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 tradition, was the pastoralnarrative—a natural choice because of its surface similarity to his own subject matter of isolated country settings and innocent country people.
Hardy’s second problem in the search for form arose from the incompatibility between the classical tragic vision and his own uniquely modern view. The classical writers saw humanity within a stable and ordered religious and social context, while Hardy saw humanity isolated, alone, searching for meaning in a world that offered none. Because Hardy denied the static and ordered worldview of the past, he was in turn denied the broad context of myth, symbol, and ritual that stemmed from that view. Lost without a God-ordered mythos, Hardy had to create a modern myth that presupposed the absence of God; he needed a pattern. Hardy’s use of the traditional patterns of tragedy and pastoral, combined with his rejection of the old mythos that formerly gave meaning to these patterns, resulted in a peculiar distortion as his novels transcended their original patterns.
Nature in Hardy’s “pastoral” novels, The Woodlanders and Far from the Madding Crowd, is neither benevolent nor divinely ordered. Similarly, the human dilemma in his “tragic” novels, The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge, is completely antithetical to what it was for the dramatists of the past. The Greek hero was tragic because he violated a cosmic order; Hardy’s heroes are tragic precisely because there is no such order. For the Greek hero there is a final reconciliation that persuades him to submit to the world. For Hardy’s hero there is only the never-ending dialectic between people’s nostalgia for value and the empty, indifferent world.
In Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy rejected the traditional tragic and pastoral patterns and allowed the intrinsic problems of his twoprotagonists to order the chaotic elements of the works. The structure of these novels can be compared to that of the epic journey of Wordsworth in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850) and Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). As critic Morse Peckham has noted, the task of the nineteenth century artist was no longer to find an external controlling form, but to “symbolize the orientative drive itself, the power of the individual to maintain his identity by creating order which would maintain his gaze at the world as it is, at things as they are.” The loss of order is reflected in the structure of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as the young heroine is literally evicted from the familiarity of her world and must endure the nightmarish wandering process of trying to get back inside. The structuring drive of Jude the Obscure is Jude’s search for an external order that will rid him of the anguish of his own gratuitousness.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Hardy’s first important novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, was the first in which he successfully adapted a traditional form, the pastoral, to his own purposes, greatly altering it in the process. Hallet Smith has described the pastoral as constituting the ideal of the good life: In the pastoral world, nature is the true home of humankind, and the gods take an active concern in human beings’ welfare; the inhabitants of this world are content and self-sufficient. The plot complications of the pastoral usually arise through the intrusion of an aspiring mind from the outside, an antipastoral force that seeks to overthrow the idyllic established order. On the surface, Far from the Madding Crowd conforms perfectly to this definition of the pastoral. The story is set in an agricultural community, the main character is a shepherd, and the bulk of the inhabitants are content with their lives. The plot complications arise from the intrusion of the antipastoral Sergeant Troy and the love of three different men for the pastoral maid Bathsheba. To see the novel as a true pastoral, however, is to ignore living form in order to see a preestablished pattern. The pastoral ideal cannot be the vision of this novel because Hardy was struggling with the active tension between human hopes and the world’s indifference.
Far from the Madding Crowd begins in a lighthearted mood with the comic situation of Gabriel Oak’s unsuccessful attempts to woo the fickle maid Bathsheba, but Gabriel, often called the stabilizing force in the novel, is an ambiguous figure. Although he is described as both a biblical and a classical shepherd, he is unequivocally neither. Moreover, the first section of the novel hovers between tragedy and comedy. Even the “pastoral tragedy,” the “murder” of all of Gabriel’s sheep by a foolish young dog, is equivocal; the dog is not so much destroyed for his crime as he is executed. Gabriel’s character, as well as the entire tone of the novel, shifts after this short prologue. When he next appears he is no longer the contented shepherd with modest ambitions; rather, he has developed the indifference to fate and fortune that, Hardy says, “though it often makes a villain of a man, is the basis of his sublimity when it does not.”
