People don’t do such things!

At the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, when it is revealed what Hedda has done, Judge Brack says: “But people don’t do such things!” And on that note of incredulity, the curtain descends.

It is very daring to end the play on that note – especially a play such as this, which, despite its various poetic images and its symbolism, is set in a realistic milieu and depicts a very solid, realistic world. Those last words leave us wondering to what extent what we have just witnessed played out before us actually is realistic. Do people really do such things? The worldly-wise Judge Brack certainly doesn’t think so. And if we too cannot believe that people do such things, does that not throw doubt upon the verisimilitude of the drama? Does that not undermine the drama itself? No doubt. We are invited to share, should we so wish, Judge Brack’s scepticism about it all, but with the difference that Judge Brack, as a character in the play, has no option, despite his scepticism, but to accept that people actually do do such things, whereas we, the paying audience watching actors on stage, have the option of dismissing it all as wildly improbable flights of the dramatist’s imagination. We have the option of walking out of the theatre thinking the drama absurd, and agreeing with Judge Brack: people don’t do such things.

But don’t they? One need only flick through the local or the national news headlines to see that people do all sorts of things that are outrageous, bizarre, grotesque, and really quite unthinkable. Indeed, there seems no limit to what people are capable of doing. And if literature is to hold up a mirror to nature, then it must  reflect also the extremes of human behaviour, even though these extremes may upset the sensibilities of the Judge Bracks of this world.

What is it that people won’t do? Murder people merely to prove to oneself that one is capable of murder? Or even that one is within one’s moral rights to commit murder? That may be unthinkable, but there really have been Raskolnikovs in this world, who have murdered for precisely such reasons. Or is it believable that a woman deserted by her partner could wreak revenge by butchering her own children in cold blood? Thankfully, that is unthinkable for the vast majority of us, but there have been Medeas also in real life. Dostoyevsky, Euripides, and others, knew quite well that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that people aren’t capable of, that people won’t do. Such behaviour may be extreme, but there is no reason why such extremes should not be addressed in serious literature.

One particular event in fiction that is frequently criticised on this score comes towards the end of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Those who have read this novel will know exactly which event I refer to: I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t, as the sheer sense of shock of that moment needs to be experienced at first hand. But, for many readers, the novel loses credibility at that point: people just don’t do such things, they say. Well, my guess is they do. Jude the Obscure may be a flawed novel in certain respects, but that particular chapter is not, I think, amongst the flaws. It is, on the contrary, amongst the most powerful things I have come across in fiction.

Human beings are endlessly fascinating in their variety. One of the reasons I find myself turning to fiction is to arrive at a greater understanding and a greater appreciation of this seemingly infinite and bewildering variety. While extreme behaviour, by definition, is not the norm, it is till part of that extraordinarily wide spectrum of all that is human, and we must, I think, allow novelists and dramatists to depict the full range of this spectrum. That no doubt makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, but one shouldn’t really expect literature merely to comfort us. People don’t do such things? It may be comforting to imagine they don’t, but Ibsen, unlike his creation Judge Brack, knew better.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on July 9, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    From recollection, it wasn’t the event that was flawed, just the characterisation.


    • Indeed, the characterisation of the perpetrator of the horror in Jude the Obscure is, I agree, flawed. But while it is not reasonable to separate characterisation from plot, it is that particular event in Jude the Obscure that tends to come in for criticism, rather than the characterisation.

      There was a fine BBC adaptation of Jude the Obscure back in the 70s with Robert Powell as Jude – it was far superior to the much-acclaimed film version Jude – and there, the boy was presented as a disturbed child, rather than the way Hardy presented him – as a figure carrying an infeasibly large symbolic burden. I must admit I continue to have very ambivalent feelings about Hardy.


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