Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
The most important thing that we must understand if we are to appreciate the art of Thomas Hardy is the context in which he wrote, or to put it another way, his view of the nature of reality. And secondly, we need to know the thesis that underlies this essay which is that all artists like Hardy are prophets attempting to discover the profound truth about the nature of beauty. Artists in search of beauty have greater success than philosophers who are searching for the same thing (in Simple Reality beauty is truth and truth is beauty). Philosophers rarely enter into the present moment where beauty resides because they are blocked by their over-reliance on the intellect.
The following paragraph is an excellent description of the paradigm that influenced Hardy’s beliefs, attitudes and values (which is the Simple Reality definition of worldview). Remember, his worldview would define his identity not only as an Englishman but as a writer.
“English fiction assumed a new dimension in the hands of Thomas Hardy. From its beginnings, it had been a middle-class genre; it was written for and about the bourgeoisie, with the working class and the aristocracy assuming only minor roles. The British novelist explored the workings of society in the space between the upper reaches of the gentry and the new urban shopkeepers. In the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe treated the rogue on his or her way to wealth: Henry Fielding was concerned with the manners of the gentry; and Samuel Richardson dramatized romantic, middle-class sentimentality. In the nineteenth century, Jane Austen’s subject matter was the comedy of manners among a very closely knit segment of the rural gentry; the farm laboring classes were conspicuous by their absence. After Walter Scott and his historical romances, the great Victorian novelists—the Brontës, Thackery, Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot—were all concerned with the nuances of middle-class feeling and morality, treating their themes either romantically or comically.”[i]
Like many of the most adventurous artists, Hardy would push the envelope of change and reform. British society, in his case, would push back. “Hardy opened and explored fresh areas; indeed, he was constantly hounded by critics and censors for his realistic treatment of sexuality and the problems of faith. After his last novel, Jude the Obscure, was attacked for its immorality, he was driven from the field. The final thirty years or so of his life were devoted entirely to poetry.”[ii] With this overview as our context, we can better appreciate the enduring and unique legacy to be found in the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Jude the Obscure (1895)
In Jude we find Buddha’s First Noble Truth writ large. “A somber, at times grim novel, it is rich in its portrayal of suffering.”[iii] Most of us in our pursuit of truth have to arrive at a frank appraisal of P-B, i.e., “life is suffering” before our journey can even begin. “Hardy tells us: ‘If a way to the better there be, it demands a full look at the worst.’”[iv] Isn’t that an amazing insight for a nineteenth century writer? After that “full look at the worst” we can arrive at the threshold of the present moment if we surrender our false-self behaviors. One of the many illusions contained in our fear-driven behaviors is that of the “victim” where we “are powerless to avert the fates inflicted by impersonal external forces.”[v] In other words, Hardy depicts in Jude and all his other excellent novels, a reality that is “out there” and is deterministic if not outright hostile. His characters were often the victims of fate and lived in P-B at its worst.
Jude Fawley can strike us as the most tragic of all of Hardy’s protagonists because he tries so hard to be moral and compassionate but makes poor choices time and again. He is an archetypal Everyman in P-B because his life doesn’t go well, and he has no idea why it unfolds as one disaster after another. He is also a prototype of Hardy’s heroes, whether male or female, because they have certain struggles in common, in part, because they are all contained within the P-B context of Victorian England.
Hardy’s themes in Jude include “an attack on convention and society, an examination of man’s essential loneliness [and] a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit.”[vi] This last “war” if profoundly understood—which means understood at a level beyond what the author would have been able to comprehend—is essentially between the false self and the True self; between being lost in the illusions of the Victorian world and being able to shift into the NOW where Jude would have been successful in his aspirations to be a moral and compassionate person.
Religion is seen by Hardy as an obstacle to the human search for truth. All of his principle characters run afoul of religious precepts and suffer accordingly. “The fundamental hollowness and hypocrisy of Christianity, Hardy asserts, damn it dreadfully.”[vii] Hardy was nothing if not courageous, no wonder he was run out of town on a rail and gave up being a novelist.
Not all of Hardy’s characters are doomed to abject suffering. Some have an intuitive sense that P-A exists and they spend time there, responding rather than reacting to the flow of life. “In Hardy’s world, the happiest people are those who are most in touch with their environment, a condition that usually occurs in the least reflective characters.”[viii] Thomas Hardy realized that it was possible for humanity to choose a different narrative for itself, even if he couldn’t define what that would be, and he knew the Victorian version of P-B was unsustainable. “That philosophy proposes not only that man may improve, but that he must find the way to that better condition if he is to survive.”[ix] Right on!!
Tess of the d’Urbervilles:
A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891)
One critic described Tess as “a moral indictment of the smug Victorian attitude toward sexual purity.”[x] In the narrative of P-B we fear that which we don’t understand, and the Victorians understood very little about why they behaved the way they did. Hardy was trying to look into the Victorian subconscious, the basement in which all of the repressed and denied contents were hidden away. He was doing his culture a service knowing the “animal living down there” wouldn’t bite. On the contrary, it only bites when ignored, for example, as in Freudian slips.
