Two Brains and a Tree: Defining the Material Bases for Delusion and Reality in the Woodlanders


  • Anna West (University of St Andrews, UK)



In The Woodlanders “(1887), Thomas Hardy engages with contemporary scientific and philosophical discourse in his depiction of Edred Fitzpiers and the two brains he seeks to study: the brains of Grammer Oliver and John South, the latter who has just died from fear of a tree. While the character of Fitzpiers reflects some of the fears that physiologists raised for the Victorian public, Hardy continually creates a series of doublings to both illuminate the scientific discussion and complicate it. Following the movement away from the metaphysical toward the material causes underlying all action and feeling, Hardy subtly suggests the physical basis for John South's delusions; furthermore, he blurs clear delineations between illusion and reality. At the same time as suggesting that man might be no more than a machine, his fiction calls for empathy with even the inanimate world-without which, he seems to argue, there can be no fellow-feeling for humankind. While his contemporaries were asking whether vivisecting an animal was like vivisecting a human, Hardy moves the question one step further, dislimning boundaries between the arboreal and the human: as can be seen in the following investigation of two brains and a tree.