Themes of Love, Sexuality & Women in Thomas Hardy's Novel

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      Issues of love, sex and women interlinked. It is quite true to say that the spirit of an age can greatly be discovered in the way in which the question of love has been treated by its writers; and this can be best known by considering the type of woman that is presented by the writer. Not necessary that two writers of one age must have the same conception of women. Hardy, for example, has his own conception of women just as Meredith, a contemporary of Hardy, has his own. But the question of importance to a student of literature is as to how far the conceptions about women of Hardy and of Meredith, differ from those of their predecessors, Dickens and Thackeray. This will tell us what a great headway the subsequent age was making in respect of sex-morality.

      How sex-morality changes and reveals the age. Though Hardy’s view of women, it may be alleged, is not as advanced and modem as that of D.H. Lawrence, nor is he so much concerned with the psychoanalysis theory of Freud, yet he makes a decided advance from the days of early Victorians. He deliberately violates the self-imposed sex taboos of the early Victorians and consequently scoffs at their sentimental and cheap treatment of love. He has the same contempt for the Victorian wax-dolls as has Meredith, rior does he subscribe to the conventional and superficial response to sex of the preceding age. Hardy takes up the tragedy of a pure woman, though she is seduced in her sleep. Hardy clearly presents the case o “inner” purity as against mere physical “virtue”.

      Hardy’s women are truly moralists. Hardy's Tess is a moral tale in the same sense in which Madame Bovary of Flaubert and Tolstoy's Resurrection are moral tales. During the later days of Queen Victoria, the theory of determinism was very popular and Hardy, like George Eliot, makes his characters responsible for their acts, as opposed to the practice of the early Victorian novelists. He is certainly of the opinion that ‘our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds’.

      Hardy’s women are ‘live’ and charming. Hardy's women are living and real. Thomasin of the Return of the Native may have several points of resemblance with the heroines of the Waverley novels, but the heroines of Scott fail to sustain our interest, while our interest in Hardy's women never flags.

      His method is detailed and descriptive. In his presentation of women, Hardy is a conscious artist. By the use of many minute touches and by heaping outward details, he impresses the character indelibly upon our memory. He does not, here, employ the impressionistic art; on the contrary he gives a more detailed picture.

      Better than his male characters. Hardy's women are, on the whole and especially in the points of clarity and intensity of interest, superior to his male characters. The reason is that Hardy is at his best while dealing with elemental forces and women are by nature more emotional and less intellectual than males. They are often such figures as Eustacia Vye, who want ‘to be loved to madness.’ Even the change of emotion in their heart is accurately recorded and due to this, our knowledge of his heroines is thorough and exact.

      His success not with subtle but simple characters. It is often maintained that Hardy’s “greatest successes are with subtle characters.” Hardy does show his knowledge of psychology when he dissects the motives and purpose of characters. However, his greatest women characters are revealed to us not through any special insight into these characters but ‘through our realisation of the individual minor-key sweetness’ of their personality. “Hardy’s sensibility to feminine charm and his power to discriminate its distinguishing quality is the chief means by which he makes his heroines live; whether it be Fancy’s wilful, innocent coquetry, or Bathsheba’s ardent glowing smiles and tears, or Anne’s demure rural neatness, or Eustacia’s sombre gorgeousness,” as observed by David Cecil.

      Vivid presentation. In his approach, Hardy is not an intellectual; he is a poet. He, therefore, eschews psychological and intellectual complexities which distinguish one character from another. Instead of stressing the individual quality of the character by the method of psycho-analysis, as is common with Henry James, he gives us the whole impression of organic personality. The result is that in Hardy vve have types rather than individuals. There is one type of woman who is active, self-reliant and masterful like Bathsheba, Grace, Fancy; there is the other type who is noted for her weakness and self-effacement as Fanny Robin, Tess, Elizabeth Jane; there is a third type of woman who is of a romantic mould and is always tormented by passion—Eustacia, Charmond, Lucetta etc.; but all the women characters of Hardy suffer from one fault, i.e., the weakness of resolution and judgement However, the women in Hardy are not only types but they are individuals also. They are types because they are all concerned with one passion but they are individuals in their different and distinct approach towards the passion of love.

      No mere ticket-description. The simplicity of presentation does not make Hardy’s women characters so flat as to be summed up in one word or one catch-phrase. They are round characters like the characters of Jane Austen or of Meredith; we may characterise Bathsheba in one word as “skittish Bathsheba” but then we ignore the qualities of a strong mind and self-reliance which are so native to her. Hardy’s women are mixtures of weakness and strength and hence baffle any one-word definition.