The change that takes place in Gabriel is caused by his loss and is more significant than the change in Bathsheba because of her gain of an inheritance. Bathsheba, a typical pastoral coquette in the prologue of the novel, makes an ostensible shift when she inherits a farm of her own, but she is still coquettish and vain enough to be piqued by farmer William Boldwood’s indifference to her charms and to send him a valentine saying “Marry Me.” Boldwood, “the nearest approach to aristocracy that this remote quarter of the parish could boast of,” is a serious, self-sufficient man who sees “no absurd side to the follies of life.” The change the valentine causes in him is so extreme as to be comic.
The Bathsheba-Gabriel relationship is complicated by this new wooer. In this section of the novel, until the appearance of Sergeant Troy, there appears a series of scenes in which Gabriel, Boldwood, and Bathsheba are frozen into a tableau with the ever-present sheep in the background. The death and physical suffering of the sheep take on a sinister, grotesque imagery to make an ironic commentary on the absurdity of humanity’s ephemeral passions in a world dominated by cruelty and death. The irrationality of physical passion is more evident when Bathsheba is overwhelmed by Troy. Their relationship begins with the feminine frill of her dress being caught in his masculine spur and blossoms with her submission to his dazzling sword exercises. After Boldwood’s complete demoralization and the marriage of Bathsheba and Troy, the antipastoral Troy corrupts the innocent harvest festival until it becomes a wild frenzy and then a drunken stupor. The pastoral world of the “good life” is turned upside down as an approaching storm transforms the landscape into something sinister. It is significant that the rustics are asleep during the storm, for they are truly unaware of the sickness of the world and its sinister aspect. Troy, too, is unaware of the storm, as he is always unaware of any incongruity between humanity and the indifferent world. Only Gabriel, Bathsheba, and Boldwood, the involved and suffering characters of the novel, react to this symbolic storm.
Just as the death of the sheep forms the ever-present background to the first two parts of the novel, the death of Fanny Robin dominates the third section. From the time her body begins its journey in Joseph Poorgrass’s wagon until the “Gurgoyle” washes Troy’s flowers off her grave, death becomes the most important element in the book. By far the most important effect of Fanny Robin’s death is on Bathsheba. When she opens the coffin to find out that Fanny was pregnant with Troy’s child, the scene is “like an illusion raised by some fiendish incantation.” Many critics have asserted that Bathsheba’s then running away to seclude herself in the wood is her reconciliation with the natural world of the pastoral, but this view is wholly untenable: Her retreat is on the edge of a swamp of which the “general aspect was malignant.” There is no pastoral goodness about the hollow in which she hides. It is a “nursery of pestilences.From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth.” This is one of those grotesque situations in which people become aware of their isolated state, when their need for solace in the natural world is met with only indifference, when they become aware of the absurdity of their demands on a barren and empty world. Bathsheba changes after her experience in this “boundary situation”; she gains the awareness that has characterized Gabriel all along.
After this climactic scene of confrontation with the indifferent world, the book loses its focus. In a diffuse and overlong denouement, Boldwood presses his advantage with Bathsheba until the night of the party, when she is on the point of giving in. Troy’s return at this moment and his murder by Boldwood seem forced and melodramatic. Bathsheba’s return to marry Gabriel is a concession to the reading public as much as it is to the pastoral pattern of the novel itself. Far from the Madding Crowd, a fable of the barrenness and death of the pastoral world and the tragic results of wrong choices through the irrationality of sexual attraction, truly ends with Bathsheba’s isolation and painful new awareness in the pestilent swamp.
The Woodlanders, although more explicit in its imagistic presentation of the unhealthy natural world and more complex in its conflicts of irrational sexual attraction, manifests much of the same kind of formal distortion as is found in Far from the Madding Crowd. The world of Little Hintock, far from being the ideal pastoral world, is even more valueless, more inimical a world than Weatherbury. Instead of the grotesque death of sheep, trees become the symbolic representation of humanity’s absurd situation in an empty world. Little Hintock is a wasteland, a world of darkness, isolation, guilt, and human cross-purposes. One’s nostrils are always filled with the odor of dead leaves, fermenting cider, and heavy, blossomy perfume. One cannot breathe or stretch out one’s arms in this world.
