Trials of Love in A Pair of Blue Eyes
“Men may love strongest for a while, but women love longest.”
Henry Knight says this to Stephen Smith in Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, but the events of the novel prove this statement to be a false one. Elfride Swancourt loves three men (possibly four) over the course of forty chapters, who each love only her. Her fickleness leads to betrayal for one, disillusionment for another, and near ruin for all involved. Her trials of love are bookended by death, which may be the only force powerful enough to kill her suitors’ love stone dead.
At the heart of the novel is a love triangle between Elfride and friends-turned-rivals Stephen Smith and Henry Knight. Elfride loves Stephen in the springtime of her youth. He’s the first male specimen to disrupt the seclusion of her retired abode. She soon promises to marry him against her father’s wishes, going so far as to run away with him to elope in London. A last minute misgiving on the part of Elfride causes her to return home unmarried, Stephen offering to accompany her there rather than persuading her to go through with the wedding. Stephen’s indecisiveness in this matter ultimately costs him Elfride.
“Decisive action is seen by appreciative minds to be frequently objectless, and sometimes fatal; but decision, however suicidal, has more charm for a woman than the most unequivocal Fabian success.”
Stephen’s frequent expressions of admiration for Henry Knight prove prophetic, as Elfride falls in love with the scholar while Stephen is making a fortune in India. Henry ultimately succumbs to Elfride’s charms, but via a different method from Stephen’s.
“Stephen fell in love with Elfride by looking at her; Knight by ceasing to do so.”
Elfride and Henry become engaged, much to Stephen’s dismay. All seems set for their eventual marriage, but a past indiscretion leaves Elfride vulnerable to the vengeance of the widow Mrs. Jethway, whose son died of love unrequited for Elfride. Mrs. Jethway’s malice succeeds in separating Elfride from Henry, and opens the door for a third lover to capture Elfride’s heart. Both Stephen and Henry end the novel loving Elfride without having won her.
Elfride’s behaviour at times suggests a lack of commitment towards, or an absence of feeling for, the men whose hearts she beguiles. It’s up to the reader to decide whether Elfride’s revolving door of suitors is the result of caprice or of an evolving emotional maturity. We don’t always want the same things in our adulthood as we did in our youth; is it so wrong to change our behaviour in accordance with our change of heart?