Thomas Hardy’s “He Didn’t Expect Much” might almost be read as an expression of Stoic philosophy. The Stoics taught that almost nothing in the world can be controlled except our own responses to it. It thus makes little sense to expect much from life, because life might easily disappoint those expectations. Likewise, it makes little sense to be extremely disappointed if life fails to live up to one’s expectations. One simply has to accept what one is given and deal with it calmly, rationally, and without undue emotion. Since no one could be certain that an afterlife of rewards and happiness exists that might compensate for the disappointments of this life, it makes little rational sense to pin one’s hopes on such a blissful eternal existence. Hardy is sometimes called a pessimist, but surely he would have called himself a realist or a Stoic.
“He Didn’t Expect Much” might be analyzed as follows:
Line 1 is somewhat ironic. It refers to the world keeping faith with the speaker, but there is some irony here since “faith” (at least religious faith) is something the poem fails to emphasize as the poem develops. The “faith” the world has kept with the speaker is a very limited, constricted faith, not the kind of faith in eternal happiness so often associated with that word.
Lines 1-4 create interest by failing to specify how, exactly, the world has “kept faith” with the speaker and by failing to explain exactly how the world has
. . . proved to be
Much as you said you were.
We are now tempted to read on to satisfy the curiosity the speaker has aroused.
Lines 5-8 continue to arouse our curiosity. It is not unti line 8 that we discover the promise that life has kept with the speaker: it never promised “That life would all be fair.” Thus, ironically, the promise that has been kept is that there are no positive promises.
Lines 9-12 imply that although the speaker treats “life” as if it were alive and could actually speak, he actually assumes that we ourselves, if we are intelligent, are capable of interpreting the nature of life by paying close attention to the traits of nature. Just as nature is wholly unpredictable, indifferent, and amoral, so is life. The speaker seems to have intuited this fact from an early age. He therefore mocks, to some degree, people who either love life excessively (expecting immoderate joys from life) or feel contempt for life (because it fails to deliver the immoderate joys they have expected). Neither attitude makes sense to the Stoic speaker, and indeed line 16 is again splendidly ironic: whatever one’s attitudes toward life, death is inevitable for all. It therefore makes no sense to expect too much from life or to be disappointed if one’s expectations are not met. Both optimism and pessimism are irrational.
Conclusion of previous answer:
Line 18 is especially interesting, since the speaker imagines that life regards him and other humans as children. In other words, he assumes that life is not belligerent or hateful, just honest and forthright. It doesn’t promise too much, and thus it wins the respect of the speaker, who appreciates its paradoxically reliable unreliability. In other words, life is consistently inconsistent and never gave any indication that it would be otherwise. To add further irony to these kinds of paradoxes, precisely because life has proven to be consistently inconsistent, the speaker has been able to plan for it and cope with it. And, to add yet one further irony to our reading of the poem, we realize by the end of the work that this poem has not really been a dialogue between the speaker and life (since life cannot participate in any such dialogue) but has simply been an extended meditation by the speaker, who himself deserves credit for the solid good sense he attributes to a personified life. The speaker displays intelligence without congratulating himself on being especially wise.