Anna Kornbluh, “Thomas Hardy’s ‘End of Prose,’ 1896″


This entry considers Thomas Hardy’s “End of Prose,” his renunciation of the novel in favor of poetry, as an important event in nineteenth-century literary history, motivated by aesthetic concerns. It reads the geometric imagery in Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure, in connection with the advent of non-Euclidean geometry, suggesting that mathematical forms inspired Hardy’s turn to the poetic line.

Photo of Thomas Hardy

Figure 1: Photograph of Thomas Hardy (c. 1910-15)

In 1896,[1] after 29 years of successfully writing novels, Thomas Hardy made what he called, with his trademark dramatic austerity, an “End of Prose.” What prompted this end and sealed its finality remains a literary conundrum. Hardy did not seem to want for time or energy, having composed 15 novels and 3 short-story collections, many while working as an architect and sitting as a Magistrate; he did not want for literary inclination, continuing to pen poetry for over thirty more years, up until his death; nor did he want for literary inspiration, titling his first collection “Wessex Poems” in manifest continuity with the inventive world-making of his Wessex novels. Hardy biographies and critical appraisals in the twentieth century have commonly explained the End in practical and psychological terms: Hardy could finally afford to quit novels for poesy, and / or his feelings were irremediably hurt by the reviewer controversies around his last novel. These explanations prevail despite the fact that the autobiography offers only a vague and meandering discussion of the End, citing as “having killed all interest in this form of imaginative work,” “the experiences of the past few years”—which included much more than negative reviews: contractual problems, monumental preparations for the Wessex Edition, a traumatic fire, travels, accidents, illness, deaths of friends and his father. Equally salient here are Hardy’s explicit diminution of the force of the reviews—“I have really not been much upset by the missiles heaved at the poor book. . . . Somehow I feel that the critics are not sincere: everybody knows that silence is the remedy in the case of immoral works”—and the fact that he was undiscouraged by bad reviews of his first novel and persevered in poetry despite negative critiques of his first collection. If the psychological explanations are unsatisfying and possibly inaccurate, perhaps there might be another logic of the “End of Prose.” This entry suggests that readers look for that logic in the very form of Hardy’s final novel—and, arguably, the final Victorian novel—Jude the Obscure.

A thematic reading can soon arrive at the conclusion that Jude the Obscure’s critique of marriage and social cohesion challenges conventional wisdom in ways that become challenges to generic conventions and conventional modes of relation. As Edward Said notes, Jude conveys “the recognition by a great artist that the dynastic principles of traditional narrative now seemed somehow inappropriate” (138). The marriage plot is a quintessential constituent of the nineteenth-century novel; Jude the Obscure excessively distorts and subverts that plot to the point of eviscerating the structuring principle of the novel. As for the Victorian novel’s endeavor to explore the conditions of social totality, representing diverse types and investigating the principles (legal, ethical, political, epistemological) that shape lived reality, on this generic point Jude the Obscure makes less an explosive critique than a tragic disintegration: what the novel calls “the direct antagonism of things” inevitably limits every totalizing principle, and inexorably results in exclusion, abjection, murder. The insufficiency of the social bond that worries Middlemarch or Bleak House becomes in Jude the Obscure a lethally menacing disorder.

If these political themes impugn the novel as a form, it is reciprocally the case that at other levels the form of Jude the Obscure—its imagistic architecture and narratological mode—commends poetry. Hardy’s End, understood as formally necessary, must entail both a rejection of the novel and an embrace of poetry, a turn to the formal affordances of the poetic line. Hardy’s most intriguing remark about Jude the Obscure opens on to these other levels of form: he declared that his novel was “geometrically constructed” (Collected Letters 2.93). Geometry is a somewhat odd metaphor for literary composition: while the novel builds a world out of words, geometry models the world in lines and shapes. The curious notion that geometry founds the novel entails the corollaries that shape precedes word and that lines frame letters—corollaries that are arguably integral to the formal work of Jude the Obscure.  “Geometry” seems like Hardy’s name for the affordances of the line, and his fascination with it may account for his embrace of experiments with the poetic line.

