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 (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 Brontes, 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.”
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.” 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 the First Noble Truth writ large. “A somber, at times grim novel, it is rich in its portrayal of suffering.” 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.’” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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 spend time there by their ability to respond rather react 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.” 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 that 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.”
Tess of the D’Ubervilles:
A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891)
One critic described Tess as “a moral indictment of the smug Victorian attitude toward sexual purity.” 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 that they did. Hardy was trying to take a 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 that 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 anywhere in Victorian England for that matter. “Mesmerized and seduced by Alec D’Uberville, 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.” This last is a remarkable sentence. This critic has 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.”
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.”
In what context does Eustacia play out her tragic story? The following description by a critic 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.” 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.”
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.” 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, to those of us able to appreciate his insights, into Simple Reality. 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.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.