Thomas Hardy Thomas Hardy World Literature Analysis

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Thomas Hardy World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Most commentators on the intellectual and artistic life of the nineteenth century are in agreement that the most important event during that period was the so-called death of God, that is, the loss of a unified ground of being, based on Christian faith. These thinkers argue that what is now referred to as the modernist temperament in art and thought actually began with the breakup of a value-ordered universe in the Romantic period. Hardy was one of the most important artists of the period who were powerfully influenced by this loss. Many critics have pointed out that the most significant influence on what has been called Hardy’s philosophy was his loss of a notion of a universe governed by a divine power. Indeed, what has often been analyzed as Hardy’s philosophy can be summed up in one of his earliest notebook entries: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” In his autobiographical notes, Hardy presents a picture of himself as a sensitive young man who attended church regularly and believed in a personal God who ruled the universe. When Hardy came to London in his early twenties and discovered such intellectual ferment as caused by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and the Essays and Reviews, he lost his faith and never recovered it.

Many other nineteenth century writers experienced a similar loss, but few felt it so profoundly as Hardy. Furthermore, whereas some nineteenth century writers and thinkers, such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, were able to make a leap of faith to an organic concept of nature knowable by the human imagination, Hardy felt the loss of God as a loss with no consequent gain. As one of his most famous poems, “The Darkling Thrush,” makes clear, Hardy was unable to ascertain any unity of meaning in the world outside him. He was more like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who, having experienced the nightmarish chaos of a world without meaning or value, can never really believe in a unified and meaningful world again, but must spend the rest of his life telling and retelling his one story of loss and resultant despair. An understanding of any of Hardy’s novels and poems must begin with this basic assumption.

Although Hardy refused to give in to any sense of an external value, he was not content to remain in such an isolated state but was continually trying to find some basis for a ground of being other than that of transcendence. Hardy’s ultimate intellectual and creative challenge to this loss was what might now be called humanistic existentialism. For Hardy, as it was later for such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, if any value was to be found in the world for humankind, it lay in not giving in to hope for transcendence but facing the emptiness in the universe—what Hardy called “facing the worst”—and, like the Ancient Mariner, playing this back over and over again in all of his works. Consequently, Hardy’s art can be seen as a series of variations in form on this one barren theme of loss.

Hardy’s most basic artistic and technical problem in dealing with his loss of God was the incompatibility of the lack of a unified ground of being with the novel form he felt compelled to develop, for the novel as a form depends on some unified social or mythic structure to hold it together. Hardy thus searched for older forms to imitate to establish a structure for his novels, even though the grafting of his humanistic existential view onto old forms resulted in grotesque distortions. Hardy imitated the detective form and the social comedy form when he was concerned merely with publishing a popular novel, but when he wanted to write a serious work of fiction, he turned to classical Greek and Elizabethan genres, such as the pastoral and the tragedy.

This very choice, however, raised a second artistic problem for Hardy in his search for an adequate literary form. Whereas the classical writers saw human life...

(The entire section is 4,137 words.)