To consider this fascination more fully, let us explore some resonances of geometry in the novel. The plot centers on a love rectangle between Jude, Sue, Arabella, and Phillotson; the lines of this rectangle are underscored by the narrator’s remarkable repetition of the phrase “they walked in parallel lines” to describe Jude’s first meeting with Arabella and his first meeting with Sue. Hardy referred to this rectangle as a “quadrille” in which the “involutions of four lives” constantly realign vertices; Ramon Saldivar has remarked that these crossings and reunions make chiasmus the master trope of the novel (614). Alongside the rectangle and the crossings, shapes of all sorts undergird the novel’s descriptive imagery, with practically every page marked by “circuitous routes,” “concave fields,” “perpendicular scarps,” “acute sorrows,” “interstices,” “conjectures,” “convergences,” “crooked and gentle declivities,” and so on. Jude the Obscure’s geometry consists in variable metrics for marking terrains, delimiting bounds, and searching for space amid existing planar constructions. Although Hardy’s consistent interest in setting led him to invent a region of England to whose imaginary maps his texts would be faithful, Jude the Obscure departs from the rural pastoralism of the Wessex novels in its greater focus on cities—design-heavy, densely-built environments. The importance of location in space is shown by the novel’s distinctive organizational scheme, again departing from the other Wessex texts: it is divided not into chapters with titles, but into ordinally numbered parts with place names, “At Marygreen,” “At Shaston,” “At Melchester,” and so on, the preposition “at” indicating the punctuality of such a conception of place. The narrative repeatedly recurs to “The Fourways,” a chiastic intersection at which Jude assesses the paths available to him. The exploration of place and movement between locales is one of the formal features by which Jude the Obscure develops its critique of the space of the social, whose boundaries cannot accommodate unconventionally shaped lives.

In addition to geometric imagery, the novel also constructs a geometrically-informed method of relaying its story, what we might call an “elliptical” narration.  From the Greek ellipsein, “to come short,” an ellipse is formed when a cross-section of a cone “comes short” of paralleling the base, and instead bisects the cone obliquely, yielding the oval rather than circular shape.  In nineteenth-century usage, according to the OED, “ellipse” also signified what we now deem “ellipsis,” the grammatical connotation of “coming short”: incomplete sentences driven by omission, and the typographical mark thereof, a dash (—) or dot dot dot (…). Hardy’s prescription that “the novelist’s talent is to see in half and quarter views the whole picture” finds its fulfillment in the abundance of such syntactical ellipsis in Jude the Obscure, and in the general attitude of omission: skipping around in time (“when leafy summer came round again”), forgoing opportunities for narratorial evaluation (“The purpose of a chronicler of moods and deeds does not require him to express his personal views upon the grave controversy above given”), and redacting all the happy parts (“That the twain were happy —between their times of sadness—was indubitable.”)

In late Victorian Britain, the ellipse was not just one among many shapes, but the figure of the abstraction and arbitrariness of mathematical knowledge. Ellipses take shape when two parallel lines curve toward one another. From ancient Greece until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, parallel lines were defined as constant (not capable of curving toward one another): in Euclid’s 5th Postulate, parallel lines of infinite length maintain constant right angles with their common perpendicular. For hundreds of years, Euclidean geometry was held the very paradigm of truth by philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza (to whom there are judicious references in Jude the Obscure), and positioned as the cornerstone of Victorian education, revered equally for its beauty and its rigor. The break with Euclid, likened by Victorians in many fields to both the Darwinian and Copernican revolutions, consisted of the discovery of the possibility that parallel lines of infinite length might, in their infinity, eventually curve away from each other, hyperbolically, or toward each other to meet, elliptically.[2]

The negations of parallelism entailed in the break with Euclid materialize in the love rectangle’s convergences, divergences, and reconvergences of couples whose very names graphically encode parallels (Arabella, Phillotson), and in key romantic declarations: Jude rebukes Sue in her effort to end their relationship for drafting “not a true parallel” and her parting words to him at one of their “divisions” bemoan his “unparalleled” love. With this prime emphasis on negated parallels, along with several direct references to Euclid, the novel engages the crisis in geometric epistemology. Geometry in Jude the Obscure signifies, above all else, the arbitrary quality of axioms, the relative quality of absolutes, the ungrounded quality of laws. Hardy’s geometric imagery and geometric narration thus add dimension to the novel’s thematic investigation of laws and social norms.

