Sunday, October 16, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 5 - The Social Contract

A cordwainer, that is, a maker of shoes;
differentiated from a cobbler
who merely repairs them.
The last major facet of Thomas Hardy's Dutch portrait of his Dorchester community in decline is more nebulous than the others I've outlined so far; specifically, the relationship between the individual and the larger community or social convention. I say that it's more nebulous because, unlike landscape descriptions or dialogue, it's rarely explicit in the text. It's implied in the ways that characters interact with one another.

It is, however, one of the central themes of the book, embodied in the disruption that Parson Maybold's installation brings to the community. Before the nature and scope of that disruption can be appreciated, it will be valuable to understand what it is that is being disrupted. There is a relationship between the land, the individual, the family and the community that can be thought of as a web that has been undisturbed for generations prior to the opening of the book. Individuals assume vocations (and in fact are defined by those vocations) based on the needs of the community and, in some cases, by the traditions that exist within the family into which they are born.

As the members of the quire gather in Reuben Dewy's home to drink cider and rehearse prior to the long night of caroling, Hardy uses this curious sequence, from the mouth of Mr. Penny, the shoemaker, to underscore the intimate nature of the relations between members of the community.

"Well," said the shoemaker, seeming to perceive that the interest the object had excited was greater than he had anticipated, and warranted the last's being taken up again and exhibited; "Now, whose foot do ye suppose this last was made for? It was made for Geoffrey Day's father over at Yalbury Wood. Ah, many's the pair o' boots he've had off the last. Well, when 'a died, I used the last for Geoffrey, and have ever since, though a little doctoring was wanted to make it do. Yes, a very queer natured last it is now, 'a believe," he continued, turning it over caressingly. "Now, you notice that there" (pointing to a lump of leather bradded to the toe), "that's a very bad bunion that he've had ever since 'a was a boy. Now, this remarkable large piece" (pointing to a patch nailed to the side), "shows a' accident he received by the tread of a horse, that squashed his foot a'most to a pomace. The horseshoe cam full-butt on this point, you see. And so I've just been over to Geoffrey's, to know if wanted his bunion altered or made bigger in the new pair I'm making."

In this one short speech, Hardy demonstrates that the whole of Geoffrey Day's life is bound up in Mr. Penny's shoemaking capabilities. The same is true of everyone else connected to the service he provides. He later asserts that he once identified a corpse otherwise unrecognizable from the bloat of drowning by the shape of the foot. It is no wonder then that when he produces a shoe intended for Geoffrey's daughter, Fanny, it is viewed by those in the room as an intimately tied to her person as if she'd suddenly appeared in the room. Reuben's son, Dick, uses it to fill in the gaps in his imagination about her, while noting that it filled him with "a delicate feeling that he had no right to do so without having first asked the owner of the foot's permission." Penny makes an interesting distinction about the boot though, noting that he "don't care to mend boots I don't make," (because he is a cordwainer, a maker of shoes, not a cobbler, a repairer of them) suggesting that, though born of the community, Fancy Day is apart from it in a way that her father is not.

Another passage, describing the exterior of Mr. Penny's shop, outlines a similar idea from another angle, noting that:

No sign was over his door; in fact--as with old banks and mercantile houses--advertising in any shape was scorned, and it would have been felt as beneath his dignity to paint up, for the benefit of strangers, the name of an establishment whose trade came solely by connection based on personal respect.

This notion that the labor and creativity of the individuals in the community belongs solely to the community asserts itself quite forcefully on one of the two central plots; namely, the eviction of the Mellstock Quire as the principal music providers in the church.

To Parson Maybold, someone with roots in the region but not a member of the community, there is little gravity in the decision to "modernize" the church by replacing the string ensemble with an organ. It is the most obvious outcome of having a) an organ b) someone who can play it (Fancy) and c) a wealthy supporter who has asked him to make the change (Fancy's other suitor, Farmer Shiner). Ironically, all three people who are involved in the decision --The Parson, Fancy, and Farmer Shiner-- are excluded by circumstances from the community: The Parson, by birth and education; Fancy by education and slightly elevated social status stemming from her father's relationship with the Earl of Wessex; and Shiner by his wealth.

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