Thomas Hardy's Philosophy: Fate and Tragic Sense of Life

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      Attitude to life: belief in Fate. A cursory perusal of Hardy's output will give us the impression that the novelist's attitude towards life is of "unquestioned acceptance". Everything, every action, even every will and desire of ours is pre-ordained, and that men try in vain to seek happiness and glory. Hardy believes that we should never defy the "First Cause and humbly accept whatever comes. However, this attitude of "unquestioned acceptance", is equally an attitude of "dogged defiance. In novel after novel, (except of course his epic The Dynasts, where even such titanic figures as that of Napoleon and others are reduced to shadowy nothingness) he creates several characters, who throw the gauntlet against the so-called "Purblind doomsters".

      Hardy's attitude, in reality, is neither an attitude of calm resignation nor that of dogged persistence. For want of a better phrase, this attitude may perhaps be best defined as "realism, and nothing but realism. Hardy preaches no other-worldly compensation and scarcely believes, as Browning does, that the broken arcs will be united in heaven's perfect round. He has seen many trials and tribulations of life-true lovers being estranged, true aspiration meeting frustration, the never-happening of the desired, and the ever-happening of the unexpected and the undesired. He did not see anywhere "Nature's holy plan"; on the contrary, nature, to him, is red in "tooth and claw". He felt that God is not in heaven and all's not right with the world. Had it not been so, human beings might have attained a bright and sunny life.

      Charge of pessimism: Hardy's concept of the role of Chance. Painter of the darker side of life as he was, it is no wonder if people gave him the appellative of a "pessimist." The opinion is both right and wrong. Sometimes, Hardy does vehemently oppose a system that runs throughout this world that he gives the singular impression of being turned into a pessimist.

      Hardy calls a novel essentially 'an impression' and he makes no pretensions to philosophy. But if one reads his novels one after the other, one is bound to find a series of consistent thoughts, which systematically arranged will form his philosophy of life, and the philosophy so formed, will essentially be pessimistic. Temperamentally, Hardy has a leaning towards the somber. "To have a complete picture of life," Hardy thinks, "it is necessary to have a full view at the worst." Though developed in the brain, Hardy was inordinately feeble in physic. Even in his adolescent days, he used to sit 'Like Patience' on a monument and often smile at grief. He was easily moved to tears. He used to relish the full flavor of a joke if it was profane or sardonic in tone. In his early youth, he saw two men hanged from a tree which made an uneffaceable mark upon his plastic brain. He, it is said, never missed a funeral though he rarely attended a marriage party. All these events coupled with a want of health tended to make his outlook on life somber.

      When he looked at this universe, he was baffled not to find any 'Causa de proposal. He saw plainly that in our day-to-day life we desire and expect something which, in the long run, proves merely an illusion. Everywhere in his novels, there is the irony of circumstances, for instance, the double pledging under the tree (A Pair of Blue Eyes) or the slipping away of Tess's letter under the carpet. A fine irony which even a noted ironist like Anatole France would fail to invent, may be met within Two on a Tower. The whole story of Eustacia Vye is an irony of circumstance. Behind these 'chance-happenings' or the 'cross-casualties, as Hardy prefers to call them, there seems to be some sinister power that mocks at the fruitless attempts of these human weaklings. According to his interpretation, abandoned by God, treated with scorn by nature, a man lies helplessly at the mercy of those purblind doomsters', accidents, chance, and time, from which he has had to endure injury and insult from the cradle to the grave. This fate is always wrathful:and, raising its finger at the man, says "Since thou art born, thou shalt suffer".

      Concept of First Cause and Immanent Will: seemingly indifferent. The whole system is set at naught by the mischievous maneuvers of that Supreme Power which delights in inflicting pain upon others. These higher power shower their malignity upon mankind and plan everything maliciously. Loves are made only to be crossed. Children are born where they are not wanted and when the environment is antagonistic to their bringing up. Father Time's remark and his anger towards his parents for their not having taken his permission to bring him on the earth is the most sardonic. Hardy ascribes the whole tragedy of humanity to some "Unsympathetic First Cause.? In his earlier novels, this Supreme Power is exhibited as essentially evil though in his later works he suggests that it is rather blind and indifferent. According to him "Providence is nothing if not coquettish, which brings rains when they are not needed and never a drop of water when it is highly urgent." It even takes a malicious delight in killing us without cause. Hardy quotes Shakespeare with advantage:

As flies to wanton boys, so are we
To the Gods; they kill us for their sport.

      The concluding note in Tess of the D'Urbervilles is also peculiarly Hadrian: "Justice was done and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess." Seeing all this, Hardy thinks it necessary to prepare The Funeral of God. But it is not here but rather in his epic The Dynasts that one can find the clearest exposition of Hardy's philosophy. The "Immanent Will", according to Hardy, is not cruel so much It is indifferent. It is merely blind and purposeless. Here it must be noticed that Hardy's philosophy has been dynamic rather than static. It has been improving and becoming healthier. In his earlier novels up to The Mayor of Casterbridge the gloom has been unnecessarily intensified with the exclusion of a single ray of hope but in his last novels - Tess and Jude, there are possibilities of happiness. Here is no blind impugning of God and Fate but a fighting stand taken against a society and a code of conventions seriously infecting human happiness. There is a suggestion that human endeavors can rectify and can do away with a system that has outlived its utility.