The so-called natural inhabitants of the Wood are dissatisfied with the nature of the world around them. Grace’s father, Mr. Melbury, cramped and crippled by his lifetime struggle to make his living from the trees, wants his daughter to be able to escape such a world by marrying an outsider. A conflict is created, however, by the guilt he feels for a wrong he did to Giles Winterborne’s father; he tries to atone for it by promising Grace to Giles. John South, Marty’s father, on whose life the landholdings of Giles depend, is neurotically afraid of the huge tree in his yard. The tree takes on a symbolic aura as representative of the uncontrollable force of the natural world.
Furthermore, the sophisticated outsiders in the novel are cut off from the world they inhabit and are imaged as “unnatural.” Strange unnatural lights can be seen from the house of the young Dr. Fitzpiers, who is said to be in league with the devil. The bored Felice Charmond is so unnatural that she must splice on the luxuriance of natural beauty by having a wig made of Marty South’s hair. The isolated and cramped Hintock environment creates a boredom and ennui in these two characters that serve to further the narrative drive of the novel.
Grace, the most equivocal character in the novel, is the active center of its animating conflicts. Her wavering back and forth between the natural world and the antinatural is the central tension that crystallizes the tentative and uncomfortable attitude of all the characters. It is her dilemma of choice that constitutes the major action, just as it is Bathsheba’s choice that dominates Far from the Madding Crowd. The choices that the characters make to relieve themselves of tension are made through the most irrational emotion, love, in a basically irrational world. Grace marries Fitzpiers in an effort to commit herself to a solid world of value. Fitzpiers sees in Grace the answer to a Shelleyan search for a soul mate. To commit oneself to a line of action that assumes the world is ordered and full of value, to choose a course of action that hopes to lessen the tentativeness of life, to deceive oneself into thinking that solidarity exists—these are the tragic errors that Hardy’s characters repeatedly make.
The marriage begins to break up when Fitzpiers, aware that Grace is not the ideal he desired, goes to the lethargic Mrs. Charmond, and when Grace, aware that her hope for solidarity was misdirected, tries to go back to the natural world through the love of Giles. Social conventions—which Hardy views as holdovers from outmoded creeds—interfere, however. Grace is unable to obtain a divorce, for the law makes her irrational first choice inflexible. Despairing of the injustice of natural law as well as of social law, she runs away to Giles, who, too self-effacing to rebel against either code, lets her have his house while he spends the night in an ill-sheltered hut.
At this point, confused and in anguish about what possibility there is left for her, uncertain of the value of any action, Grace confronts the true nature of the world and the absurdity of her past hopes for value in it. The storm that catches Grace alone in the house is a climactic representation for her of the inimical natural world, just as the pestilent swamp is for Bathsheba. “She had never before been so struck with the devilry of a gusty night in the wood, because she had never been so entirely alone in spirit as she was now. She seemed almost to be apart from herself—a vacuous duplicate only.” Grace’s indecision and absurd hopes have been leading to this bitter moment of realization in which she is made aware of the ephemeral nature of human existence and the absurdity of human hopes in a world without intrinsic value.
Just as in Far from the Madding Crowd, the tension of the action collapses after this confrontation. Giles dies, and Fitzpiers returns after having ended his affair with Mrs. Charmond. After a short period of indifference, Grace, still his wife by law, returns to him. In his customary ironic way, however, Hardy does not allow this reconciliation to be completely satisfying, for it is physical only. Grace, having narrowly missed being caught in a mantrap set for Fitzpiers, is enticingly undressed when Fitzpiers rushes to her and asks to be taken back. This physical attraction is the only reason that Fitzpiers desires a reconciliation. Grace is still indifferent to him, but it is now this very indifference that makes their reunion possible. Seeing no one reaction as more valuable than another, she takes the path of least resistance. The rural chorus ends the novel by commenting that they think the union will not last.
