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Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses

Edinburgh, UK: Edinburg University Press, 2020, 312 p.
Marie Bertrand
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Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburg University Press, 2020), 312 p. ISBN paperback: 9781474449878; hardback: 9781474449861; ebook (ePub): 9781474449892.

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1Written by Hugh Epstein and published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses takes up the challenge of shedding a new, modern light on works by the two authors whose writings have been scrutinized for more than a century now. Rather than comparing and contrasting their novels as Victorian versus modernist writing, Epstein chooses to focus on specific points at which their arts overlap, just as their lifespans did. Drawing its arguments from close readings of excerpts in which senses and subsequent sensations are extensively described, this six-chapter critical study aims at revealing the impressionist dimension of both authors’ writing styles. Epstein’s analyses are further substantiated by references to scientific and philosophical theories from the second half of the nineteenth century dealing with the connection between the self and the external world. The book explores thirteen fictional works by the two authors, taking the reader on a journey through Hardy and Conrad’s visible and auditory worlds.

2Chapter one is entitled ‘The Physiology of Sensation and Literary Style’ and focuses on the analysis of Hardy’s Desperate Remedies and The Rescue. Throughout this chapter, Epstein examines the dichotomy between the psychological and the physiological in order to show how the former is replaced by the latter in Hardy’s and Conrad’s scenic descriptions or characterisations. Hardy’s numerous descriptions of an atmosphere rather than a consciousness, or Conrad’s extensive use of similes rather than straightforward phrasing, are here interpreted as evidence of the two authors’ disengagement from a type of literature that would be merely a reflection of human minds. The word ‘vibration’ acts as the chapter’s leitmotiv and allows Epstein to accurately grasp the nature of their literary styles, as being the result of the intertwining of the physical with the psychological, or—especially where Conrad is concerned—with the social.

3Chapter two, ‘Facing Nature’, is the only chapter that is not dedicated to any specific fictional works, but that offers a more general overview of Hardy’s and Conrad’s different types of writing. This chapter considers the relationship between human characters and nature—a term whose problematic implications are not commented upon by Epstein. What is touched upon, however, is the late-Victorian materialist conception of human senses as natural phenomena and the description of human actions and experiences as events happening within a larger natural process. Nature, in Hardy and Conrad, is defined by Epstein as threatening, or, at best, indifferent, thus reminding their readers of their humble place as humans that are mere parts of a greater whole.

4Chapter three, dedicated to ‘The Visible World’, is divided into two parts, each dealing with two fictional works by Hardy and Conrad. The first part, ‘Fiction and Physics’, analyses the way narrators in Far From the Madding Crowd and Lord Jim describe the characters’ emotions and experiences by—literally—bringing them to light. Indeed, Epstein argues that both authors choose to light up the scene in order to indirectly reveal the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Such a focus on the forces of the outer world so as to write the inner world of the characters may have been inspired, Epstein says, by late-century conceptions of the ethereal medium. Still in relation to visual descriptions, the second part of this chapter, ‘Searching Space’, focuses on A Laodicean and ‘The End of the Tether’ in order to study the process at work between the eye and the scene that is being revealed to this very eye. The same argument of a fictional truth found outside rather than inside the characters is being repeated and fleshed out.

5Chapter four is in turn dedicated to ‘The Audible World’, and is also structured in two different parts. The first one deals with ‘Sonic Imaging’ and draws upon two of Hardy’s and Conrad’s most acclaimed works, The Return of the Native and ‘Heart of Darkness’, while the second, less substantial part, focuses on ‘The Sound of History’ in Conrad’s Nostromo. As a whole, the chapter studies the different uses of sound in both authors’ fictions and explores the way it may be taken up in their writings as a tool to question human ontological certainty. Hardy’s and Conrad’s perspectives on sound are compared and contrasted with several philosophies of sound, from that of the Enlightenment philosopher, Locke, to those of late-Victorian physicists such as Helmholtz, Hertz or Tyndall. The experience of sound, in Hardy’s and Conrad’s works, is described as being as important as the visual experience, if not more so, since Epstein draws our attention to a trope common to both authors—the inability to see.

6Chapter five, entitled ‘Identity and Margin’, is again constituted of two parts—‘Inspection, Immersion’, about Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and ‘Widening Margins’ offering close readings of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Nostromo. Through the study of these three pieces, chapter five takes this book to a whole new level, from a sensorial to an ontological study of Hardy’s and Conrad’s writings. Epstein here argues that the two authors stand out among their contemporaries for their interest in the point of contact between environment and organism and, more specifically, for their redefinition of that very point of contact as blurry and porous. A parallel is drawn between Hardy’s perspective and that of physicist Ernst Mach as they both welcome the blurring of the boundaries of the self, while Conrad perceives such a process as a loss that must be resisted to avoid annihilation.

7Chapter six, ‘Minding the Senses’, acts as a conclusion to Epstein’s critical study while, quite logically, offering an analysis of the two authors’ late autobiographical fictions, Jude the Obscure and Under Western Eyes. Although senses and sensory experiences appear to be absent from those two works, Epstein argues that they are in fact omnipresent to the extent that their rejection by the characters is the very reason that precipitates their downfalls. Rather than ignoring and putting aside two works that outwardly fall outside of the frame of his study, Epstein chooses to include them, and in doing so, manages to draw the psychological and the physical closer together.

8Overall, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses is a very efficient critical study of late-Victorian literary sensationism that gives quite a balanced overview of the two authors’ works, thus appealing to readers interested in either or both of them. Epstein’s choice of studying Hardy’s novels and Conrad’s novels independently, rather than jointly, within each chapter will help academic readers navigate the book so as to focus on one particular work by one of the two authors, if this should be their wish. On the other hand, Hardy and Conrad enthusiasts might find lacking in this book a proper back-and-forth movement between the two authors’ works that would have made it an actual comparative study. Apart from connecting paragraphs and occasional echoes made in passing, the author chooses to focus on one novelist after the other, just the way he focuses on one sense after the other. One feels that more fluidity in that regard might have participated in bridging the gap between Victorian and modernist studies, which seems to have been one of the author’s primary motivations in writing this book. One reconciliation Epstein does achieve in his study, however, is that of the scientific and the literary—a reconciliation illustrated by the addition of an extensive bibliography that will undoubtedly be helpful to the readers.

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Marie Bertrand, « Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Bertrand

EA741 EMMA, Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone

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