Alice’s “Neutral Tones” Paper

I just turned my paper in & I’m soooo excited that I wanted to share it with you. 🙂

Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones examines a relationship that has lost its passion and fallen into a state of near-death. In the poem, Hardy uses the environment as an objective correlative to invoke a state of melancholia in the reader, which is the same feeling the speaker had about the relationship in the poem. Essentially, Hardy creates a dying environment to symbolize a perishing relationship. In addition to serving as an objective correlative, the bleak world Hardy describes inNeutral Tones also symbolizes the speaker’s dead relationship. Through his use of imagery, construction of the poem, and paradoxes, Hardy creates a bleak world of once-beautiful things lying in despair which invokes a sense of hopelessness and melancholia in the reader.
Hardy utilizes visual imagery to invoke a feeling of emptiness which parallels the neutrality of the speaker’s relationship. Hardy immediately calls attention to the “winter day,” quickly conjuring feelings in the reader of a coldness, a chilly stoicism, and images of a blank world. In addition to the feelings invoked, images of white and gray appear. The use of color, specifically white and gray, is a primary method Hardy employs to create a sense of melancholia in the reader. White and gray are both colors that are repeated as Hardy continues to weave the poem’s setting. He creates a white sun, which creates feelings of frigidity. This is in direct contrast to a typical sun; in general, the sun is a shining yellow globe representative of happiness but Hardy rejects that image. Instead, he uses his white sun to symbolize the coldness of the relationship within the poem. In fact, that “God-curst sun” is the only thing that could provide relief from the blank gray and white world Hardy conjures but that one possible ray of hope is cursed and “chidden of God”. Not even a normally uplifting symbol has hope in Neutral Tones.
Like white, the use of gray, which occurs several times in describing the world of the poem, invokes in the reader a feeling of blankness. Gray itself is a strange pigmentation; it is neither the absence of color nor the abundance of it. It inherently conjures images of a blank slate and feelings of uncertainty and depression. By creating a “pond edged with grayish leaves”, Hardy uses the color to illustrate the feelings of the characters within the poem and causes the reader to feel their blankness. The leaves are not even fully gray, they are “grayish”, which further exemplifies the despondence of the relationship. Gray, which is an odd middle ground of a color, is eerie and indecisive. There is a faint tinge of white but it is muted by darkness: a hint of hope faded by depression. Hardy uses the color to explore the immobility of the speaker; it is hard for him to decide if the relationship is truly dead or if there may, perhaps, be some small ray of hope in a “smile… [that is] the deadest thing alive…”.
Hardy’s use of imagery speaks of the actual physical location of the speaker but it is clear that it is more meaningful than just a simple exploration of the setting. Instead of being merely descriptive, the “pond that winter day” turns into a symbol for the faded romance between the couple. The last two lines of Neutral Tones shed intense light on how Hardy parallels the environment with the relationship. In those last two lines, Hardy groups three bleak, blank, destitute pieces of the setting with the face of the woman in the poem. By doing so, Hardy implies that the woman’s face is also bleak, blank, and destitute; there is no expression left and not only is the setting blank, so is her face.
There is nothing left for the couple to explore and though it is clear that there once was love, that love has dissipated. It was most likely a passionate relationship that has simply faded away with time. In the beginning of a romantic relationship there are constant questions but as the two people grow together, it becomes more apparent that the “tedious riddles [were] solved years ago”. Without the possibility of the unknown, love grows stale. Thus, after the riddles were solved, the duo have little else and grow apart. This sentiment is mirrored in Hardy’s description of the destitute environment; without the warmth of spring, which brings with it a newness, life is destined to wither away. Likewise, without the promise of adventure in a relationship, passion is destined to fade.
The construction of Neutral Tones also illuminates the loveless relationship of the speaker and his companion. Hardy uses alliteration several times in the poem in order to call attention to important points. For example, by using alliteration in reference to the “starving sod” around the pond, Hardy communicates to the reader that the “starving sod” is actually more than simply dying earth. Instead, it is clear that Hardy is referencing the dying relationship. Much as the relationship has starved itself by not having any possibility of adventure or newness, the sod is starving as winter keeps the world in its grasp.
Hardy uses alliteration again to emphasize the decayed relationship’s destruction of love. The speaker states that, after the day in question, he learned that “love deceives and wrings with wrong…”. Since that day at the pond, the speaker has lost sight of love. Instead, love and passion have been replaced with bleak nothingness. It is the use of alliteration in this line that communicates that the speaker has learned that love is a tortuous emotion.
Also compositionally significant is the absence of dialogue. The man and woman stand next to each other, completely immobile, even look at one and other, yet say nothing worth explicitly writing out in the poem. Hardy does ambiguously mention “some words played between…” them but he does not write what was actually said. Instead, he glosses over the conversation and that omission is indicative of the unimportance of the characters’ discussion. The relationship is so empty, not even words spoken are worth retelling.
Once again drawing attention to the fact that the couple is trapped in one wrenching moment of time, Hardy uses a simple rhyme scheme. In fact, throughout the entire poem, it never changes from the ABBA formation. Hardy does this purposefully to show the static nature of the poem’s content. Keeping the rhyme scheme from varying at all through the course of the poem highlights the couple’s loss of passion and their lack of change. Nothing in the poem moves, not the characters’ interaction nor the construction, in order to demonstrate that nothing is moving within the relationship.
Hardy uses paradoxes to further illustrate the characters’ stalemated position. The third stanza, which deals most heavily with the actual relationship and less with the setting, is the one most riddled with said paradoxes. It is when the speaker is specifically addressing the partner in the poem that Hardy uses paradoxes, which lends credence to the idea that the paradoxes are directly related to a sense of immobility. It is a smile on the woman’s mouth that is “the deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die”. This ambiguity is representative of the speaker’s motionless, or neutral, state.
Hardy is once again paradoxical while describing the partner in the poem, citing her “grin of bitterness”. Typically, grins are not bitter; here, Hardy draws attention to the ending of a once passionate relationship. In both paradoxical references, the speaker is mentioning the woman’s smile. A smile is generally not dead or bitter but when Hardy juxtaposes the image of a smile with these harsher words, the state of the speaker is all the more apparent; he is trapped and the reader feels trapped as well, hopelessly locked in Hardy’s circular paradoxes. The speaker is in a dead relationship and the paradoxes serve to exemplify his immobility.
Neither the man nor the woman is in love with the other in Hardy’s Neutral Tones. Both parties are resigned to the fact that their relationship has stalemated and neither party can rectify the problem.Simply put, neither partner loves the other; the passion has died out of an old relationship. In order to emphasize the melancholy tone of the poem, Hardy creates a withering environment as the setting then, using that setting as objective correlative, he utilizes rich imagery to invoke a sense of melancholia in the reader. Hardy also uses the composition of his poem in order to explore the death of the relationship; by keeping everything extremely simple and static, he communicates the speaker’s immobility. Finally, Hardy uses paradoxes to cement the feeling of melancholy and the notion of a passionless relationship. These literary tactics serve to illuminate the point that what passion there once was is there no longer.
—- By Alice Rackham.
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