The Return of the Native
Although many critics have pointed out the formal framework of The Return of the Native—the classical five-act division; the unity of time, place, and line of action; and the character similarities to Oedipus and Prometheus—others have struggled with the book’s ambiguities and the difficulties involved in seeing it as a classical tragedy. Certainly, the pattern is classical, but the distortion of the pattern becomes the more significant structuring principle. Egdon Heath is the landscape from which God has departed. People in such an empty world will naturally begin to feel an affinity with the wasteland, such as islands, moors, and dunes. Little more needs to be said here about the part the Heath plays in the action, for critics have called it the principal actor in the drama. Indeed, it does dominate the scene, for the actions of all the characters are reactions in some way to the indifference the Heath represents.
As in Far from the Madding Crowd, there is a chorus of rustics in The Return of the Native. They belong on the Heath because of their ignorance of the incongruity between human longing for meaning and the intractable indifference of the world. They still maintain a mythical, superstitious belief in a pagan animism and fatalistically accept the nature of things. The Druidical rites of the opening fires, the unimportance of Christian religion, the black mass and Voodoo doll of Susan Nonesuch—all of these characterize the pagan fatalism of the rustics.
The main characters, however, do not belong with the rustics. They make something other than a fatalistic response to the Heath and are characterized by their various reactions to its indifference. Mrs. Yeobright is described as having the very solitude exhaled from the Heath concentrated in her face. Having lived with its desolation longer than any of the others, she can no longer escape, but she is desperate to see that Clym does. Damon Wildeve does not belong to the Heath but has taken over a patch of land a former tenant died in trying to reclaim. Although he is dissatisfied, he is not heroic; he is involved in no search, no vital interaction with the indifferent world. Tomasin Yeobright is characterized in a single image, as she is in the house loft, selecting apples: “The sun shone in a bright yellow patch upon the figure of the maiden as she knelt and plunged her naked arms into the soft brown fern.” She aligns herself with the natural world through her innocence and consequently perceives no incongruity. Diggory Venn, the most puzzling figure in the novel, is an outcast. The most typical image of him is by his campfire alone, the red glow reflecting off his own red skin. He simply wanders on the open Heath, minding other people’s business and waiting for his chance to marry Tomasin.
These characters, regardless of their conflicts with the irrationality of human choice or the indifference of the Heath, are minor in comparison with the two antithetical attitudes of Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright. The most concrete image of Eustacia is of her wandering on the Heath, carrying an hourglass in her hand, gazing aimlessly out over the vast wasteland. Her search for value, her hope for escape from the oppressive indifference of the Heath, lies in being “loved to madness.” Clym, however, sees friendliness and geniality written on the Heath. He is the disillusioned intellectual trying to make a return to the mythic simplicity of the natural world. Clym would prefer not to think, not to grapple with the incongruities he has seen. The very disease of thought that forces him to see the “coil of things” makes him desire to teach rather than to think. He is indeed blind, as his mother tells him, in thinking he can instill into the peasants the view that “life is a thing to be put up with,” for they have always known it and fatalistically accepted it. Furthermore, he shows his blindness by marrying Eustacia, thinking she will remain with him on the Heath, while Eustacia reveals that she is as misdirected as he is by idealizing him and thinking that he will take her away from the Heath. Both characters search for a meaning and basis for value, but both are trapped by the irrationality of love and vain hopes in an irrational world.
At the beginning of book 4, Clym literally goes blind because of his studying and must actually look at the world through smoked glasses. He welcomes the opportunity to ignore the incongruities of the world by subsuming himself in the Heath and effacing himself in his furze cutting. In his selfish attempt to “not think” about it, he ignores what this means to Eustacia. She can find no meaning at all in such self-effacing indifference; it is the very thing against which she is rebelling. She returns again to her old pagan ways at the village dance and considers the possibility of Wildeve once more.
Mrs. Yeobright’s journey across the Heath, a trip colored by grotesque images of the natural world—the tepid, stringy water of nearly dried pools, where “maggoty” shapes cavort; the battered, rude, and wild trees whose limbs are splintered, lopped, and distorted by the weather—is a turning point in the action of the book. In a concatenation of chance events and human misunderstanding, Eustacia turns Mrs. Yeobright away from the door, and the old woman dies as a result. At this point, Eustacia blames some “colossal Prince of the world for framing her situation and ruling her lot.”
