Painting Thomas Hardy’s Novels: The Cliffhanger Scene

Copyright (c) Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury

After completing her PhD in December 2017, Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury decided to turn her critical knowledge of Thomas Hardy into visual art, and to develop paintings inspired by Hardy’s third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. In this second of a series of four posts and paintings, she evokes the dramatic centerpiece of the novel.

The famous ‘cliff-hanger’ scene is brought to life through the sheer power of Hardy’s evocative penmanship. I used James Abbott Pasquier’s sketch of the ‘cliff-hanger’ scene that appeared in 1873 in Tinsley’s Magazine as a source of inspiration for my painting.

Knight, while on a walk with Elfride along a cliff-face in gorgeous Cornwall, loses his footing and grabs hold of some weeds growing out of the rocks. As his hold steadily weakens he panics and wonders how long he can hold on. Hardy presents Knight’s internal monologue at length:

Was he to die? The mental picture of Elfride in the world, without himself to cherish her, smote his heart like a whip. He had hoped for deliverance, but what could a girl do? He dared not move an inch. Was Death really stretching out his hand? The previous sensation, that it was improbable he would die, was fainter now.

However, Knight still clung to the cliff…

At that moment of taking no more thought for this life, something disturbed the outline of the bank above him. A spot appeared. It was the head of Elfride.

Knight immediately prepared to welcome life again [my emphasis].

While a disheartened Knight muses ‘what can a girl do’, in a brilliant sequence of role reversal, Elfride the damsel comes to Knight’s rescue as he is almost about to give up. Even more interesting is her method of rescuing: she takes off her many layers of underclothes (and Victorian propriety) to make a rope out of them and tosses it over the edge for Knight to grasp, and pulls him up to safety.

The cliff-hanger scene has received a lot of critical attention for the sheer power of evocative descriptiveness with which Hardy renders this scene. The cliff-face is ‘grim’ and to Knight it appears more ferocious than it rationally should, seemingly inimical to human beings, a mere caprice of nature with ‘a horrid personality’ of its own. In the time spent in waiting to be rescued, Knight retraces several thousand years of past history, and wonders about the meaning of existence and experience. ‘There is no place like a cleft landscape for bringing home such imaginings as these’ (PBE: XXII).  As he speculates on his chances for survival, he also discovers a deep-rooted desire to live, not least, for the newly developing love between him and Elfride, which would be abruptly cut short if he fell to an untimely death.

Read about the background to this project and see the first painting in the series. Tomorrow, Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury looks at a different moment on the cliffs. 

About the Author

Sreemoyee’s PhD thesis was a metacritical survey of the criticism on Sue Bridehead’s portrayal in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, from the time of its publication in 1895 to now. The project engaged with over one hundred years of literary criticism to show how analysis of Sue’s portrayal functions as a Rorschach test, making readers and critics commit to certain positions, thus creating a plurality in the critical responses.


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