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Most commentators on the intellectual and artistic life of the nineteenth century are in agreement that the most important event during that period was the so-called death of God, that is, the loss of a unified ground of being, based on Christian faith. These thinkers argue that what is now referred to as the modernist temperament in art and thought actually began with the breakup of a value-ordered universe in the Romantic period. Hardy was one of the most important artists of the period who were powerfully influenced by this loss. Many critics have pointed out that the most significant influence on what has been called Hardy’s philosophy was his loss of a notion of a universe governed by a divine power. Indeed, what has often been analyzed as Hardy’s philosophy can be summed up in one of his earliest notebook entries: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” In his autobiographical notes, Hardy presents a picture of himself as a sensitive young man who attended church regularly and believed in a personal God who ruled the universe. When Hardy came to London in his early twenties and discovered such intellectual ferment as caused by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and the Essays and Reviews, he lost his faith and never recovered it.
Many other nineteenth century writers experienced a similar loss, but few felt it so profoundly as Hardy. Furthermore, whereas some nineteenth century writers and thinkers, such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, were able to make a leap of faith to an organic concept of nature knowable by the human imagination, Hardy felt the loss of God as a loss with no consequent gain. As one of his most famous poems, “The Darkling Thrush,” makes clear, Hardy was unable to ascertain any unity of meaning in the world outside him. He was more like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who, having experienced the nightmarish chaos of a world without meaning or value, can never really believe in a unified and meaningful world again, but must spend the rest of his life telling and retelling his one story of loss and resultant despair. An understanding of any of Hardy’s novels and poems must begin with this basic assumption.
Although Hardy refused to give in to any sense of an external value, he was not content to remain in such an isolated state but was continually trying to find some basis for a ground of being other than that of transcendence. Hardy’s ultimate intellectual and creative challenge to this loss was what might now be called humanistic existentialism. For Hardy, as it was later for such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, if any value was to be found in the world for humankind, it lay in not giving in to hope for transcendence but facing the emptiness in the universe—what Hardy called “facing the worst”—and, like the Ancient Mariner, playing this back over and over again in all of his works. Consequently, Hardy’s art can be seen as a series of variations in form on this one barren theme of loss.
Hardy’s most basic artistic and technical problem in dealing with his loss of God was the incompatibility of the lack of a unified ground of being with the novel form he felt compelled to develop, for the novel as a form depends on some unified social or mythic structure to hold it together. Hardy thus searched for older forms to imitate to establish a structure for his novels, even though the grafting of his humanistic existential view onto old forms resulted in grotesque distortions. Hardy imitated the detective form and the social comedy form when he was concerned merely with publishing a popular novel, but when he wanted to write a serious work of fiction, he turned to classical Greek and Elizabethan genres, such as the pastoral and the tragedy.
This very choice, however, raised a second artistic problem for Hardy in his search for an adequate literary form. Whereas the classical writers saw human life secure within a stable and ordered religious and social context, Hardy saw humanity as isolated and alone, searching fruitlessly for meaning in the world. Because Hardy denied the static and ordered worldview of the past, he was in turn denied the context of myth, symbol, and ritual that derived from that view. Thus, Hardy had to create a modern myth that presupposed the absence of God. Hardy’s use of the traditional patterns of tragedy and pastoral, combined with his rejection of the value system that gave meaning to these patterns, resulted in a distortion of the old form that in turn created a grotesque new form.
In a typical Hardy pastoral novel, such as Far from the Madding Crowd, nature is not divinely ordered, as it is in the classical pastoral. Although on the surface the story seems to fit the pastoral mode—it is set in a rural community, the main character is a shepherd, and the inhabitants seem content with their lives—the clash of Hardy’s atheistic view with the traditional pastoral creates a grotesque inversion of the form. The story is thus a fable of the barrenness and death of the unified pastoral world, the tragic results of wrong choice, and the irrationality of sexual attraction. Although critics have suggested that Hardy’s best-known “tragic” novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is his most explicit use of the Greek tragic pattern, there are many differences that make it difficult to see it as typically Greek. The fall of Michael Henchard, the mayor, at the end is the result of a combination of factors, not the least of which is Henchard’s mistaken view that the world around him is unified and dependable. His death symbolizes the disappearance of the old order. What really brings Henchard down is that, given the loss of a transcendent order, he has violated the only order left to humans: the human-created order of humanity itself.
