Thomas Hardy: Last of the Victorian & First of the Modernists

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      English novel, before the time of Meredith and Hardy, was peculiarly conventional in its contents as well as in method. Meredith, for the first time, consciously tried to initiate some changes in the structure of the novel. With the publication of The Shaving of the Shagpot in the year 1857, it is said, the new form of the novel was evolved. The form is new in the sense that here we have no stock characters or such improbable situations as abound in the novels of Dickens. Besides, Meredith is considered the master of plot technique, although surprisingly enough, in his novel, the plots are inordinately loose. The plots of his novels are not well connected but there is merely a "quick succession" of scenes that feed the imagination of the reader. But although Meredith invented a realistic form, he is typically Victorian in the mode of this thinking. His ideas are such commonplace ideas as an average mid-Victorian 'Romfrey' would willingly cherish. The credit of effecting a revolution in the field of ideas was reserved for Hardy. The novel before it could be completely modernized had to look for the publication of the story of a new type of pure woman (Tess) or a new type of man of character (Henchard). Hardy contributes many new things to the English novel. He is the first and greatest 'regional novelist. Again suggests for the first time the idea of 'epical-tragical' in connection with the novel. Whoever reads Hardy, will find in him a curious mixture of diagonally opposed talents. He is essentially a poet and yet none can challenge his realistic outlook. He was a true representative of his times, who in part accepted the traditional mode of thinking and in part revolted against the tyranny of worn-out conceptions.

      His conventionality in plot and characterization. The situations in his novels are full of intrigues and hang upon the ironical decision of a cruel and reckless fate. The happiness of the people depends upon the whims of chance. The endings in his novels such as in The Return of the Native or The Woodlanders, mark no distance traveled from the ancient method of writing. Of course, his heroines may not be such wax-dolls or automation as we find in Dickens, but at the same time, they are not as fully developed as Clara Middleton (Egoist: Meredith) or Anna Karenina. Above all, it is in the choice of the structure of his novels, that he essentially belongs to the past.

      Hardy, Revolutionary in thought: Hardy may perhaps fail to have the modernists' conception of the plot but in his thoughts, he is true of our times. Though by nature emotional, he always followed the dictates of his intellect; and though he lived in and wrote of a place which was Far From The Madding Crowd, he showed how easily he was being affected by new theories of scientific progress which were destructive of the Biblical faith. He takes a situation but does not deal with it as a poet or as an entertainer as the early Victorians used to do. He rather grapples with the situation before him and then hints at the conclusion. As an empirical, he truly states that the sum-total of the misery in life is more than the sum-total of happiness.

      Hardy and Naturalistic mode. Hardy can be classed with those writers of the modern age who pride themselves on being the followers of Ibsen (drama) and Zola (fiction). One of the many effects that the growing scientific knowledge had upon fiction, was the emergence of the "Experimental Novel", which was for the first time evolved by Zola in his Les Rougon-Macquart series. These experimental writers or 'naturalists' as they are called, discarded the invention method' of an earlier date for the accuracy of a press-reporter. These writers are inimical to the theory of "Free Will" and they do not make an individual responsible for his acts. They aim at the reproduction of "a slice of life". Men, as they see them, are not the authors of their miseries and sorrows and hence they are helpless in warding them off. There are other manifold causes which govern our will and doing. The influence of heredity and of the environment goes a long way in determining the behavior and character of a man. Again, these writers are hostile to everything that is unscientific and illogical and is merely imaginative or inventive. They have implicit faith indeterminism. Hence they make no useless effort of preaching and reforming the society. They give a merely naked description of it.

      One can see the partial application of the method, for the first time in English writers, like George Eliot and others; but the method is fully developed in the novels of Hardy. Hardy is the best exponent of this naturalism or philosophical realism. He might have exaggerated a little here or there in Jude the Obscure, but on the whole, his study of the Wessex life is deep and thorough; and he willingly eschews the members of the upper-class society, whose characters cannot easily be screened. Further his characters lose their individuality when they are out of their local and natural surroundings, but within it, they never fail. And again upon the heads of these Tests and Henchard's, the sins of their fathers, and ancestors are continually visited.

      Treatment of sex. Hardy's treatment of sex shows his modernity. He deliberately breaks with the sex taboos of the earlier Victorians and seriously reflects over the problems of love and sex and the institutions of marriage. He already anticipates, though unconsciously, the sex theories of Freud and the psychoanalytical method, when he considers sex as a question not outside of life but as a source of achieving the principle of life.

      Conclusion. Thus in the form and construction of his novels, Hardy is a traditionalist but in his outlook and conception, he is truly modern. With Hardy, begins the modern novel in its complete form; for while Meredith experimented upon and gave a new form of the novel, Hardy gave to the subsequent age a set of new ideas and questions, which inspired a host of writers and story-tellers.

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