Thomas Hardy and the Proper Study of Mankind Summary

Simon Gatrell


Among novelists of the late Victorian period, Thomas Hardy enjoys a critical reputation as a serious writer of prime importance. As the fame of his contemporaries in the novel-George Meredith, Arnold Bennett, and Anthony Trollope-has diminished, Hardy’s former stature has held farm and even strengthened. He began as a regionalist, celebrating the folk and folkways of Wessex in south-central England, and his early works reveal an optimistic romanticism. Throughout his career, his settings remained primarily in agrarian Wessex, an area removed from the rapid industrial and commercial development of the late Victorian era. Increasingly, however, his optimistic tone in the early novels yielded to the darkly pessimistic plots and ill-fated characters of the later, major works. To Hardy character was destiny, and as his art matured, destiny grew increasingly malignant. Of his seventeen novels, five stand out as widely studied and celebrated: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). Of these, Simon Gatrell omits only the first from his critical study. In addition, his book devotes one chapter to the early novel Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and another to man-made objects in three minor novels: The Trumpet- Major (1880), A Loodicean (1880-1881), and Two on a Tower (1882).

Gatrell, professor of English at the University of Georgia, produced an earlier study, Hardy, the Creator: A Textual Biography (1988), a work that required significant textual analysis. In the current volume, the influence of textual criticism surfaces in Gatrell’s references to variant readings, to revisions in manuscripts and subsequent editions, and to alterations of title pages. Occasionally he clarifies nuances of meaning that words had for Hardy but are unlikely to have for modern readers.

The interest in Hardy’s textual foundation serves as a scholarly backdrop to Gatrell’s more serious purpose. His primary intent is to explore Hardy’s technique in depicting character as it relates to society and to others outside the self. While the emphasis from chapter to chapter varies somewhat, this overall aim reappears throughout the book.

The unifying thread is Alexander Pope’s line from An Essay on Man (1733), “The proper study of mankind is man.” Gatrell contends that Hardy explores the same relationships that Pope addresses: how human beings stand in relation to divine power, to one another in society, to nature, and to themselves as individuals seeking happiness. Yet lacking the calm philosophical optimism of Pope, Hardy reaches only tentative and exploratory conclusions in his treatment of these important subjects. While Pope embraces and applies his philosophical themes as valuable in themselves, much more important than individual human beings, Hardy allows his themes to emerge through his character portrayals. Thus, Gatrell is committed to a central focus on character. Gatrell’s normal approach is to devote one or more chapters to individual novels; he selects eight of the seventeen for critical analysis. Three chapters, however, depart from this mold and offer thematic exploration of several works. A single chapter is devoted to architectural objects in three minor novels. In another chapter Gatrell analyzes the meaning of dance in Hardy’s fiction. A recurrent motif and often a celebration of folk customs, dance is associated with rituals and ceremonies and is depicted as a leveling social experience, involving different classes of people. As Gatrell discovers, Hardy, unable to write candidly of sexuality, let passionate attraction between the sexes be suggested by dance.

In the book’s final chapter,” ’From the White Sea to Cape Horn’: Thomas Hardy and the Wider World,” Gatrell explores the imperial theme in Hardy’s fiction. Although he wrote during the imperialistic enthusiasm of the late Victorian period, Hardy limited his exploration of colonialism to casual allusions and comments, relegating foreign travel to a minor motif in the fiction. Farfrae in The Mayor of Casterbridge contemplates emigration to America. Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Urbervilles spends two years in Brazil, and Swithin St Cleeve, the astronomer protagonist in Two on a Tower, travels to South Africa to study the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Even Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd thinks of travel to California, and a few other characters actually emigrate. As Gatrell shows, however, Hardy has little interest in depicting life in remote settings. He does...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)