Interest in Hardy’s work has followed two basic patterns. The first was philosophical, with many critics uncovering what they saw to be metaphysical structures that supposedly underlay his fiction. Since the early 1970’s, however, interest has shifted to that aspect of Hardy’s work most ignored before: his technical facility and his generic experimentation. Only since the late 1980’s has what once was termed Hardy’s fictional clumsiness been reevaluated in terms of poetic technique. Moreover, Hardy’s career as a poet, which has always been under the shadow of his fiction, has been reevaluated. During his career, which began in the Victorian era and did not end until after World War I, Hardy was a contemporary first of Matthew Arnold and then of T. S. Eliot. Critics have seen Hardy as an important transitional figure between the Victorian sensibility and the modern era. Like the great moderns that followed him, Hardy realized that the task of the artist was not to try to find an external controlling force but rather to write works that symbolize the modern need to find or create such a value system.
The Return of the Native
First published: 1878
Type of work: Novel
A powerful young woman rebels against her isolation on the desolate heath but is defeated by the crushing indifference of nature to the desires of humankind.
Many readers have noted the formal classical structure of The Return of the Native as well as the similarities of the characters to such powerful mythic figures as Oedipus and Prometheus. It is, however, the brooding Egdon Heath itself that becomes the more significant structuring principle. In fact, as many have noted, the heath is one of the principal actors in the drama, for the actions of all the characters are reactions in some way to the indifference that the heath represents. Egdon Heath is the landscape from which God has departed. In its barrenness, it seems like some giant prehistoric monster lying dormant but ready to swallow up anyone who tries to escape its grasp.
As in other Hardy rural idylls, there is a chorus of rustic characters in The Return of the Native. They belong on the heath because of their ignorance of the incongruity between the human longing for meaning and the intractable indifference of the external world symbolized by the heath. They still maintain a mythic, superstitious belief in a pagan animism and fatalistically accept the nature of things as they are. The Druidical rites of the fires that open the novel, the insignificance of Christian religion, the voodoo doll of Susan Nonesuch—all these characterize the pagan fatalism of the rustics.
The main characters in the novel are not merely rustic, and they make something other than a fatalistic response to the heath. All of them are characterized by their various reactions to the heath’s indifference. Mrs. Yeobright is said to have the very solitude of the heath concentrated in her face. Although she knows she no longer has hope of escape, she focuses all of her attention on seeing that her son Clym does. Damon Wildeve is an outsider, the mysterious stranger who seems detached from the heath but who ultimately must answer to its indifference. Tomasin Yeobright aligns herself with the natural world because of her innocence and therefore sees no discrepancy between human wishes and the blindness of the natural world. Diggory Venn, the most puzzling character in the novel, is an outcast, wandering the heath as both a rustic and a demoniac figure.
The most towering figures in the novel, however, are Clym Yeobright, the native of the title who returns to the heath, and Eustacia Vye, the powerful, rebellious figure who yearns to escape its bleakness. As is typical of cultural values of the period, Eustacia’s only real hope of leaving the crushing suffocation of the heath is by being “loved to madness”; thus her rebellion is often manifested as coquetry. Clym, on the other hand, wishes to remain on the heath, seeing only friendliness written on its face. Having spent some time in the intellectual ferment of the social world, he now wishes to escape the disease of thought and teach the rustics what they intuitively know: that the only life is the life of fatalistic acceptance.
Clym is the disillusioned intellectual trying to return to the mythic simplicity of the natural world; he would prefer not to grapple with the incongruities he has seen. He is indeed blind, as his mother tells him, in thinking that he can teach the peasants the view that life is something “to be put up with” when they have always known and fatalistically accepted that fact. He furthermore reveals his blindness by marrying Eustacia, thinking she will remain with him on the heath, while Eustacia reveals that she is similarly misdirected by idealizing him and thinking that he will take her away. Both characters search for a meaning and a basis for value, but both are trapped by the irrationality of love and vain hopes in a basically irrational world.
After the two marry and Eustacia, in one of Hardy’s typical examples of human misunderstandings and the mischance of events, turns Clym’s mother away from her door to die on the heath, Clym blames her for his mother’s death and drives her away. Eustacia’s trip across the heath is one in which the natural world seems inimical to her, for she stumbles over roots and “oozing lumps of fleshy fungi” that impede her path like the organs of some giant prehistoric animal. At the end of the novel, Eustacia’s suicidal leap into the pool is less a capitulation to the forces around her than it is a heroic rebellion, for it is an assertion of the absurdity of human hopes by a romantic temperament that refuses to live by such absurdity.