      It is significant how many of Hardy’s plots turn on the revelation of a past action coming to light after being kept secret for a long time. This happens in A Pair of Blue Eyes, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. These past actions are all connected with love. Love is the prime mobile in Hardy’s stories. All the characters in the novels of Hardy are moved by this passion, and they have to pay for this. The past action comes to light, and they are ruined. So in Hardy’s novels love plays a very important part, both as an instrument of Fate and as an important motive for the characters. Once or twice he presents us with a hero moved by some other desire. Jude longs for learning. Swinthin is ruled by his passion for astronomy. But Swinthin’s story soon becomes a love-story: and before we are a third through Jude’s history, he has forgotten his intellectual ambitions and is absorbed solely in his passion for Sue.

      Indeed it is very natural that Love should dominate Hardy’s scene and it does dominate, “Love is the strongest passion known to humanity.” In Hardy’s novels, love is women’s whole existence, much in the fashion of Byron. But Hardy’s treatment of love is different from Byron and others. “Love is the Lord of the terrible aspect.” It is not the love of Beatrice that made Dante write his Divine Comedy, it is not the love of Elizabeth Barret that made Robert Browning an optimist; it is not that love which inspired Goethe to write his Sorrow, it is the love of Cleopatra for Antony, which consumes them both.

      Hardy conceived of love not as a benevolent spirit, consoling and helping man in his struggle with the inhuman forces controlling human existence, but as a manifestation of those forces which are bent upon undoing and ruining a man. It is a blind, irresistible force, seizing on human beings whether they will or not and more often bringing ruin in its train. It is a consuming passion in the novels of Hardy. It is by means of Hardy’s emotional intensity that he is able to bring home to us its power. No one has described love more impressively than Hardy; but he does not analyse its workings like Marcel Proust, or show how it manifests itself in different characters like Jane Austen. Hardy is concerned less with lovers than with love, less with the effect which passion has on human beings than with its intrinsic quality. He wishes to make us feel the actual heat and colour of its flame, to reproduce its impact on the heart. His attitude towards love is lyrical. He approached it like Shelley and Burns. I lardy feels and pictures love in a lyrical manner. Exquisitely he bounds the various notes in its scale. The peaceful, idyllic love of Fancy and Dick Dewy in Under the Greenwood Tree, the faithful, enduring, unhopeful love of Gabriel in Far From the Madding Crowd, and Eustacia’s surging passion in the Return of the Native.

      There is nothing like love at first sight in the novels of Hardy. It is a myth. He is not a Shakespeare to feel:

“He whoever loved that loved not at first sight.” He rather believes.

“Love is not so light

As straight to burn at first beholder’s sight.”

      Nevertheless, when two people destined to love, for Hardy constantly implies the prearranged nature of love, come for the first time with in the range of each other's influence, there is set up in each a more or less an unrecognized premonition in the form of a unique interest and attracting. Thus, love is an attraction first this attraction gradually turns into “love” strengthened with intimacy. Gradual interest develops in each other and, finally, it changes into love. Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd, remarks.

      “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each others’ character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the intricacies of a mass of a hard prosaic reality. This good fellowship, camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labors but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the Hoods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.” Therefore, in Hardy’s novels, love does not occur at first sight; it gradually develops and ultimately it changes into love. Secondly, in the world of Hardy, love is not as reciprocal as it is in the world of Shakespeare. It is one-sided in Hardy’s world more or less for the first time. Orlando and Rosalind do. It is generally the women in Hardy’s novels who are the first victims of Cupid. Tess, Bathsheba, Elfride Swancourt, Fancy, Eustacia, and Lucetta, are some of the women who take to wings at the first sight, although their counterparts respond after a long time.

      Love is not violently demonstrative and provokes emotional outbursts only at intervals; on the whole, the lover is quietly contented with the presence of the beloved. Indeed, Hardy definitely asserts, “Of love, it may be said, the less earthly the less demonstrative.” It is absolutely indestructible from and reaches a profundity in which all exhibition of itself is painful. Lover is patient, and can wait, living for long years, on little response or none, knowing that love for love must be the answer in the end.

      Hardy’s male characters are absorbed by love, but they do not wholly lose their identity in it, as his women do. Clym is a man who yields little allegiance to emotions. Henry Knight’s love is mathematical. Farfrae is an alloy of emotion and reason. John Loveday is a nice balance of emotion and reason. Stephen Smith, the contrasting rival of the intellectual Knight, is a type of the romantic blue-eyed youth. In Farmer Boldwood, on the other hand, we find emotions of such fiery intensity as to partake of the transcendental nature of passion. He is the only man whom love absorbs wholly, otherwise there is a balance between passion and reason in the male characters of Hardy.

