "Can These Dry Bones Live?," in which a young woman is faced with the logical gap between decaying bones in a churchyard and Victorian ideas of the "heavenly resurrection body,"8) Tess is lost in her meditations about the numerous deceased "tall knights" (363) whom she envies because they lie beyond the door of the sepulchre. While in Bowler's painting nothing disrupts the elegiac atmosphere of the memento mori−theme, Tess, the object of the assaults of the past, is violently jolted out of her musings when she suddenly becomes aware of an effigy that seems to move on an altar−tomb:

As soon as she drew close to it she discovered all in a moment that the figure was a living person; and the shock to her sense of not having been alone was so violent that she was quite overcome, and sank down nigh to fainting, not however till she had recognized Alec d'Urberville in the form. (363)

In this episode, which again proves Hardy's familiarity with the gothic novel tradition, Alec ridicules the idea of a restoration from death by giving it a literal twist and boldly resurrecting himself from the tomb. Seen in terms of a morality play, Alec's mock resurrection is meant to signify the (temporary) triumph of luciferic dandyism over the realm of pastoral serenity, fallaciously embodied by Angel. This fallen angelus clarus fits into the pattern of mock or anti−resurrections since, in an earlier conversation with his father, he had strictly refused to adhere to Article 4 of the Anglican Church (115) which holds that Christ was physically raised from the dead. When the rebellious angel then returns from his disastrous stay in Brazil, almost appearing as a skeleton restored from death and, as the narrator points out, in the shape of Carlo Crivelli's dead Christ (368), the reader notices that the [→page 20] progress towards a fatal ending is inevitable and that the numerous allusions to resurrection are either ineffectual or persistently translated into a negative and satanic context.

All that Tess can do in a life that is overshadowed by the past and in which devils reduce the idea of resurrection to absurdity, is to adopt an almost Hamletian attitude: emphasizing her readiness to face the consequences of her futile attempts to liberate herself from the ghosts—"I am ready" (396)—, she not only resigns herself to the powers of the past, but also to the mechanisms of institutionalized death. Lamenting the fact that a reunion with her lover in a world to come is an illusion and at variance with the pervasively pagan idea of circularity, Tess finally discards the Christian concepts of resurrection and teleology which she had tacitly acquiesced in since her early childhood.


In Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), the "ghostly past" (83) takes on a diversity of shapes: roaming the streets of Christminster at night, Jude, like a Gulliver transferred to the nineteenth century, has imaginary conversations with numerous dead poets and philosophers whose phantoms still seem to haunt the historic buildings and colleges with their forbidding resemblance to "family vaults" (83). With the great men's spirits having disappeared at dawn, Christminster becomes not only a place of death and decay, but also the stage for the most destructive visitation from Jude's past: a little boy with the paradoxical name of Father Time,9) who, as the re−incarnation of Chronos, embodies the notion of devouring time (tempus edax), and, by killing himself and his step brothers and sisters, proves the annihilating effect of the past on the future.

In contrast to this puer senex suffering from "the coming universal wish not to live" (337), the ghost of the past in James Joyce's last story in Dubliners, "The Dead," is less spectacular but equally shattering, [→page 21] despite the fact that it is conjured up simply by a piece of music. As the title of the story suggests, the people coming to the Misses Morkan's annual dance are the inhabitants of a necropolis that scarcely differs from the various 'cities of dreadful night' envisioned in late nineteenth and early twentieth−century literature. This impression is underlined both by the snow and the fact that the "dark gaunt house" (138) is located on Usher's Island, a quay on the south bank of the Liffey, which could also be an oblique reference to Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. As in Poe's story, not only the house appears to be moribund but also the assembly of people that stand so markedly in contrast to the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which the story apparently takes place. In Joyce's story, death seems to be all−pervasive: the face of one of the hostesses is described in terms of a memento mori still life, "all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple" (141), the conversation during dinner revolves around monks who sleep in their coffins, and Freddy Malins, a man who is around forty, is characterized not only by his "high−pitched bronchitic laughter" (146), but also by the bloated pallor of a face that is heavily marked by the excesses of alcohol and the signs of early death.