The Return of the Native is probably the most debated of all Hardy’s novels, having been called a masterpiece by some critics and a failure by others. Some readers have seen it to be primarily the story of Clym Yeobright’s spiritual odyssey, while others have declared as central Eustacia’s struggle with the heath. Eustacia herself is one of Hardy’s most puzzling creations. While one reader claims that her story is a realistic case history, another calls it a supernatural myth; while one sees her as a tragic heroine, another calls her the parody of a heroine. Even Diggory Venn has been the subject of much debate and argument, being interpreted as both a peasant laborer and a demonic visitant, while Damon Wildeve is seen alternately as a romantic adventurer and Eustacia’s demonic familiar. Moreover, the accidents and coincidences that dominate the plot have been the source of much critical disagreement, called both the fault of weaknesses in the characters and the result of Hardy’s philosophic determinism, while the framework of magic and superstition that surrounds the action of the work has been termed both grotesque parody and animistic gratuitousness. It is because the novel hovers between realism and romanticism, between the real world and the dynamic world of myth, that both its characters and its actions are so much a subject of critical controversy.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
First published: 1891
Type of work: Novel
An innocent young rural maiden is cast out of her familiar world after losing her virginity and finally rebels against the injustice of society and the universe.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles centers on Tess’s relationship to the natural world. As that relationship changes, so does her situation. At the beginning of the novel, Tess is a child of nature who is confident that the natural world will protect her and provide her with a value system. When nature fails her, however, she has no value system to which to turn and thus is thrown out of her comfortable world to journey both outwardly and inwardly in search of a way back to her relationship with the natural world.
Tess first appears “at home” in the world of the small hamlet of Marlott, where, in the May Day dance, she manifests her innocence. Tess, however, is not a typical rustic maid; she is more sensitive than her friends. It is this sensitivity that ultimately undermines her. For example, shame for her father’s drunken condition makes her volunteer to take a load of beehives to market, and despair for the laziness of her parents makes her ignore where she is going. As a result, when the family’s only horse is killed, her sense of duty makes her overcome her pride to go to her aristocratic relatives for help. It is her first journey outside her secluded and protected world and her first encounter with the corruption of society.
Alec, her cousin, is a stock figure of the antinatural world, and when they meet, the image is a classic one of innocence in the grasp of the corrupt. When Alec takes Tess into the woods, she is not afraid of him, for she feels that she is in her natural element, and she so trusts the natural world to protect her that she falls asleep, only to be seduced by Alec. The antinatural force and her own innocence conspire to make her an outcast among her people. When her illegitimate child is born dead and the church refuses to give it a Christian burial, Tess renounces her religion and leaves the valley of her home in search of some new meaning for her life.
Tess begins her quest in the Valley of the Great Dairies, where the natural world is so lush and fertile as to be a symbolic realm, and Tess hopes for a reintegration with the world she has lost. She puts her moral plight out of her mind until she meets the morally ambiguous Angel Clare. Whereas Tess has challenged formal religion because of her personal experience, Angel has challenged it because of intellectual questioning. Like Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native, Angel has left the intellectual world for the natural world, where he believes innocence and uncontaminated purity and goodness prevail. These qualities are precisely what he sees in the milkmaid Tess.
On the first night of their marriage, however, Tess confesses her previous indiscretion with her cousin Alec, and Angel, unable to accept her as less than pure, leaves her. Tess wanders the countryside once again, until one morning on the road she awakes to find dead pheasants around her. At this point, Tess becomes aware that in a Darwinistic universe, violation, injury, and even death are innate and inescapable realities. Tess realizes that she is not guilty by the laws of such a world. With this new realization, she can go to Chalk-Newton, a land symbolic of the wasteland situation in which she finds herself, and fully accept the blind indifference of the world; she no longer holds out hope of being reintegrated into the natural world of value and meaning.
It is at this point that Alec returns to her life. Taking the path of least resistance, and having given up all hope, she begins living with him. Hope returns, too late, in the form of Angel Clare, who, having come to the same existential realization at which Tess had arrived, returns. Now seeing Alec as the embodiment of all the deception and meaninglessness in the world, Tess kills him, asserting her freedom from social values and her willingness to accept the human penalties of such freedom.
In the final chapter of the novel, Tess and Angel wander until they end up at Stonehenge, where Tess lies down on the pagan altar and willingly gives herself up to the authorities as a kind of archetypal sacrifice. Tess is the embodiment of human rebellion against an empty universe. The basic source of Tess’s tragedy throughout the novel springs from her insistent hope that she will find external meaning and value. Only at the end does she achieve true awareness that such meaning does not exist.
Jude the Obscure
First published: 1895
Type of work: Novel
A young man tries to find meaning in the life of the mind and the spirit, only to be defeated by his own physical desires and the narrow-mindedness of his society.
Jude the Obscure may be thought of as the argument of Tess of the D’Urbervilles taken one step farther. Whereas the latter focuses on the loss of a unified order and meaning, the former begins with the premise of that loss and deals with the epic search for meaning. The novel is the archetypal story of everyone who searches for a basis of meaning and value. The problem for Jude is that all of the symbols of meaning for him—education, religion, the beauty of Sue Bridehead—are illusions. Jude is “obscure” because he is in darkness, trying to find an illumination of his relationship to the world but failing at every turn.
