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Analysing the fiction of Thomas Hardy, Chapter 4 considers Hardy’s depictions of deception, concealment and misleading appearances among humans alongside his interest in adaptive appearance. This interest clashed with Hardy’s channelling of the pastoral, which characterised the natural world and rural life by honesty and transparency. Critics have noted that Hardy’s fiction problematizes the ethics of honesty. It is argued here that the logic of adaptive appearance energised this tendency as characters’ fates depend on chance misperceptions and ambiguous appearances. This sense of Darwinian contingency complicates characters’ moral agency by suggesting that many of their acts, which have the effect of deceiving, are unconscious. Apparently purposeful behaviours blur with the more mechanised displays of natural and sexual selection. Through his evolutionary vision, Hardy sometimes reframes honesty and dishonesty as outgrowths of opposing primitive instincts toward altruism and egoism. However, this utilitarian framework also rendered deception morally ambiguous, allowing for the possibility of noble deceptions that would spare others pain. Hardy’s fiction further biologized deception by depicting physical bodies that hid or falsified their owners’ identities. Random variations and chance resemblances cause characters to interpret erroneous ancestral histories in each other, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In my fourth chapter on Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, “A Wrinkle in Time,” I argue that the sexual escapades of an aging artist subvert the naturalist plot of decline. Instead of modeling the human lifespan on a parabola that begins with youthful possibility, reaches its apex in adulthood, and declines into senescence and death, The Well-Beloved demonstrates the opening of queer, non-normative desire as one ages. This chapter examines the discourses of evolutionary biology and geology as providing the late-nineteenth century with non-linear models for the human lifespan. These scientific models, I argue, have a narrative counterpart in the counterfactual, or the imagination of what might have occurred in the past but did not. The use of counterfactual thinking in narrative enables Hardy to construct an ambivalent attitude toward the aging of his protagonist, who inverts the horizon of possibility away from the future toward a past that he struggles to remake.
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