Unable to escape from this atmosphere of death and decay, the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, is ultimately reduced to a non−entity by a tune which at first induces him to idolize his wife, but then makes him painfully aware of the fallacious character of his marriage. While the plaintive ballad "The Lass of Aughrim" is sung, Gabriel sees his wife undergoing a change: "There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something" (165). Watching her with renewed erotic interest, he misinterprets the colour in her cheeks and her shining eyes as signs of the rekindling of her love for him, but the reader, who follows the story from Gabriel's limited homodiegetic perspective, is to learn that the tune has restored something from death that, in the end, proves detrimental to the speaker. The uncanny now palpably encroaches upon the characters and is aggravated by the extended farewell scene with the manifold repetition of the word [→page 22] "Good−night," which—like the final lines of the second section of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land—evokes Ophelia's last words10) and her imminent death. These intertextual reverberations of finality and frustrated love, which are also supported by an oblique reference to a "picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet" (146), are subsequently intensified by the imagery of the "dull yellow light" (167), of the oppressive sky that seems "to be descending," and of the "ghostly light from the street lamp" (170). While Gabriel still persists in thinking that he will "make her forget the years of their dull existence together" (168) and erroneously believes that they have now managed to "escape from their lives and duties, […] from home and friends" (169), he is deluded like Tess and Jude, who fail to take into account that the ghosts of the past can never be evaded. The climax of the story is reached when Gabriel feels his heart "brimming over with happiness" (171) and his wife thwarts his expectations of her yielding to his desires by telling him that the song has rekindled her love for a young and delicate boy called Michael Furey, who died when he was only seventeen. The intrusion of this ghost from the past upon the apparent seclusion of the hotel room, "the evocation of this figure from the dead" (173), shatters Gabriel's existence and—as the "large swinging mirror" (170) where he sees himself as a "pitiable fatuous fellow" (173) stresses—he realises that his various attempts at intellectual self−fashioning and re−definition are all based on an illusion. All of a sudden unmasked as "a ludicrous figure" and "a nervous well−meaning sentimentalist" (173), he is compelled to understand that his bourgeois complacency is threatened by unseen ghosts and revenants:

[…] at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. (174)

While Hardy's later novels are loosely aligned with Ibsen's concept of the past as a succession of ghostly (and degenerative) intrusions, Joyce's "The Dead" has a strong relationship with Ibsen's last play Når vi d?de vågner (When We Dead Awaken; 1899). According to Robert [→page 23] Spoo, it is not only the "exasperating unreadability of women" (100) apparently embodied in the character of Irene, but rather the whole cluster of elements—"a marriage dulled by routine, a peripeteia brought about by a figure returning from the past, the half−conscious sufferings of the living dead, awakenings that only confirm a sense of loss and emotional aridity" (101)—that Joyce seems to have taken over from Ibsen's play and translated into the context of his narrative.11) The sudden onset of the uncanny, which radiates from the dead in their "vague world" and rapidly leads to the protagonist's loss of self−confidence, shows that both Ibsen and Joyce introduce a quality into their texts that almost anticipates the Pinteresque. The Pinteresque theme of people being constantly exposed to the threat of an intrusive and ghostly past can also be found in the poem "She Weeps over Rahoon." Written in Triest as early as 1914 and then integrated into his scanty collection Pomes Penyeach (1927), the poem is supposed to have been inspired by a visit the Joyces made to the grave of Nora's ex−lover, Michael Bodkin.12) The male persona of the poem is exactly in Gabriel's position when he is painfully made aware of the fact that the power exerted by the ghosts of the past can never be broken. While in the story it is a simple tune that conjures up Michael Furey's disruptive presence and marks the beginning of Gabriel's deterioration, in the poem, it is the atmosphere of the cemetery that seems to cast a spell over the female speaker and make her susceptible to the voices of the dead.13) Standing in front of the grave, she mystically feels reunited with her dead lover, while her male companion is almost eclipsed and changed into a mute addressee:

Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now. (5−8)14)

The poem ends on a note of memento mori—"Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold ⁄ As his sad heart has lain" (9−10)—and on the prospect of the couple joining the deceased lover and the male protagonist being the odd man out even in the realm of death, [→page 24] "[u]nder the moongrey nettles, the black mould ⁄ And muttering rain" (11−12).