The novel begins with Jude as a young man losing his only real friend, the schoolmaster Phillotson, who has been the center of his world. Thus, from the first Jude must find a new center and a new hope to relieve his loneliness. His first projection of hope is toward the celestial city of Christminster, where his teacher has gone. In the first section of the book, his dream is like an indefinable glow in the distance. His ideal value system, represented both by the Christian and the classical framework of Christminster, is put aside, however, when he meets Arabella, described by Hardy as “a substantial female animal.” Seduced by the flesh, Jude marries Arabella when she says she is pregnant and gives up his hope of an education. His discovery that Arabella has deceived him is the first disillusionment he suffers in his quest for meaning.
The second phase of Jude’s spiritual journey involves his actual journey to Christminster, a city the vision of which is made even more specific by his seeing a picture of Sue Bridehead, who becomes for him a concrete image of his idealizations. Jude’s first disillusionment at Christminster comes when he is turned down by all the colleges to which he applies. Thus, he shifts from the life of reason to the life of religion, practicing the rituals of the church.
During the next phase of his search, after having lost Sue to his old schoolmaster Phillotson, Jude becomes aware of the aridity of the religious life and burns all of his theology books. When Sue leaves Phillotson and returns to Jude, he has new hope, in spite of the fact that Sue is unwilling to live with him as a wife. The return of Arabella frightens her into giving in to his sexual desires, and the couple have children together.
When the most morbid of the children kills himself and the others, Sue makes an extreme shift from her former rebellion and accepts a supreme deity whose laws she believes she has transgressed. As penance, she leaves Jude to return to Phillotson. After Sue leaves, Jude goes to “a dreary, strange flat scene, where boughs dripped, and coughs and consumption lurked, and where he had never been before.” This is a typical Hardy technique for presenting moments of existential realization: The natural world becomes an inimical reflection of the character’s awareness of the absurd. Subsequently, Jude’s reaction to the world around him is complete indifference. Jude’s final journey to see Sue is a journey to death and a final rejection of the indifferent universe of which his experiences have made him aware. Jude the Obscure is the most crushing example of Hardy’s vision. It may be one of his last novels because it is difficult to imagine pushing the tragedy of lost hopes beyond this point.
Wessex Poems, and Other Verses
First published: 1898
Type of work: Poetry
In this collection, Hardy meditates on loss in many contexts—personal, historical, and philosophical.
The criticism of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles for their supposed immorality led Hardy to pursue seriously his longstanding ambition to write poetry. Appealing to a better educated, more sophisticated audience than novelists did, poets were given more latitude. The poems in Wessex Poems, the first of many volumes of poetry that Hardy was to publish, included some poems written as early as the 1860’s, as well as poems written specifically for the book. Wessex Poems received a mixed critical reception. The established poetical style of the Victorian age had grown stale, and Hardy—somewhat like his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins—sought a new poetry. Difficulties in Hardy’s syntax and his very eclectic diction led many of the first readers of the Wessex Poems—and many readers since—to find the poems in this volume sometimes awkward.
Hardy employed a wide range of poetic forms in Wessex Poems: sonnets (including a sixteen line “sonnet” in the form pioneered by George Meredith), ballads, and dramatic monologues among them. In “The Impercipient,” Hardy makes ironical use of a metrical form common in Anglican hymns. Equally ironic is his use of the rigorous patterns of the sonnet to complain of the randomness of Fate in “Hap,” which is in this respect a forerunner of Robert Frost’s later sonnet, “Design.”
In “Hap,” Hardy concludes that the Fates could as easily have sent him happiness as sorrow in his life. In poem after poem in this volume, Hardy writes of frustration, loss, grief, and suffering. The loss of love brings pain; the loss of faith brings only regret; death brings grief. Even history is loss—of past achievement—provoking nostalgia that is as bitter as it is sweet. Perhaps the single most critically admired poem in Wessex Poems is the little lyric “Neutral Tones,” in which Hardy’s vivid description of the bleak setting of a meeting between disillusioned former lovers effectively conveys the emotion of the meeting. Another critically praised poem—one among many more—is “Nature’s Questioning,” in which ambiguity, complexity, and the open ending are characteristic of modern sensibilities. “The Dance at the Phoenix” uses ballad form effectively to trace the life of a woman from her uninhibited youth through her long and responsible marriage to one last revel before her death. “Thoughts of Phena” is Hardy’s deeply personal meditation on the death of a cousin who had once been close to him. Some critics in 1898 complained of the pervasive pessimism of the volume, but time has shown that in theme and tone Hardy’s Wessex Poems were better attuned to the direction poetry was to take, even before World War I.