      Hardy's Philosophy is tragic rather than pessimistic. Hardy is not an out-and-out pessimist though he sometimes gives an impression of becoming so. A writer does not become a pessimist for the simple reason that he is not an optimist. In fact, Hardy is too great and original a writer to be tied down by any formula. He maintains again and again that he is not a philosopher. To Hardy "a novel is an impression, not an argument. A tale-teller writes down how the things of the world strike him without intentions whatever. His novels, according to his own definitions, are "a series of fugitive impressions and no aim at a consistent philosophy.

      Hardy is primarily an artist and as an artist, he depicts the tragic side of life. He has stated his position very clearly: "Different natures find their tongues in the presence of different spectacles that to whichever of these aspects of life a writer's instinct of expression the more readily responds, to that he should allow it to respond." In other words, Hardy's temperament has conditioned his tragic outlook on life. As an empiricist, he maintains that happiness is merely an episode in the general drama of pain."

      But Hardy's conception of life is not so somber as to exclude all possibilities of happiness. The very existence of happiness even though as an episode inspires hope in the human bosom. Besides, the lower world in Hardy or the world of rustic characters is joyful and content. Only characters with potential greatness, who strive to rise above a given situation, suffer. But the impression left by this suffering is not one of negation - a sign of pessimism but one affirmation of human nobility - the sign of a tragic sense of life. "Tess was not crushed into anything lower by the cruelty of life that bore down so leadenly upon her but against its pressure raised herself into something of infinite nobility", as Duffin says.

      The interplay of Character and Destiny or Fate in Hardy's novels. In the tragedies of Shakespeare "character is Destiny" but in the tragedies of Hardy "Destiny is character". His characters are not the architects of their fortune and will, nor can they influence their actions. For them, everything is determined. But then they have their tragic faults too just as the tragic characters of Shakespeare. Henchard is impulsive, Jude is ambitious. Tess is too innocent. Eustacia wants "to be loved to madness". Jude's flaw is an internal evil symbolized by instincts and emotions; chiefly (a) sex-desire which is as blind a desire as the "will to live" and (b) ambition. These internal evils are greatly aggravated by the external environments such as Nature (Prime Cause, Cross-casualties, Environment, etc.) and society and modern scientific progress; and these things appear positively as villains in the novels of Hardy. But there is one essentially great difference between the tragedies of Hardy and those of Shakespeare. "Pity" is aroused by both the writers; but whereas Shakespeare arouses 'awe' and 'healthy terror, the terror aroused in Hardy's novels very often degenerates into melodrama. In Shakespeare, the flaw arises mainly from the romantic mold of the hero. It is in his power to curb it, but, constituted as he is, he does not like to be otherwise; not so with Hardy-with whose characters there is the question of 'compulsion' and not of 'liking'. Environment and heredity compel a Hardy character to follow a particular course of action. The father of Eustacia Vye was a musician and her grandfather was a navy man. She takes the refinement and the adventurousness of both and consequently wants to be loved to madness in Paris. But factors of environment and heredity are, in turn, helpless in the hands of some Supreme Power. The result is that the denouement depends upon the ironical decision of some cruel 'chance'. The plots of all his stories depend on such chance-happenings. "Accidents" according to Hardy, "are common enough in fact", though perhaps not in fiction. But if a tragedy is made completely dependent upon them, the universal impression of waste is so strong upon us that we grow indignant upon this whole scheme.

      Question of morality: But then Hardy does not leave his readers merely on a note of despondency. Time and again he emphasizes the fact that we are in the grip of the "Immanent Will" and therefore it is not in our power either to improve or to deteriorate as is the case with Henchard. The only way, he points out, is a lesson and application of disinterestedness and to cherish no false illusions. But at the same time, he always suggests that we must make a contribution to the happiness of our children and the future generation. For this, we try to change and to remold our instincts with the help of an intelligent grasp of the existing defects. An attitude of indifference and irresponsibility is often the cause of the tragedy. "Tragedy", says Hardy, "should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions by the reason of the character taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passion, prejudices and ambitions."

      If human beings desire amelioration, the only way to do so is to chalk out a code of morality that conforms with the changing values of life by a thorough study of evolutionary science and complete knowledge of the prevailing defects. If the "Primal Cause" is destitute of morality then Hardy would have human endeavor being directed to force morality upon it. But that is still a distant vision.

      For the present, the only thing these human beings can do to escape the wrath of the Supreme Power is a proper adjustment of their lives and instincts to the existing conditions (environment). That is the only way to make limited opportunities endurable, and this has to be accomplished by man's labor. For this, one must not expect any deliverance from above. The Concluding note is The Dynasts also is equally inspiring; for while it does not give any hope it at least excludes despair. If everything depends upon human toil, then, it must be said, that Hardy, if he is a pessimist, is a healthy and optimistic pessimist and thus he is as he insists upon being called by the word borrowed from Aeschylus, "an evolutionary a meliorist."

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