The background of Thomas Hardy’s novels: The first major undertaking of Hardy was the firm establishment of his imaginative world of Wessex-geography, landscape, folkways, agricultural pursuits, quaint peasantry-as a background for the drama of his main characters. Beginning with the slender idyll of Under the Greenwood Tree, he proceeded to the full length pastoral of the sheep country, Far From the Madding Crowd, and reached the height of his power in The Return of the Native and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Meantime, he had tried his hand at murder-mystery (Desperate Remedies), at historical romance (The Trumpet Major), and at social comedy in less congenial backgrounds (The Hand of Ethelbert, A Laodicean). But his finest effects were in the settings and ways of life that had impressed his childish imagination, at his father’s cottage in a picturesque hamlet of Dorset. The somber beauty of the country and the quaintness of peasant ways and thought penetrated his spirit and became the very ground and substance of his imagination.
The tragic quality of his work: But, along with the beauty, he was impressed from the beginning by the tragic pathos of humanity, caught between its craving for happiness and the harsh limitations of fact, material and social, as well as those rooted in the contradictions of human nature itself. Then as he came to manhood, the views of Darwin and the positivists displaced the old mythologies and furnished him with an ideology that went well with his natural somberness of mood, so that in his creations a philosophic fatalism goes hand in hand with the more systematic determinism or an age of science. Tragedy was his forte. It early appeared in the ironic patterns of A. Pair of Blue Eyes. It joined with a preference for complicated plots in the malign coincidences of Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, and Tess of the D’ Urbervilles. In The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure, a tragedy appears stark and cruel, along with the complicated pattern of accident, and without the benefit of scenic beauty, for here we have the Wessex of brick and mortar instead of that of meadow, heath and sky. And here (in Jude the Obscure), with his harrowing study of the institution of holy matrimony, he carries farthest of all his ironic exposure of the social conventions that bring so much suffering and mutilation to the individual.
Faults and Merits: Hardy was a serious and sober thinker, untainted with cynicism or diabolism. But he was of all the great Victorians the one least given to didactic moralising. Consequently his realism, though thoroughly native in feeling, is most in line with that of continental writers. His philosophy is pervasive, but always in terms of feeling and imagination, always subject to the dominance of the aesthetic faculty. We resent his intrusions no more than those of some Martian commentator. His style is simple and candid, notable for its almost scientific precision of statement and often, under stress of emotion, discreetly rhythmical in cadence. His peasants are inimitable, and nothing can be finer than the scenes in Warren’s malthouse or in the Buck’s Head tavern. He is not guilty of melodrama in the handling of incident. He is awkward and lumpy in exposition. His dialogues are sometimes stiff and stilted. At times he betrays the ‘intellectual’ in figure and allusion. But he comes the closest of all nineteenth century novelists to treating men and women with a due sense of their dignity and their claim to consideration as independent beings. Gabriel Oak, Eustacia Vye, Mrs. Yeobright, Tess Durbeyfield, Michael Henchard, Jude, Arabella, and Sue are among the unforgettable creations of fiction. His forte is setting his characters against some vast backdrop of space and time, which lends them grandeur in the very act of dwarfing them and assimilates their individual sufferings to the general pathos of humanity. In him Victorian fiction transcends Victorianism, and its prose excels its verse in essential poetry.
Construction of plots: As a story-teller, Hardy combines a rich inventive power with a sense of symmetrical development. For all his minuteness of method, Hardy never loses sight of the harmonious whole; his detailed touches always have their special significance in unfolding the burden of the story. We shall find no loose ends in his work. Interesting as his stories always are, arresting and even exciting as they are sometimes, the appeal to the reader does not lie in any skillful manipulation of incidents. It lies in a treatment of character as the inevitable outcome of a special environment.
A realistic observer: Hardy was deeply affected by science. The immutability of Nature and the mutability of human life; the bigness of Nature and the littleness of man; the relentless character of natural laws and the puny struggles of human beings who try to evade them-all these come out clearly in his work. But Hardy is not only a scientific observer. He is also, quite as emphatically, a poetic observer. He has a sensitive, brooding imagination that loves to play over the past, and see in the relics of a bygone age symbols of a pomp and power that still can affect the imagination and lives of men. He is forever noticing those impulses of pagan feeling and religious sentiment that run through generations. He watches the mingling of the finer elemental qualities, sexual devotion, pity, courage, endurance; with the coarser “ape and tiger” instincts. As an observer of peasant life he shows a marked affinity with the naturalism of writers like Zola. His naturalism is suffused with a rare delicacy and beauty.
As a stylist: He is almost equally great as a stylist-not quite, perhaps. For some of his writing shows a curious stiffness and lack of plasticity. But on the whole it is an admirable style, clear, straight-forward, unpretentious, yet capable of carrying subtle implications, and always charged with a simple dignity and a compelling sincerity. There is no straining after effect.
