A powerful killing scene ... by Thomas Hardy

He may not be a crime writer, but ...

I've recently reread Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which overall is a grim, depressing and tiresome novel. But one scene that impressed me was the pig-killing episode early in the book. Hardy isn't really noted as a writer about violence but I found this more powerful than many supposedly shocking scenes in novels of our own day. It occurs early in the novel when Jude and his wife Arabella have to kill the pig they have been raising. The pig-killing man doesn't turn up, so Jude does the job. Don't read on if you're squeamish (which shouldn't apply to many people on Crimespace):

By this time Arabella had joined her husband, and Jude, rope in hand, got into the sty, and noosed the affrighted animal, who, beginning with a squeak of surprise, rose to repeated cries of rage. Arabella opened the sty-door, and together they hoisted the victim on to the stool, legs upward, and while Jude held him Arabella bound him down, looping the cord over his legs to keep him from struggling.

The animal's note changed its quality. It was not now rage, but the cry of despair; long-drawn, slow and hopeless.

"Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!" said Jude. "A creature I have fed with my own hands."

"Don't be such a tender-hearted fool! There's the sticking-knife -- the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don't stick un too deep."

"I'll stick him effectually, so as to make short work of it. That's the chief thing."

"You must not!" she cried. "The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that's all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least."

"He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look," said Jude determinedly. Scraping the bristles from the pig's upturned throat, as he had seen the butchers do, he slit the fat; then plunged in the knife with all his might.

"'Od damn it all!" she cried, "that ever I should say it! You've over-stuck un! And I telling you all the time -- -- "

"Do be quiet, Arabella, and have a little pity on the creature!"

"Hold up the pail to catch the blood, and don't talk!"

However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal's cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.

"Make un stop that!" said Arabella. "Such a noise will bring somebody or other up here, and I don't want people to know we are doing it ourselves." Picking up the knife from the ground whereon Jude had flung it, she slipped it into the gash, and slit the windpipe. The pig was instantly silent, his dying breath coming through the hole

"That's better," she said.

"It is a hateful business!" said he.

"Pigs must be killed."

What makes this passage so effective? The way it is simultaneously both appalling and matter-of-fact. The description of the binding of the pig, the plunging in of the knife, the pig's "shriek of agony" and the way the blood pours out, invites the reader to share the full horror. At the same time, it is a normal farm job - "I'll stick him effectually" "however unworkmanlike the deed".

The violence is not there for its own sake, but to shed light on character. Jude is either merciful or a tender-hearted fool, depending on your point of view; Arabella seems callous, but isn't she simply a practical butcher's daughter? Hardy takes us into the point of view of each of the protagonists: he makes the pig like a human victim, "recognizing the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends" - but this is rhetoric, for how can we or Hardy know what conception a pig has of treachery?

At the same time as we are invited to identify with Jude's merciful approach, we can also respect Arabella's point of view - they are poor people and the meat has to be in good condition for sale. How skilfully Hardy introduces Arabella's concern for social position - she has no interest in the pig's suffering, what bothers her is that "I don't want people to know we are doing it ourselves." Then there's the moral ambiguity of the passage - Arabella's "he must die slow" sounds appallingly sadistic, the sort of thing that any run-of-the-mill serial killer today might say, but her final words "pigs must be killed" are simply realistic. Why bother raising a pig, if you are not going to kill it?

In one scene of less than a page we've learned a vast amount about the characters, and Hardy has dramatised the themes that he explores throughout the novel. It's an immense piece of writing - I feel like I've hardly touched the surface of it.


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Comment by Nick Gadd on September 27, 2009 at 9:36am
Hi I.J., yes I rate Hardy highly too, but I don't think Jude is his best - found it too didactic and main characters too annoying! But scenes like that show how great he is.
Comment by I. J. Parker on September 27, 2009 at 1:54am
I totally agree with what you've said, though I generally hold Hardy in fairly high esteem on all his work.

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