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Hugh Epstein: Hardy, Conrad and the Senses

Laurence Estanove


Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses, Edinburgh University Press, 2019. 312 p. ISBN: 9781474449878
The present review refers to the paperback edition (2021).

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1Echoes between Hardy and Conrad are not a novelty at FATHOM: issue 6 of the FATHOM journal, published in 2019, was indeed devoted to the study of objects in Hardy and Conrad1, a joint perspective pursued in 2021 with the seminar on “Energy in Hardy and Conrad” held at the ESSE Conference2, the proceedings of which – co-edited by FATHOM president Peggy Blin-Cordon and Conrad scholar Nathalie Martinière – have just been published in L’Époque conradienne3.

2Reading comparative discussions of two – or more – authors is always an exhilarating experience. Though such joint studies might sometimes be approached with a mixed sense of curiosity and disbelief, they will generally prove incredibly rich in revealing how much can be learnt from bringing distinct literary worlds together. Hugh Epstein’s book is one such exhilarating read, not only because of how he manages to establish dialogues between Hardy and Conrad but also crucially because of the very premise of his book, which is to place both authors within the context of the physical sciences from the second half of the nineteenth century in order to show how this complex epistemological context serves both as backdrop and constituting force of their works.

3Presenting itself as a “discussion of descriptive writing” (5) and interlacing sight, sound, nature, identity and literary creation, the book offers a brilliant understanding of what perception and the senses meant to Hardy, Conrad and their contemporaries – what both authors inherited from the physical science of their time and how it shaped their writings. The range of thinkers and physical scientists which Epstein calls upon to enlighten Hardy’s and Conrad’s works is particularly impressive: not only can the book be recommended as an essential read to anyone studying either author, but it also provides great insights into physiology, empiricism, affective history and phenomenology, reflected in the comprehensive bibliography.

4The book’s six chapters offer parallel discussions of specific works by Hardy and Conrad along a thematic structure which reflects Epstein’s concern with science, nature, sight, sound, identity and the mind. Though the focus is primarily on the major novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess, Jude; “Heart of Darkness”, Lord Jim, Nostromo – attention is also given to less-discussed works by both Hardy and Conrad (Desperate Remedies, A Laodicean; “The End of the Tether”, “Under Western Eyes”). The book also makes very clever and enlightening use of non-fiction writings from both authors such as notebooks and letters. Just as Epstein is always careful not to make any assumptions as to what exact knowledge and mastery of scientific concepts either author had when no clear evidence is present, so does he use Hardy’s and Conrad’s personal reflections as one should, i.e. – in Hardy’s own words – as impressions rather than consistent philosophies which their works might be read against. A few of Hardy’s poems are touched upon – most significantly so “Neutral Tones”, “The Voice”, “A Kiss” – giving a glimpse of how illuminating a similar study of the senses throughout his verse could be.