Village tragedies and folk-tales: Hardy’s novels are village tragedies. Composed of the drama of broken love and wronged girls, the feuds and the hangings which filled his early memories. And the ballad stories left their mark too. There is always something of the folk-song about Hardy’s plots. They are full of true lovers and forlorn maidens and dashing Don Juans. The Trumpet Major is a ballad tale of the pretty girl who could not choose between a handsome soldier and a gay sailor. Sergeant Troy, in Far from the Madding Crowd, is the old typical figure of the dashing, inconstant soldier with a love in every town, who kisses and rides away. Even Tess of the D’ Urbervilles, considered so modern and advanced in its day, has a story which, when shorn of its realistic trappings, reveals itself as a regular folk-tale tragedy. Tess, the beautiful innocent maiden, is betrayed by a wicked seducer and ends her life on the gallows. Hardy’s stories are full of relics of English popular superstition- the witchcraft and the waxen images in The Return of the Native, the mid- summer rites by which girls tried to guess the names of their future husbands in Tess and The Woodlanders; while country customs and ceremonies and gaieties, carol-singing, harvest homes, may poles, and mummers’ plays are found scattered in all his novels.
Treatment of love: Love is the dominating motive in Hardy’s stories- love conceived as a blind, irresistible storm. It is by means of his emotional intensity that he is able to bring home to us its power. No one describes love more impressively than Hardy. But he does not analyse its workings like Proust, or show like Jane Austen how it manifests itself differently in different characters. He is concerned less with lovers than with love, less with the effect that passion has on human beings than with its intrinsic quality. He wishes to make us feel the actual heat and colour of its flame, to reproduce its impact on the heart. It is the approach of the lyric poet. Hardy’s picture of love is lyrical manner. Exquisitely he sounds the different notes in its scale-the peaceful, idyllic love of Dick and Fancy; the faithful, enduring, unhopeful love of Gabriel and Marty; Eustacia’s searing passion.
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Powerful descriptions of pain and sadness: Hardy gives evidence of a great emotional force in narrating his stories. He describes pain effectively, and he describes all sorts of pain, from Bathsheba’s tired wistful sadness (as, seated in the churchyard in the dusk, she listens to the choir-boys’ singing and feels that she would give anything in the world to be as those children are), to Eustacia’s surging agony on the night of her death as she roams widely over Egdon, or the eerie terror that breathes from Susan’s dark cottage- room, gleaming in the firelight, as with unholy rites she sets Eustacia’s waxen image to melt in the flame; from Tess’s dull anguish as she labours in the January winds on the farm, to the catastrophic final despair of Henchard.
The most tragic moments of the tragic characters: His emotional force enables Hardy to rise to the heights of tragic feeling and thus to do justice to his tragic themes. That is why he is most convincing in scenes of death or misfortune, and why his characters live most vividly at the grand and desperate crises of their fortunes. Such moments arouse. Hardy’s creative faculty to its full activity. His great characters are all greatest in their most tragic moments: Tess, forsaken by Angel; Marty, keeping her lonely vigil over Giles’s grave; Eustacia when the storm breaks on her; Clym gazing down at the dead wife who can never now hear his words of forgiveness; Mrs. Yeobright, dying, she thinks, repudiated by her only son, alone on the heath beneath the pitiless August sun; above all Henchard, sinking to death in complete despair in the ruined cottage.
Attitude to women: Love is the central theme of Hardy’s novels. With the emphasis on love goes an emphasis on the part played by women in the human drama. To Hardy, love was women’s whole existence. He took what is called the old-fashioned view of women. He stresses their frailty, their sweetness, their submissiveness, their coquetry, their caprice. Even when they are at fault, he represents them with a tender chivalry. Arabella in Jude the Obscure is the only hateful woman in Hardy’s books. And this book was written in a mood of exceptional bitterness. For the most part, Hardy treats women with sympathy: the sufferings of Tess, of Elfride, of Marty, of Bathsheba, are touched with a peculiar pathos. This attitude was partly due to Hardy’s temperament: he was a born lover of the fair sex. But it is, too, a consequence of his view of the human situation. Woman’s passivity and frailty make her an especially poignant illustration of that frailty, that dependence on fate, which is the outstanding characteristic of the human lot. Fate, it is true, often employs a human instrument to bring about the tragedies! Which overtake Hardy’s heroines. Tess, Bathsheba, Thomasin, and Grace are the victims of the men with whom they fall in love. Angel and Swithin and Knight inflict undeserved suffering on the women they love because of a harsh idealism that freezes the flow of natural compassion. Hardy’s strong natural sympathy makes him particularly hostile to such idealism. But, as has been said above, he does not lay the chief responsibility for human suffering on human beings. Knight, Troy, and the rest of them are instruments. Thus, Hardy is an accomplished novelist of Victorian England.