Use of Thomas Hardy's Humour in his Novels

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      Place of humour in Hardy’s novels. The sum and substance of Hardy’s conception is serious and tragic; such a view of life necessarily seems to exclude all consideration of gaiety and mirthfulness. Critics like Duffin altogether deny the existence of humour in Hardy. “Hardy was not a humorist in any proper sense. He was quick to see the humour of things, but he was not humorously built and again he was a Teutonic rather than a Celtic in his temper.” Though we may not agree with such an extreme view yet it must be admitted that the humour we find in Hardy’s novels is not of a genial quality.

      Grotesque humour. Though Hardy is lacking in humour, he is everywhere quick to mark the absurd and the grotesque. The essential nature of his humour is rustic. The rustic characters are not the victims of the irony of fate and are, therefore, the happiest creations of Hardy. They are always in a jolly or buoyant mood, and cheer up the reader by their rustic speeches and tones. Hence this humour has been described by various adjectives such as rustic, elemental, grotesque, gothic, traditional, etc. Here we are suddenly reminded of the same method which George Eliot had employed in her novels, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede. The examples of such humour for instance are the wonderful chapters abounding in dialogues and characterization of Oak and Weatherbury in the Malta House (Far From the Madding Crowd) or the instance of the rustic philosophy of greed and mother wit noted by Mrs. Cuxsom after the death of Mrs. Henchard. Such examples of pure mirthfulness can be gathered from all the other novels of Hardy as well.

      Simplistic philosophy excites laughter. Yet occasionally there are glimpses of a momentary flash of humour in Hardy which are as deep as the rustic laughter divorced from its broadness and superficiality. Again there are passages of merely humorous description whereby a trivial action is described or the purpose of some passing act is guessed at by the help of either negation or exaggeration, as the dialogue in Far From the Madding Crowd, “Shepherds would like to hear the pedigree of your life, father, would not you shepherds”? “Ay, that I should”, said Gabriel, with the heartiness of a man who had longed to hear it for several months.

      Macabre humour. When Hardy sees life's little ironies besides the ironies of fate and chance, he indulges in grim laughter. Here it may be said, as Lord David Cecil says, that this humour and the mode of conveying it is Elizabethan. It is pregnant with the Elizabethan fondness for the macabre and it is adorned with a flourish of whimsicial fancy. Like the grave-diggers of Hamlet most of the characters in Hardys' novels create a grim humour out of their comment upon funerals and coffins: “What a weight you will be, my lord for our arms to lower under the aisle of Endelston church some day.”

      Literary touch. Though Hardy was deeply influenced by the progress bf science in his day, yet the poet in him never died and this poetic strain composes the imaginative vision of the author. Hardy's humour is partly intellectual, but it is not confined merely to situations. It is poetic and has a literary flavour. Sometimes it is verbal and arises from the quaint tones of the characters. Again it arises out of the way of description; as the description of Gabriel Oak's watch. “It was older than his grandfather .... went either too fest or not at all.”

      Satirical touches. The poetic strain in his nature makes his outlook more and more subjective, and humour is by definition impersonal while satire is personal. Though Hardy had the power of detachment yet he is at his best in his ironical mode. Often his humour is flavoured with bitterness. In his later novels specially, Hardy speaks of a brooding spirit (sometimes called the ‘President of the Immortals’) which is keen at finding feults and fobiles of life. These faults being incurable give him occasion for ironic or satiric laughter. But it makes him all the more humanistic for he realizes the impotency of man while at war with these higher powers. This is the grim irony of life which Hardy presents.

      Ghastly humour. This humour which is full of ironies has little place for grace and finish; on the contrary the humour of Hardy is ghastly and hideous. However his satire is not as sharp as that of Jonathan Swift or of Samuel Butler. He feels too much the burden of humanity upon himself and he feels the pity of things and beings. Therefore his satire and irony mingle with tears.

      Ironical humour. Hardy’s humour is throughout ironic, except of course, when he is dealing with his rustic flow. He, unlike Dickens, does not exaggerate a thing to the point of ludicrousness, but takes the privilege of a scientist and realist to make it more accurate and more poignant. In the later novels he seems to inveigh the whole of human society and human civilisation as is obvious from Jude the Obscure but in his earlier novels he is purely and outright a fatalist. The whims and lopsidedness of characters do not interest him as much as the ironies of circumstances—for example the double pledging under the trees in A Pair of Blue- Eyes. His irony is pointed and well-devised and the “Power behind things wears always a mocking smile to Hardy.” He finds that the higher powers which control the destinies of a Tess or a Jude are playing hide and seek with human fate and their attitude towards us is “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to Gods, They kill us for their sport.” And occasions like these confer opportunities on Hardy for a grim smile over the failure and wrongs of men which they commit out of sheer helplessness. There are moments when his irony and satire lose humour and are purely devastating. The death of Jude Fawley or that of Henchard or the scene of the baptism of Tess's dying child or the death of Sue's children are examples of this kind. But in the death scene of Sue's children the horror culminates in a touch of humour: “Done because we are so many.”

      Three types of humour in Hardy. H.C. Duffin classifies Hardy's humour into three categories according to the range of people. First the thorough - going humorist like Shakespeare or Carlyle. The opposite of this is the non-humorist as we find in Emily Bronte and others. Hardy belongs to a third category by which he takes a little portion of life seriously and laughs boisterously at the rest. This type of humour at its best is to be found in novelists like Dickens and Thackeray and Meredith whose sense of ridiculous meets with general approval. Hardy did believe in the saying of Carlyle that “Humour is a sympathy with the seamy side of things”, and in this respect Hardy is no insignificant rival of Dickens and Meredith in his employment of the faculty of humour.

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