Clym, still selfish, ignores the problems of the living Eustacia and concentrates on the “riddle of death” of his mother. Had he been able to practice what he professed—human solidarity—he might have saved Eustacia and himself, but instead he bitterly blames her for his mother’s death and is the immediate cause of Eustacia’s flight. Eustacia’s trip across the Heath to her death is similar to Mrs. Yeobright’s in that the very natural world seems antagonistic to her. She stumbles over “twisted furze roots, tufts of rushes, or oozing lumps of fleshly fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the Heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal.” Her leap into the pool is a noble suicide. It is more a rebellion against the indifference of the world around her than it is a submission to its oppressiveness. It is the admission of the absurdity of human hopes by a romantic temperament that refuses to live by such absurdity.
The Mayor of Casterbridge
The tragic pattern of The Mayor of Casterbridge has been said by most critics to be more explicit than that of The Return of the Native; by the late twentieth century, however, critics were quick to point out that there are serious difficulties involved in seeing The Mayor of Casterbridge as an archetypal tragic ritual. Although Henchard is Oedipus-like in his opposition to the rational, Creon-like Farfrae, the plot of the novel, like that of The Return of the Native, involves the reactions of a set of characters to the timeless indifference of the world. In this case, the mute and intractable world is imaged in the dead myths and classical legends of Casterbridge.
Secluded as much as Little Hintock, the world of The Woodlanders, Casterbridge is “huddled all together, shut in by a square wall of trees like a plot of garden by a box-edging.” The town is saturated with the old superstitions and myths of the past. The primary image of the desolate world of the town and its dead and valueless past is the Casterbridge Ring, a relic of an ancient Roman amphitheater. The Ring is a central symbol that embodies the desolation of the old myths of human value. It formerly had been the gallows site, but now it is a place for illicit meetings of all kinds, except, Hardy notes, those of happy lovers. A place of man’s inhumanity to man is no place for the celebration of love.
The inhumanity of one person to another and the human need for love play important roles in the action of the novel. While the classical Oedipus is guilty of breaking a cosmic law, Henchard is guilty of breaking a purely human one. By selling his wife, he treats her as a thing, not a human being. He rejects human relationships and violates human interdependence and solidarity. This is the sin that begins to find objectification years later when the blight of the bread agitates the townspeople and when his wife, Susan, returns.
It is not this sin alone that means tragedy for Henchard, just as it is not Oedipus’s violation alone that brings his downfall. Henchard’s character—his irrational behavior, his perverse clinging to the old order and methods, his rash and impulsive nature—also contributes to his defeat. Henchard is an adherent of the old ways. Though he is ostensibly the mayor, an important man, he is actually closer to the rustic, folk characters than the hero of any other Hardy novel. He is not a rebel against the indifference of the world so much as he is a simple hay stacker, trying desperately to maintain a sense of value in the worn-out codes and superstitions of the past. In the often-quoted “character is Fate” passage in the novel, Hardy makes explicit Henchard’s problem. He calls him a Faust-like character, “a vehement, gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.” Henchard is thus caught between two worlds, one of them dead and valueless, the other not worthy enough to be a positive replacement. The levelheaded business sense of Farfrae, the social climbing and superficiality of Lucetta, the too-strict rationality of Elizabeth-Jane—all representing the new order of human attitudes—appear anemic and self-deceived in the face of Henchard’s dynamic energy.
It often seems that the nature of things is against Henchard, but the nature of things is that events occur that cannot be predicted, and that they often occur just at the time when one does not want them to. Many such unpredicted and ill-timed events accumulate to cause Henchard’s tragedy. For example, just when he decides to marry Lucetta, Susan returns; just at the time of Susan’s death, he is once more reminded of his obligation to Lucetta; just at the time when he tells Elizabeth-Jane that she is his daughter, he discovers that she is not; and just at the time when he calls on Lucetta to discuss marriage, she has already met and found a better mate in Farfrae.
