Humour in Thomas Hardy's Novel

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Unexpected Quality

      Humour is not the quality that one might expect to find in Hardy, so grand and so gloomy as he is. But it is there all right. Nor is it incongruous with the rest of his achievements.

Rustic Humour

      Almost all the humor in the Wessex novels that is worth preserving is rustic humor—caught up with joy from the lips of the villagers themselves, redundancies removed, the form perfected, but otherwise the pure unadulterated essence of the nineteenth-century rustic humor. It is rustic; it is elemental; it is grotesque; it is Gothic; it is traditional.

      The primary aim of this provision of humor is to make us laugh. The mood which inspires them is the mood of simple, genial enjoyment That is why Hardy's novels lack satiric, caustic, bitter humor. He does not poke fun at the faults, follies and foibles of his characters. He is too much of a realist to take pleasure in caricature; too little of the moralist to make effective use of satire. But one thing one should bear in mind save when dealing with his rustic characters, Hardy's humor usually takes the form of irony.

      Now, the main themes, on which Hardy creates humor are the themes of most country humor—the naive credibility of yokels and of crusted old eccentrics. We are made to laugh at the immemorial butts of village life garrulous, reminiscent old grandfathers, henpecked husbands, ludicrous timid simpletons, and the incongruity between the facts of life and the countrymen's ignorant comment on them. His are the jokes and anecdotes that enliven the evenings in cottages and village inns. Moreover, Hardy's sense of the irony of human destiny enables him to get a good deal of hearty fun out of the subject of "coffins and funerals".

      One may note, Hardy's mode of conveying this humor is leisurely i.e., Elizabethan and it is adorned with a flourish of whimsical fancy.

      Another distinctive quality of Hardy's humor is that it is verbal humor, dependent for its effect upon the particular words he uses. That imaginative strain that was intrinsic to his imaginative process gives him a delight in speech, so that his humor has a literary quality. As a rule, Hardy is content to observe and record, without probably, more than bowdlerizing touch here and there; but sometimes the grotesqueries of these rustic folk suggest in their presentment a little dressing up by the literary artist.

Importance of Humour in His Grim Tragedies

      Had there been no humor, his tragedies would have been terribly grim and grave, much more gloomy than they are now. His sunny humor dispels a bit of that all-pervading gloom.

      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 humor in Hardy. "Hardy was not a humorist in any proper sense. He was quick to see the humor 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 humor we find in Hardy's novels is not of a genial quality.

Grotesque Humour

      Though Hardy is lacking in humor, he is everywhere quick to mark the absurd and the grotesque. The essential nature of his humor 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 humor 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 humor 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 humor 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 humor 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 whimsical fancy. Like the grave-diggers of Helmet; most of the characters in Hardy's novels create a grim humor 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 of science in his day, yet the poet in him never died and this poetic strain composed the imaginative vision of the author. Hardy's humor is partly intellectual, but it is not confined merely to situations. It is poetic and has a literary flavor. 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 fast or not at all."

Satirical Touches

      The poetic strain in his nature makes his outlook more and more subjective, and humor 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 humorous flavored 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 faults and foibles 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 importance of man while at war with these higher powers. This is the grim of life which Hardy presents.

Ghastly Humour

      This humor which is full of ironies has little place for grace and finish; on the contrary, the humor 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 humorous throughout ironic, except of course, when he is dealing with his rustic folk. He, unlike Dickens, does not exaggerate a tiling 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 civilization 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 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 humor: "Done because we are so many."

Three Types of Humour in Hardy

      H.C. Duffin classifies Hardy's humor 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-humourist 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 humor 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 humor.

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