The main difference between the poem and the story thus, lies in perspective alone: the poem gives the reader an insight into the female speaker's necrophilism and her yearning for a reunion with her deceased lover; the story, by contrast, emphasizes the male position and the way Gabriel copes with the fact that, in a newly discovered love triangle, he has been ousted from his secure position by a dead adolescent. Alienated from his wife, whose sound sleep is also a sign of withdrawal from communication, Gabriel feels himself increasingly drawn into the region of the dead: "[…] in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. […] His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (176). While, in the poem, the mute male protagonist is given a glimpse of the end of his death−bound existence, in "The Dead," it is the sudden negative epiphany which brings about Gabriel's collapse and consequently triggers off a longing for self−annihilation and the wish to see the sharp contours of the world blurred to nothingness.


Both narratives, Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Joyce's "The Dead," put a great deal of emphasis on the liminal character of their protagonists' lives, which precariously hover between past and present, death and life. Towards the end of Hardy's novel, Tess is seen contemplating the door of her ancestors' sepulchre, while Alec plays the role of a scoffing and impish psychagogos. At the end of Joyce's story, Gabriel turns to the window, another symbol of liminality, and what he sees is fundamentally different from what the "[c]harmed magic casements" of Romantic poetry used to reveal.15) Keats's "faery lands forlorn" beyond the window have been transformed into a topography of death and annihilation. In "She Weeps over Rahoon," it is [→page 25] the incessant rain that is about to inundate the insecure world of the living; in "The Dead," it is the snow that covers everything and obliterates the objects of reality and finally—as in the snow chapter in Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924)16)—transports the speaker into the region of death and decomposition:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. (176)

Both Hardy's and Joyce's way of dealing with the theme of resurrection, with intrusive ghosts from the past and the imminence of death makes it clear that they subscribed to a bleak view of human life, according to which man is not so much fettered by a vengeful God—the reference to the President of the Immortals at the end of Tess seems to be mainly of an intertextual kind—as by the ruthless potency of the past. In this respect, both Tess and Gabriel are victimised and paralysed by the various incarnations, legends and evocations of the past and, consequently, denied the privilege fully enjoyed by Kate in Harold Pinter's 1971 play Old Times: faced with the past in the figure of Anna, Kate not only refuses to be intruded upon and manipulated by narratives "one remembers even though they may never have happened" (27−28), she even feels free to sever the bonds with the past and to verbally kill Anna, who is either physically present or just conjured up by the characters in their obsessive attempts to reconstruct the past:

I remember you lying dead. You didn't know I was watching you. I leaned over you. Your face was dirty. You lay dead, your face scrawled with dirt, all kinds of earnest inscriptions, but unblotted, so that they had run, all over your face, down to your throat. […] Last rites I did not feel necessary. Or any celebration. I felt the time and season appropriate and that by dying alone and dirty you had acted with proper decorum. (67−68)

Even though, at the end of the novel, Tess actually murders the ghost of her past, what she does is essentially different from Kate's act of emancipation. While Kate has reasserted her superiority by her verbal [→page 26] act of destruction, Tess's action is as futile as Dorian Gray's attempt to destroy the obsessive ghosts of his conscience reified in his portrait. Right up to modernism, man is thus tied to the past in the same manner as a lost soul is to the Ixionian wheel,17) and it was only with the advent of existentialism that man gradually extricated himself from the claws of a paralysing past. While characters like Stanley Webber in The Birthday Party (1958) still seem to be deplorable descendants of Tess, Gabriel and numerous other slaves to the past, Kate belongs to a new era in which the past no longer sends forth its ominous henchmen, but is itself manipulated, re−created, and more often than not even eradicated.


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