Many of the events that contribute to Henchard’s own downfall are a combination of this “unholy brew” and his impulsive nature. That the weather turned bad during his planned entertainment he could not prevent, but he could have been more prepared for the rain had he not been in such a hurry to best Farfrae. The unpredictable nature of the weather at harvest time was also beyond his control, but again had he not been so intent on ruining Farfrae he might have survived. He begins to wonder if someone is roasting a waxen image of him or stirring an “unholy brew” to confound him. Moreover, the attitudes of other characters accumulate to contribute to Henchard’s downfall. Farfrae, as exacting as a machine, rejects Henchard’s fatherly love and makes few truly human responses at all. Lucetta, once dependent on Henchard, becomes so infatuated with her new wealth that she no longer needs him. At the beginning of the novel, Susan’s simple nature makes her incapable of realizing that Newsom’s purchase of her is not valid, and at the end, her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, is so coldly rational that she can cast Henchard off without possibility of reconciliation. None of these characters faces the anguish of being human as Henchard does.
The ambiguity that arises from the combination of all these forces makes it difficult to attribute Henchard’s tragedy to any one of them. His death in the end marks the inevitable disappearance of the old order, but it is also the only conclusion possible for the man who has broken the only possible existing order when a cosmic order is no longer tenable—the human order of man himself. The reader is perhaps made to feel that Henchard has suffered more than he deserved. As a representative of the old order, his fall must be lamented even as the search is carried on for a new foundation of value and order. At the death of the old values in The Mayor of Casterbridge, a new order is not available.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The form and meaning of Tess of the D’Urbervilles springs from Tess’s relation to the natural world. At the beginning of the novel she is a true child of nature who, although sensitive to painful incongruities in her experience, is confident that the natural world will provide her with a basis of value and will protect and sustain her. When nature fails her, her perplexity throws her out of the comfortable world of innocence and natural rapport. Tess then begins a journey both inward and outward in search of a stable orientation and a reintegration into a relationship with the natural world.
Tess first appears in her “natural home” in the small hamlet of Marlott, where her innocence is dramatized as she takes part in the May Day dance. There is a sensitivity in Tess that sets her apart from the other inhabitants. Shame for her father’s drunken condition makes her volunteer to take the beehives to market, and despair for the laziness of her parents makes her dreamily watch the passing landscape and ignore where she is going. When, as a result, the horse Prince is killed, Tess’s sense of duty to her family, now in economic difficulties, overcomes her pride, and she agrees to go to her aristocratic relatives for help. It is her first journey outside the little world of Marlott and her first real encounter with corruption. Alec, her cousin, is a stock figure of the sophisticated, antinatural world. Their first scene together is formalized into an archetypal image of innocence in the grasp of the corrupt.
Just as it is Tess’s natural luxuriance and innocence that attracts Alec, it is also her innocence that leads to her fall. When he takes her into the woods, strangely enough she is not afraid of him as before. She feels that she is in her natural element. She so trusts the natural world to protect her that she innocently falls asleep and is seduced by Alec. The antinatural force that began with her father’s alleged nobility works together with Tess’s own innocence and sensitivity and her naïve trust in the world to make her an outcast. When her illegitimate child dies and the church refuses it a Christian burial, Tess unequivocally denies the validity of organized religion. She probes within herself to try to find some meaning in her despair. Suddenly she becomes quite consciously aware of the abstract reality of death: “Almost at a leap Tess thus changed from simple girl to complex woman.” The facing of the idea of death without a firm hope for transcendence is the conclusion of Tess’s inward search in this second phase of her experience, when, still maintaining a will to live and enjoy, she has hopes of submerging herself into the natural world again.
The Valley of the Great Dairies where Tess goes next is the natural world magnified, distorted, thrown out of proportion. It is so lush and fertile as to become a symbolic world. As Tess enters the valley, she feels hope for a new reintegration. For the time being, she dismisses the disturbing thought of her doubt in her childhood God and is satisfied to immerse herself within the purely physical world of the farm’s lushness. She manages to ignore her moral plight until she meets the morally ambiguous Angel Clare. In contrast to Tess, Angel’s moral perplexity arises from intellectual questioning rather than from natural disillusionment. Intellectually convinced that he has lost faith, Angel rebels against the conventions of society and the church and goes to the Valley of the Great Dairies, where he believes innocence and uncontaminated purity and goodness prevail. For Angel, Tess represents the idealistic goal of natural innocence, but the natural world no more affirms this relationship than it condemned the former one. On the first night of their marriage, Tess confesses to Angel her relationship with Alec. Angel, the idealist, has desired to see a natural perfection in Tess. Doubting that perfection, he rejects her as antinatural. Angel cannot accept the reality of what nature is truly like; he is tied to a conventional orientation more than he realizes.
