Elisha Cohn, "'No insignificant creature': Thomas Hardy's Ethical Turn" (pp. 494–520)

This essay examines the limitations of ethically motivated representations of animals in Victorian realism. As many critics have argued, evolutionary theory's challenge to human supremacy had the potential to alter radically literature's focus on individual subjectivity and social ideals. In particular, the new relevance of animals to human life threatened to deflate the human moral ideals. The treatment of animals in Victorian literature is rarely interpreted as exploring evolution's radically anti-humanist implications. More often, animals are thought to function as objects of sympathy in a larger project of constructing middle-class subjectivity. As i argue, it is important to account for the relationship between the sympathetic and the anti-humanist representation of animals in Victorian works. The changing role of animals in Thomas Hardy's works highlights the disconnect between the radical implications that critics see in evolutionist thought and the way in which animals in Victorian writings are usually construed as objects of sympathy. Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) places these two approaches in conversation by shifting emphasis from a destabilizing lyricism associated with human-animal affinity to a more distanced narrative stance associated with human autonomy, sympathy, responsibility, and critique. Examining how Hardy grounds his ethically motivated expectations of stable human agency after having seemingly dispensed with them suggests the need for a distinction between a lyrical, evolutionist aesthetic and an ethical aesthetic. This approach also offers insight into the enabling conditions—and limitations—shaping sympathetic agency in defense of animal lives. In examining the intersections between Hardy's work and recent approaches to theories of animality, particularly those based on Gilles Deleuze's concept of becoming-animal, Tess helps us to rethink the theory, to understand why ethical claims require boundaries between species, and on what basis these boundaries can be legitimated.

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