Thomas Hardy as A Tragic Artist

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The idea of Tragedy before Hardy

      It had been a convention, before Hardy, in English tragedy that hero must commit some deed for which he suffers: This deed may be due to an-error of judgment as it is in King Lear or Julius Caesar or it may be of a criminal nature as in the case of Macbeth. But Hardy has his own conception of tragedy. He is an innovator of a new form of tragedy. The tragedy of Tess begins in a crime and ends in a crime. Alec pays the penalty for his misdeeds. But he is only a subordinate character. The central figure of the novel, the heroine, Tess suffers the most and still she has committed no crime. She is free from any wrong doing. She is essentially a pure woman and still she is a poor wounded name! She is more sinned against than sinning. So we find Hardy's conception of tragedy radically different from the old conception of tragedy.

      The Tragedy in Hardy's Novels occurs mainly on account of the circumstances beyond the control of the hero or heroine. Tess's 'will to enjoy' is nothing extravagant, there is no hardihood in it which the relentless assimilating forces of worldly destiny might seize on and punish for its badness. But no-the President of the Immortals is against her; circumstances are beyond her control. She must fall. She must suffer.

His Conception of Tragedy: An Offshoot of His View of Life

      "He hates life but he loves the people who live it." He hates life because he perceives it in the grip of cruel, blind and oppressive Unknown-Will and he loves human beings as they are essentially moral, good, brave, bold and heroic. All his novels become moral dramas in which the conflict of wills, impelled by passions, predominate. And in all his novels chance in its purely malevolent aspect is an important though invisible character. It exercises its remote control over the lives of his characters and every careless and irresponsible action brings, subsequently, a tragic harvest of pain, suffering and bitterness. Nothing can be avoided. And it is this insistent human affairs that creates the peculiar tragic atmosphere of hopelessness that engulfs his heroes. According to His Conception, Tragedy is a state of things which converts some natural aim or desire (of winning happiness) into a catastrophe. This tragedy in Hardy's novels, is always brought about by that blind and malicious Immanent Will overhead, who thinks "human life is a plaything."

      Greek classics profoundly influenced his, imagination from adolescence onward. He is after Homer, Sophocles and Euripides who confess "Life is a tragedy, but despite resemblances of sentiment. Hardy can't lay claim to the classical broad-mindedness and vision. The great Hellenic poets and historians were indeed impressed by the briefness of individual lives and the insecurity of mortal happiness, but they were judging heroes who played for their grand stakes in life. The mighty figures in Homer, Herodotus, Virgil, are not actuated by a vague instinct for joy, like the humble folk of Wessex. These legendary heroes just miss the happiness that might have been theirs; generally, they invite misfortune through ignorance, inadvertence, or vanity; and yet the onlooker's pity is tempered with admiration. Great deeds dispose the reader to think greatly. One feels that even their errors proceed from a certainly guarded magnanimity and that they would have suffered less if they had been smaller. The disaster brings to the surface what Sophocles called reverence and Euripides' high courage. It is even more noteworthy that their downfall culminates in enlightenment. The classical humanists recognized that human disasters were fated, sometimes contrived, by an inhuman power, and could not be averted. "But at the same time, they convinced themselves that this unfriendly providence was compact of wisdom and justice."

      Now Hardy does not realize this thing. So his tragedies, are not Sophoclean. They lack the Athenian calmness and enlightenment. Hardy knew too much. He has outgrown the old Greek anti-pessimism. He has chosen the classics for his guide and then refused to put their morality into practice and so lost their virtue. He no longer believes that mortals through suffering learn wisdom and gain anything at all. So he chooses those heroes and heroines who lead selfconscious and insulated lives. He chooses those who run after joy and suffer, lie does not justify the ways of God. Compelled by the demands of his art, by the background and the need of a progressive story, to make his stories more tragic than they need be, to pick-nut a tortuous and bloodstained pattern in the carpet of life, he employed the contrivance of malevolent chance again and again. It spoiled the superb beauty of his tragedies. However, his overcharged pessimism appealed to the two tendencies of the time:

(i). the disillusionment of the intellectuals, and

(ii). the sentimentality of the real or pseudo-humanists' cult of melancholy is the note of refinement.

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 preordained, and that men try in vain to seek happiness and glory. Hardy is of the opinion 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 a number of 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 of "realism, and nothing but realism." Hardy preaches no other-worldly compensation and scarcely believed, as Browning does, that the broken arcs will be united in heaven's perfect round. He himself had seen many trials and tribulation 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 which 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 himself 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 brain, Hardy was inordinately feeble in the physique. Even in his adolescent days, he used to sit 'Like patience on a monument' and 'often smiling 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 ineffaceable 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 with in Two on a Tower. The whole story of Eustacia Vye, is an irony of circumstance. Behind these 'chance-happenings' of the cross-casualities', as Hardy prefers to call them, there seems to be some sinister power which mocks at the fruitless attempts of these human weaklings. According to his own interpretation, abandoned by God, treated with scorn by nature, man lies helplessly at the mercy of those 'purblind doomsters', accidents, chance and time, from which he 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 powers shower their malignity upon mankind and plan everything maliciously. Lovers 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 of their not having taken his permission to bring him on the earth is really 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, are we to the Gods—
They kill us for their sport."

      The concluding note in Tess of the d'Urbervilles is also peculiarly Hardian: "Justice was done and the President of the Immortals (an Aesehylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess." Seeing all this, Hardy thinks it is 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 as 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 upto The Mayor of Casterbridge the gloom has been unnecessarily intensified with the occlusion 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 shifting stand taken against a society and a code of convention seriously infecting human happiness. There is a suggestion that human endeavors can rectify and can do away with a system which has outlived its cutlet.

Hardy's View 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 any intention whatever." His novels, according to his own definition, are "a series of fugitive impressions and do not aim at a consistent philosophy."

Depiction of Tragic Side of Life

      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 prism of different spectacle... 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 concept of life is not so somber as to exclude all possibilities of happiness. The very existence of happiness even though as an episode inspires a 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.

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 nor can they influence their own 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 external environments such as nature (Prime Cause, Cross-casualities, Environment etc.) and society and modem 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 novel 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 change-happenings. "Accident" 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 illusion. But at the same time he always suggests that we must make contribution to the happiness of our children and of 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 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 which is in conformity with the changing values of life by a thorough study of evolutionary science and a complete knowledge of the prevailing defects. If the "primal cause" is destitute of all morality then Hardy would have human endeavor being directed to force a morality upon it, but that is still a distant vision.

      For the present, the only thing there which 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 had to be accomplished by man's labor. For this, one must not expect any deliverance from above. The concluding note in 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 himself insists upon being called by the word borrowed from Aeschylus, "an evolutionary a meliorist."

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