After Angel leaves her, Tess wanders about the countryside doing farmwork at various places 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, without teleological possibility and without inherent goodness, violation, injury, and even death are innate realities. Tess realizes that she is not guilty by the laws of such a world. After this realization she can go to the barren world of Chalk-Newton and not feel so much the incongruity of the place. With its “white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone,” Chalk-Newton represents the wasteland situation of a world without order or value. Tess can remain indifferent to it because of her new realization of its indifference to her.
Cold indifference, however, offers no escape from her moral conflict. Alec D’Urberville comes back into her life, proclaiming that he has accepted Christianity and exhorting her not to “tempt” him again. Ironically, by trying to convince him of her own realization of a world without God and by propounding Angel’s uncommitted humanism to him, she only succeeds in reconverting Alec back to his old demoniac nature and thus creates another threat to herself. When her father dies and the family loses its precarious freehold, Tess gives in to Alec’s persistent urging once more. When Angel, in the rugged South American mountains, comes to the same realization that Tess experienced on the road, he returns to find that Tess has renounced life and self completely, allowing her body to drift, “like a corpse upon the current, in a direction dissociated from the living will.” After the return of Angel, when Tess finds her last hopes dashed, she sees in Alec all the deception and meaninglessness of a world she trusted. When she kills him, she is transformed by her rebellion. Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci, she is aware of no guilt; she transcends any kind of moral judgment. She acknowledges her absolute freedom, and in that fearful moment, she is willing to accept the human penalties for such freedom.
In the last part of the novel, when Angel and Tess wander without any real hope of escape, Tess is already condemned to die. Isolated in the awareness of her own ephemerality in a valueless world, Tess vows that she is “not going to think of anything outside of now.” The final scene at Stonehenge is a triumph of symbolic realization of place; the silent, enigmatic stones, mysterious and implacable, resist any attempt at explanation. Tess, in saying that she likes to be there, accepts the indifferent universe. Lying on the altar of a heathen temple, she is the archetypal sacrifice of human rebellion against an empty world. When the carriers of the law of nature and society arrive, Tess, having rebelled against these laws and rejected them, can easily say, “I am ready.”
Tess’s real tragedy springs from her insistent hope throughout the novel to find external meaning and justification for her life. Only at the end of the novel, when she rebels by killing Alec, does she achieve true awareness. Unlike the classical tragic hero, she is not reconciled to the world through an acceptance of universal justice. Her very salvation, the only kind of salvation in Hardy’s world, lies in her denial of such a concept.
Jude the Obscure
With some significant differences, Jude the Obscure is concerned with the same problem that animates Tess of the D’Urbervilles—the absurdity and tragedy of human hopes for value in an indifferent universe. As a literary creation, it is a “process” through which Hardy tries to structure the symbolic journey of every person who searches for a foundation, a basis for meaning and value. The problem, however, is that all the symbols that represent meaning to Jude—the colleges, the church, the ethereal freedom of Sue Bridehead, and even the physical beauty of his wife ArabellA&Mdash;are illusory. By contrast, those things that have real symbolic value in the world are the forbidding, sacrosanct walls of the college complex, which Jude cannot enter; the decaying materiality of the churches that he tries to restore; the neurotic irrationality of Sue, which he fails to understand; and his own body, to which he is inextricably tied. It is precisely Jude’s “obscurity,” his loss of “at-homeness” in the world, with which the novel is concerned. He is obscure because he is without light, because he tries in every way possible to find an illumination of his relation to the world, but without success.