Tess, like Sue Bridehead in Jude, is a Victorian woman seeking to escape the confining identity assigned to her. She didn’t find any support for that endeavor in her small English village, nor would she have found support anywhere in Victorian England for that matter. “Mesmerized and seduced by Alec d’Urberville, the mother of a bastard child, the married mistress of Alec, and a murderess who is eventually hanged, Tess is yet revealed as an innocent victim of nature, chance, and a social and religious system that denies human feeling.”[xi] This last is a remarkable sentence. Our critic Frank Magill, author of Masterpieces of World Literature, intuitively sensed how we are unconscious (mesmerized) by P-B, how Tess as Everywoman (and man) is innocent and out of touch with “human feeling.”
All of humanity then and today is unaware of why they behave the way they do and therefore can hardly be guilty of sin or immorality when they aren’t aware that they have a choice to behave otherwise. Secondly, if they do not know how to enter the present moment (access their feelings) they are left with only their reactions which are unconscious, habituated, self-destructive behaviors. Thomas Hardy was trying as best he could to change this horrific worldview. “Hardy’s novels, written between 1868 and 1895, have a unity of thought and feeling challenging all of the accepted truths of his time.”[xii]
For example, once again, in Tess, Hardy takes on his two favorite topics which are foundational to P-B’s dysfunctional structure—sex and religion. Using terms from the Freudian model again, the libido is joined by religious precepts to support the fear-driven expression of the repressed sensation center. And for whatever reason, the British seem particularly adept at denial and repression, so when Hardy came uncomfortably close to the contents hidden in their shadowy basement, his fellow countrymen drove him upstairs and banished him to the attic, to the isolation of the poet’s garret. Safely banished out of sight, he was no longer a threat. Few of his fellow Englishmen would now read his poetry much less understand it. He would be harmless “up there.”
The Return of the Native (1878)
“In this novel Thomas Hardy creates two strong opposing forces: Egdon Heath, a somber tract of wasteland symbolic of an impersonal fate, and Eustacia Vye, a beautiful, romantic young woman representing the opposing human element. Her marriage to the idealistic Clym Yeobright is doomed by the external forces of nature and the intense, differing needs of the two characters. Eustacia’s death by drowning in the company of Wildeve, her lover, is the fitting symbolic end to her life.”[xiii]
In what context does Eustacia play out her tragic story? The following description by is superficial and yet oddly descriptive in some ways of humanity as a whole in P-B. “[The villagers are] a superstitious and ignorant, if lovable and kindly set.”[xiv] Within this narrative, as with humanity’s story today, we can easily see a conflict between the false self and the True self, between illusion and reality. “[There] is a strong conflict between nature or fate, represented by Egdon Heath, and human nature, represented by the characters in the novel, especially Eustacia.”[xv]
In Hardy’s characters we see, of course, the fallacies of his own worldview. “Like his character Eustacia, Hardy often seems to blame fate for many of the catastrophes of life.”[xvi] His characters are victims looking for a scapegoat and when they “see” one they project blame and thereby seek to escape responsibility for their behavior and also unwittingly give away their power to change the inevitable outcome.
Religion is a perfect refuge in which to deny reality. Hardy’s characters would give away their power to an anthropomorphic God, escape responsibility for their current circumstances, reduce the pain associated with the shame, guilt and regret of the past and relieve anxiety about the future. The price for such a “devil’s bargain” would not be the loss of an imagined soul but something far worse—the loss of life itself—being doomed to live in the hell of P-B.
Hardy experienced his version of the Hero’s Journey with his creative process and made a significant contribution to the flow of literary expression. He made an even greater contribution into Simple Reality, for those of us able to appreciate his insights. He held up a mirror in which we can see, if we have the courage to look, not the image of a victim but that of a capable and compassionate person; someone meant to live a life filled with joy and beauty. But first, we must do what he was so good at. We must tell ourselves a radically different story.
The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
From the worldview that contains a culture, whether a village or global in scope, one can predict human behavior and the general outcome of the narrative. The details, of course, cannot be anticipated but the general direction, e.g., sustainable or unsustainable, can be clearly seen. Will the “villagers” be able to survive in the long term or will their life’s experience gradually grow darker and darker. The worldview that Thomas Hardy was contained in was conservative “Calvinist” Christianity. This is all we need to know to fill in the details of the story, the seeds have been planted—the harvest is predictable.
By the end of chapter two in Hardy’s novel, as in the prologue of a Greek tragedy, all but the specific elements of the story have been foreshadowed. “Hardy’s philosophy dramatizes the human condition as a struggle between man and man and between man and his fate. Usually it is fate—or the arbitrary forces of the universe—that wins. Fate is all-powerful and in its blindness human suffering is of no importance. This malevolence of fate certainly seems at times to be demonstrated in The Mayor of Casterbridge.”[xvii] The term fate in 19th century England is another word for the reward or punishment of a judgmental God. This element in the P-B worldview is itself a fundamental cause of human suffering and does not exist in P-A. In a word it is an illusion.
