Thomas Hardy Long Fiction Analysis
In The Courage to Be (1952), Paul Tillich asserts that “the decisive event which underlies the search for meaning and the despair of it in the twentieth century is the loss of God in the nineteenth century.” Most critics of the literature of the nineteenth century have accepted this notion and have established a new perspective for studying the period by demonstrating that what is now referred to as the “modern situation” or the “modern artistic dilemma” actually began with the breakup of a value-ordered universe in the Romantic period. Thomas Hardy, in both philosophical attitude and artistic technique, firmly belongs in this modern tradition.
It is a critical commonplace that at the beginning of his literary career Hardy experienced a loss of belief in a divinely ordered universe. The impact of this loss on Hardy cannot be overestimated. In his childhood recollections he appears as an extremely sensitive boy who attended church so regularly that he knew the service by heart and who firmly believed in a personal and just God who ruled the universe and took cognizance of the situation of humanity. Consequently, when he moved to London in his twenties and was exposed to the concept of a demythologized religion in the Essays and Reviews and the valueless nonteleological world of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), the loss of his childhood god was a traumatic experience.
What is often called Hardy’s philosophy can be summed up by one of his earliest notebook entries in 1865: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” An interpretation of any of Hardy’s novels must begin with this assumption. The difference between Hardy and other nineteenth century artists who experienced similar loss of belief is that while others were able to achieve a measure of faith—William Wordsworth reaffirmed an organic concept of nature and of the creative mind that can penetrate it, and Thomas Carlyle finally came to a similar affirmation of nature as alive and progressive—Hardy never made such an affirmative leap to transcendent value. Hardy was more akin to another romantic figure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who, having experienced the nightmarish chaos of a world without meaning or value, can never fully get back into an ordered world again.
Hardy was constantly trying to find a way out of his isolated dilemma, constantly trying to find a value to which he could cling in a world of accident, chance, and meaningless indifference. Since he refused to give in to hope for an external value, however, he refused to submit to illusions of transcendence; the only possibility for him was to find some kind of value in the emptiness itself. Like the Ancient Mariner, all Hardy had was his story of loss and despair, chaos and meaninglessness. If value were to be found at all, it lay in the complete commitment to this story—“facing the worst,” and playing it back over and over again, exploring its implications, making others aware of its truth. Consequently, Hardy’s art can be seen as a series of variations in form on this one barren theme of loss and chaos—“questionings in the exploration of reality.”
While Hardy could imitate popular forms and create popular novels such as Desperate Remedies, an imitation of Wilkie Collins’s detective novel, or The Hand of Ethelberta , an imitation of the social comedy popular at the time, when he wished to write a serious novel, one that would truly express his vision of humanity’s situation in the universe, he could find no adequate model in the novels of his contemporaries. He solved this first basic problem in his search for form by returning to the tragic drama of the Greek and Elizabethan ages—a mode with which he was familiar through extensive early reading. Another Greek and Elizabethan mode he used, although he was less conscious of its literary...
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