It is significant that the novel opens with the departure of the schoolmaster Phillotson, for to Jude, orphaned and unwanted by his aunt, the teacher has been the center of the world. His leaving marks the necessity of Jude’s finding a new center and a new hope to relieve his loneliness. The first projection of his hopes to find value is naturally toward Christminster, the destination of his teacher. In the first part of the book his dream is seen only as an indefinable glow in the distance that offers all possibilities by its very unknown nature. Although he consciously devotes himself to the Christian framework, one night after having read a classical poem, he kneels and prays to Diana, the goddess of the moon. Both of these value systems—Christian faith and Greek reason—are projected on his vision of Christminster, but both of them are temporarily forgotten when he meets Arabella, “a substantial female animal.” Later, when she tells him that she is pregnant, although it destroys all his former plans, he idealizes the marriage state, calls his hopes for Christminster “dreams about books, and degrees and impossible fellowships,” and dedicates himself to home, family, and the pedestrian values of Marygreen. His discovery that Arabella has deceived him is only the first reversal in his search for unity and value.
In the second phase of Jude’s development, the long-planned journey to Christminster is prompted by the immediacy of seeing a picture of Sue Bridehead; she becomes a concrete symbol of his vision. His first glimpse of Sue has the quality of idealistic wish fulfillment. His growing desire for her expresses a need for an “anchorage” to his thoughts. He goes to the church she attends, and this church, associated with his vision of Sue, temporarily becomes that anchorage. Sue is not, however, representative of Christian values; rather, she is the classical pagan. This dichotomy of values creates a recurring tension in Jude’s search throughout the book.
Jude’s first major disillusionment at Christminster comes when he is turned down by all five colleges to which he has applied. After this disappointment, he shifts his hopes from the reason and knowledge of the schools to the faith of the church. This religious impulse dominates Jude’s hopes in the third phase of his development. He practices the rituals of the church in the hope that he can find a meaning for himself, but Sue, who laughed at his idealistic notions of the intellectual life, tells him that the Church is not the way either. Sue, who changes in Jude’s eyes as his goals change, is always important to him as a symbol of his aspirations and ideals. When he loses her to Phillotson, he is struck even more by the “scorn of Nature for man’s finer emotions and her lack of interest in his aspirations.”
Phase four of Jude’s search is a transition section presenting the decay of the values of the past. Jude, studying theology and church ritual with a last weakening hope, is only vaguely aware of the decay and aridity around him. His need for Sue, an ambiguous mixture of desire for the ideal and the physical, begins to take on more importance for him until he decides that he is unfit “to fill the part of a propounder of accredited dogma” and burns all his theology books. Sue, a spiritual creature, cannot live with Phillotson any longer. She goes to Jude, who, having rejected everything else, is ready to project his desires for meaning entirely on an ambiguous union with her as both physical wife and Shelleyan soul mate.
The fifth part of the novel is a phase of movement as Jude and Sue wander from town to town, living as husband and wife in all respects except the sexual. Not until Arabella returns and Sue fears she will lose Jude does she give in to him, but with infinite regret. In the final phase of Jude’s development, after the birth of his children, including the mysterious child named Father Time, the family moves back to Christminster. Instead of being optimistic, Jude is merely indifferent. He recognizes himself as an outsider, a stranger to the universe of ideals and hopes of other men. He has undergone a process that has slowly stripped him of such hopes for meaning. He sees the human desire for meaning as absurd in a world that has no concern for humanity, a universe that cannot fulfill dreams of unity or meaning.
The tragedy of Father Time causes Sue to alter her belief that she can live by instinct, abjuring the laws of society. She makes an extreme shift, accepting a supreme deity against whose laws she feels she has transgressed; her self-imposed penance for her “sin” of living with Jude is to go back 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 moments of realization: The natural world becomes an inimical reflection of the character’s awareness of the absurd. After this, Jude’s reaction to the world around him is indifference: He allows himself to be seduced by Arabella again and marries her. 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.
In his relentless vision of a world stripped of transcendence, Hardy is a distinctly modern novelist. As Nathan A. Scott has said of him, “not only does he lead us back to that trauma in the nineteenth century out of which the modern existentialist imagination was born, but he also brings us forward to our own time.”