Hardy’s protagonist, the man Henchard, embodies Hardy’s own worldview—to be more specific his beliefs, attitudes, values and their emotional expression. “Henchard’s strength of will and his determination [is] to undergo suffering and deprivation in order to expiate his sins.”[xviii] You can see why we chose the label “Calvinist” for the section title. Believing as they do, both Hardy’s and Henchard’s, fear will be ubiquitous lurking like a dark shadow in the background. Both men feel that they were born into a hostile world where other people, God and even nature itself, are a constant threat. Conscious behavior are a rare occurrence in such an environment.
To the fundamentalist religious precepts and paradigm we add the advent of the industrial revolution and the emerging of modern science to the context of Casterbridge. “Whether or not Hardy’s pessimism seems valid, one should remember that during his lifetime, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species undermined the prevailing concept of the divine descent of man; the ‘higher criticism’ recreated Biblical figures as humans, not divinities; science reversed prevailing opinions and superstitions; and life in general grew faster, harsher, less concerned with beauty and art, and more preoccupied with practical economics.”[xix] In this statement our critic C. K. Hillegass, author of The Mayor of Casterbridge (Cliff Notes Inc.), falls prey to romanticizing the nature of historic cultures. Every generation harkens back to the “Good Ole’ Days” which, in reality, never existed. Human beings are and have always been by their nature more concerned about “practical economics” than beauty and art—they are “hardwired” by their need for survival to meet the needs of the security energy center before “higher” considerations.
This is as true today as it was in Hardy’s time and as it was in the days of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus when the Greeks were in pursuit of the “good, the true and the beautiful.” Beauty is always available to anyone who is present in P-A, and indeed such an experience is one of the ways that helps us know we are awake—in the NOW. As long as we allow ourselves to be contained in a story that is characterized by unconsciousness or a religion-based narrative, we will have little time to awaken to the present moment which is the only time where we will experience “beauty and art” which is a “heart-felt” experience.
How does a person behave who is unconscious and under the influence of his security energy center and self-medicating according to the habits of his sensation energy center? “[Henchard] is portrayed as one given over to fits of despondent self-pity, violent outbursts, and irrevocable spur-of-the-moment decisions. [He] has too much of a liking for strong drink which leads him to commit an outrageous act that haunts him for years and finally proves his downfall.”[xx] The sensation energy center is sometimes called the affection and esteem center although this is too narrow a label considering that all of the human substance and process addictions flow from this aspect of the human survival strategy. We all expend a lot of energy pursuing illusions in this arena. “Henchard’s dogged attempt to find love and affection … is evident in the fact that Henchard, too, is starved to death for want of Elizabeth-Jane’s [his daughter’s] love.”[xxi]
The delusion of P-B infuses itself, as it must, throughout the powerful Casterbridge story. Hardy reaches for a noble ending which is what made his story so popular, but it is little more than sentimentality—one of the characteristics of stories written by authors mesmerized by the illusion of P-B. “And when man can rise to the stature and nobility as Henchard does at the end of Casterbridge, then the dominant chord Hardy has struck swells to a bold theme of hope for mankind.”[xxii] Since Henchard’s behaviors are all false-self motivated, there is little cause for rejoicing at the end of the story. “Stature and nobility” are themselves characteristics of the ego-driven power energy center and true compassion would have required Henchard to shift to the selfless behavior characteristic of a person living in the NOW.
To end on a positive note we will cite an observation by our critic, C. K. Hillegass, as he intuits what would be a profound realization on the part of Casterbridge readers if only they were contained in P-A. “The theme of Casterbridge appears to be the arbitrary and almost always maligned workings of the universe and blind chance upon the destinies of men. Such evil, unrelenting machinations bring pain and suffering upon the characters in the novel, and there is no escape except in a day-to-day acceptance of life.”[xxiii] Exactly true! In the words of the awakened mystic, J. Krishnamurti: “I don’t mind what’s happening.”
In P-A one lives aware of the causes of human suffering and therefore attains an identity that no longer is attached to wanting anything to be different than it is. This detachment is the essence of freedom from suffering and the end to reactive behavior which is the energy that drives the old story of P-B.
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 850.
[iii] Ibid., page 425.
[iv] Ibid., page 428.
[v] Ibid., page 425.
[vi] Ibid., page 427.
[viii] Ibid., pages 427-428.
[ix] Ibid., page 428.
[x] Ibid., page 848.
[xi] Ibid., page 851.
[xii] Ibid., page 850.
[xiii] Ibid., page 762.
[xv] Ibid., page 764.
[xvi] Ibid., page 765.
[xvii] Hillegass, C. K., The Mayor of Casterbridge. Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliff’s Notes Inc., 1989, page 7.
[xix] Ibid., pages 7-8.
[xx] Ibid., page 11.
[xxi] Ibid., pages 73 and 75.
[xxii] Ibid., page 83.
[xxiii] Ibid., page 82.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.