Along with its emphasis on the arts of building, by which Hardy the architect and Jude the stone mason earn a living, the novel’s rhetorical fascination with the inconstancy and malleability of lines refines its thematic exploration of social intolerance and the tragic fates of outlaws. The laws of social life, especially those generally held (by anthropologists in Hardy’s time as in our own), to be most fundamental—such as marriage regulations and incest taboos—may seem impervious to transformation. Nonetheless, their ungroundedness opens onto the possibility that law is not inherently base, exclusionary, or violent, but merely necessary. The necessity for delineating human social relations arises from the fact that there is no natural arrangement for sharing the material interdependence that is the human being’s animal existence—a situation illuminated by the novel’s many orphans, adopted children, and elective affinities. Necessary but arbitrary, elemental but obscure, social lineations and lineaments must be reformed and renewed, reshaped and relined. Exalting in geometry—the art and science of space, shape, and line—therefore amounts to an unexpectedly affirmative position in Jude the Obscure.

The creative freedom represented by the material of the line in advance or excess of its ossification in any given social formation was a direct source of Hardy’s turn to poetry. “I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion,” he wrote in 1896, and yet this fullness was structurally compressed: “the condensed expression that it affords (is) so much more consonant to my natural way of thinking and feeling” (Life and Work 302; Letters 3:133). The static solidity of conventional beliefs and prose conventions contrast with the dense fluidity of experimental poetics. Experimentation drives Hardy’s poetic oeuvre—nearly 1000 poems of varied length, varied meter, and varied versification. He conducted extensive poetic research and composed irregular stanzas prolifically, by some counts developing over 600 different stanza forms. The sheer diversity of his poetic practice attests to the freedom afforded by the line liberated from the block of prose, shattering the “inert crystallized” commonplaces of representation and reveling in the fractal shards. Hardy is often called “the last Victorian and the first modern”; reading the geometry of Jude the Obscure as a vector to the lines of his poetic corpus, we can educe the implicit qualification that, by formal necessity, the last Victorian novelist was also the first modernist poet.[3]

Anna Kornbluh is Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is the author of Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP 2014), and her essays on Victorian literature and critical theory have appeared or are forthcoming in ELH, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Mediations, Romantic Circles, Henry James Review, Historical Materialism and elsewhere


Kornbluh, Anna. “Thomas Hardy’s ‘End of Prose.’” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Hardy, Thomas, Florence Hardy, and Michael Millgate. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.

Hardy, Thomas, Richard Little Purdy, and Michael Millgate. The Collected Letters. 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. Print.

Kline, Morris. Mathematics for the Nonmathematician. New York: Dover, 1985. Print.

Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print.

Said, Edward W. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books, 1975. Print.

Saldivar, Ramon. “Jude the Obscure: Reading and the Spirit of the Law.” English Literary History 50.3 (1983): 607–625. Print.


[1] For an elaboration of this analysis, please see Kornbluh, “Obscure Forms: The Letter, The Law, and The Line in Hardy’s Social Geometry,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction (48.1).


No system of thought has ever been so widely and completely accepted as Euclidean geometry. To preceding generations, it was the “rock of ages” in the realm of truth. Tradition buttressed self-evidence and experience bolstered common sense. Men such as Plato and René Descartes were convinced that mathematical truths were innate in human beings. Immanuel Kant based his entire philosophy on the existence of mathematical truths. But now philosophy is haunted by the specter that the search for truths may be a search for phantoms. The implication of non-Euclidean geometry, namely, that man may not be able to acquire truths, affects all thought. Past ages have sought absolute standards in law, ethics, government, economics, and other fields. They believed that by reasoning one could determine the perfect state, the perfect economic system, the ideals of human behavior, and the like. The standards sought were not just the most effective ones, but the unique, the correct ones. This belief in absolutes was based on the conviction that there were truths in the respective spheres. But in depriving mathematics of its claim to truth, the non-Euclidean geometries destroyed the shining knight of truth and shattered man’s hope of ever attaining any truths. When the anchor of truth was lost, all bodies of knowledge were cast adrift. (Kline 476)

[3] Ramazani formulates the typical sentiment (36).