      The part played by flesh in Wessex novels is not large, but it is not noble. Since Hardy has not openly described the workings of sex, he could conveniently be classed with the Victorian novelists. He does not present the sexual aspect of love openly as the modern novelists do. Meredith is concerned almost exclusively with man’s body “at its best,” whereas Hardy chooses rather to show how, at its worst-perhaps at its normal, the flesh may be a drag and a degradation. The sex plays only a very small part in the novels of Hardy. Open sex descriptions are not to be found in Hardy’s novels as in Somerset Maugham’s in Cakes and Alec.

      D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita. Jean Paul Satre in Le Mur—to mention the names of only a few modern novelists—give us long description of sex play, but Hardy does not do it. The only characters in whom the animal side of sex is to be found are Arab er ta Donna, Alec d’Urberville, and Sergeant Troy. Yet Alec improves and repents and tries to compensate. As an instance of Hardy’s treatment of the flesh, take the description of Tess seduction.

      “Everything else was blackness alike. d’Urberville stooped, and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

      Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of the Chase, in which were posed gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and around them the hopping rabbits and hares. But where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the Providence of her simple faith? Here such words as rape, seduction, and sexual intercourse, are omitted. Hardy does not breath a word about this throughout the length of the novel. He merely suggests that Tess has been raped. On the other hand, take a few lines from Lolita. You will find that each and every page is replete with such words as buttocks, thin pair of legs, breasts etc. But we do not decry the book. It has a healthy purpose in view. So, in short, Hardy, as compared with the modern novelists, is a true Victorian in matters of sex and sexual love.

      In the Victorian novel, love has been presented in different forms: first, it is presented in the form of illicit sex relations, as in David Copperfield — the story of Martha and Little Emily. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also presents this type of love. Nana of Emile Zola, a French novelist, also comes in this category. Secondly, love is presented as leading to peace of home life, as in the novels of Dickens. This two fold treatment of love does not exist in the world of Hardy. Hardy gives us, to a certain extent, that consuming passion which marks the pages of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Peace of home life is nowhere to be found in the novels of Hardy. Love is a consuming passion making life a hell. Tess is an exquisite example of a consumed personality. Love leads to perpetual unhappiness, because after marriage the life of the married people becomes very unhappy. And the lovers wish they were not married. Sue and Jude do not marry, though they had children too. In Hardy love is controlled by sinister powers, and leads to ultimate destruction of the lovers. For the most part the lovers are united, but then start their misfortunes. Love is sorrowful. Even in The Trumpet Major and Far From the Madding Crowd, when love does achieve happy fruition it is shadowed with sadness. Bobb Loveday and Anne Garland may be happy, but their happiness is won at the expense of John Loveday, the noblest of the three. Under the Greenwood Tree is the only work of Hardy in which the love-story ends in unqualified sunshine. In all other novels, love shows itself nakedly— a beautiful but merciless Cupid.

      Hardy’s world is childless. If they are born, as in Jude the Obscure, they are taken away by the powers above through Little Father Time. Hardy does not introduce children, because they absorb the love of parents in themselves. Had Eustacia been with a baby in her lap, her attitude towards Paris would have undergone a radical change: she would not have pined away for Paris. The modern novelists, like Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, also do not introduce the world of children. Dickens is the only example among the Victorians who shows children with a view to advancing happiness of home life. Hardy, thus, strikes a middle note between the Victorian and the modern ideal of life, between Dickens and Lawrence. To Hardy, love is an emotion, unlike the modern novelists who consider love as an experience. Love does not lead to perpetual happiness, because of a malignant Fate above, which controls it and uses it as an instrument of destruction of human beings.

      Comparison with Shakespeare’s women. In the end Hardy's women remind us of the women of Shakespeare in their freshness and warmth. “They are an animation like the tremulous spirit of life itself’. But they lack in the Shakespearean heights and depths. In their artistic conception alone they may be called Shakespearean. “His view of women is more French than English. It is subtle, a little cruel, not as tolerant as it seems, thoroughly a man’s point of view, and not as with Meredith, a man's and a woman’s at once. He sees all that is irresponsible for good or evil in a woman's character all that is untrustworthy in her brain and will, all that is eluding in her variability. He is her apologist, but always with a reserve of pride and judgement.”

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