5What the book does particularly well is point at how, in the context of late-nineteenth-century physical sciences, one’s surroundings – whether other individuals or nature – cannot simply be considered as backdrops for human action and thought. Moving the focus away from what the brain perceives and interprets from the phenomena it captures, Epstein examines more crucially the “sensing self” in its incarnate form as it takes part in the scenes that are being played out (chapter 1). He points out that in their writings, both Hardy and Conrad reflect the Victorian eras materialistic vision of an imperfect and indifferent nature which humans are thrust into; in this context, sensations offer humans a way of connecting with each other and finding meaning in the value of shared experience (ch.2). Moving on to the discussion of sight (ch.3), Epstein delivers a fascinating overview of the changing epistemological context of the conceptions of light and vision in which Hardy’s and Conrad’s understandings of the “visible world” was formed. The analysis of the “lit moments” of Far from the Madding Crowd are among the most brilliant discussions of the book, as are the pages devoted to the metaphysical dimension of light in Lord Jim. Using a similar approach to examine the place of sound in both authors’ works (ch.4), Epstein highlights in particular the way both try to retain elusive sounds by giving them shape and attaching them to a place. This sonic environment enclosing the listener can either be an oppressive sensory experience for both characters and readers – Epstein’s analysis of The Return of the Native and “Heart of Darkness” from this angle is particularly interesting – or the polyphonic and at times cacophonous echo of history unfolding – as shown in Nostromo. With a very pertinent progression, the book then takes the analysis of the role of the senses further, looking beyond the idea of perceptions as bodily sensations reacting to external stimuli in order to examine what this reveals about identity (ch.5). Placing himself in the context of field theory which highlights the interdependence of all elements within a given environment, Epstein takes works by Hardy and Conrad as illustrations of how “sensory experience creates a margin within which self and circumambient world are not so exclusively defined” (193). For instance, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, sights and sounds act as disruptive signals which force introspection and reveal to the characters their own positions across different modes of existence. Here, Epstein is focusing more particularly on the context of late-nineteenth-century discussions of the workings of the mind, and his parallels between G. L. Lewes’s notion of the Psychological Spectrum and Hardy’s “art of disproportioning” sheds new interesting light on the much-discussed visual encounter of Michael Henchard with his effigy from the skimmity ride. In Tess and Nostromo, Epstein finds a slightly different approach to the depiction of existence, one which works through the immersion of characters in an all-absorbing environment and “an encompassing physics that surrounds the attitudes of organisms, whether of the labouring work-folk or of the body politic” (209). Here again, Epstein offers an extremely enlightening close reading of a key scene as he analyses the sequence leading to the rape of Tess as a moment “of uncertain distinction between the objective and subjective world” (213). “Hardy so writes this scene”, Epstein concludes, “that neither Tess, nor Alec, nor the reader can distinguish where ‘surrounding nature’ and human agency and volition, where mental representation or material presence, have their beginnings and ends” (215). Finishing his study with Jude the Obscure and Under Western Eyes (ch.6), Epstein convincingly argues that the two novels stand apart from the others as they present a different type of sensory experience: in both, he explains, nature no longer occupies the foreground place which it did in previous novels and, particularly in Jude, senses are being restrained. Epstein shows very interestingly that in both novels, the characters’ mental – or “mentalised” – activity and the importance of words restrict their sensory interaction with what surrounds them. What he calls “an art of scenic realism based on sensory experience” (244) undergoes some transformations whereby these later and very personal novels offer explorations of loneliness and mental distress which, for the protagonists, leave little room for reconciliation with their sensing selves – more uncompromisingly so in the case of Jude.

6One major strength of Epstein’s book is its incredible attention to details – how it takes time to decipher and dissect the prose of both authors with delightful precision, showing for instance how syntactical choices can convey the mechanisms of perception. Such close readings make for an exciting and accessible read, as it is through them that Epstein manages to shed light on the complex scientific fields he delves into.

7The focus on the approaches to perception and to writing shared by Hardy and Conrad – how both authors make sense of the world through the senses – is equally exciting. The premise of the book is not so much to point at the similarities between Hardy and Conrad but rather at the “great power to evoke atmosphere and mood” (3) of both authors. And what the book does splendidly well is precisely to reveal how atmospheres, as vague and unfathomable as they can seem, are created from the tiniest details of sensory experiences.

8Another key characteristic which, in Epstein’s view, brings the two authors together in their descriptive strategies is the “scenic realism” of their works – how their writings convey the “physics of the scene that contains the mind, rather than the psychology of the mind that contains the scene” (42). And indeed, Epstein notes how the word “scene” is used profusely by both Hardy and Conrad, and his analyses reveal how the term suggests for both a dynamic rather than static perception, mirroring the creative encounter of sensing bodies, electricity, energy, waves. This notion of encounter is quite central in Hardy’s works – it is therefore a particularly welcome read to see Epstein point at how this approach is shared by Hardy and Conrad in their keen attention to “the meeting point of self and the surrounding world” (4). Equally satisfying is the reference to Deleuze’s own reading of Hardy, which Epstein uses brilliantly to bring together Hardy’s “scattering of ‘unique chances’ upon contingency” and Conrad’s “disaster of the irremediable” (77).

9Despite a dense theoretical subject matter, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses is therefore a clear and extremely well-thought study which is quite exemplary in exploring how two writers’ works enlighten each other through a shared context, concern and outlook. In their writings, Hardy and Conrad were essentially looking for the “underlying” “deeper reality” or “very truth” of what surrounds us (64) and Epstein’s study of the senses is an excellent exploration of this quest. It allows us to look at the broader picture of what art tells us about the world and our place in it, but it can also make us think of our own sensitivities and how our encounters with various authors and novels, however disparate they might seem, take part in our own sensing experiences of the world.

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Electronic reference

Laurence Estanove, Hugh Epstein: Hardy, Conrad and the SensesFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 04 December 2022, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laurence Estanove

Independent scholar

Laurence Estanove completed her PhD on the poetics of disillusionment in Hardy’s poetry in 2008, and she has written on his verse as well as his fiction and other writings. She has co-edited collections of essays on Hardy, including Thomas Hardy, Poet: New Perspectives (Mc Farland & Co, 2015; with A. Grafe) and on popular music (21st-Century Dylan: Late and Timely, Bloomsbury, 2020; with A. Grafe, A. McKeown and C. Hélie).


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