Art of Characterization in Thomas Hardy's Novel

Also Read


      Hardy's mastery in the art of characterization is seldom questioned. Once we open the door of memory and a large train of his great characters enters in. Not only great male characters i.e., Jude Fawley, Gabriel Oak, Angel Clare, Michael Henchard, Henry Knight, Clym Yeobright, Giles Winterborne, Farfrae, Tillotson, Troy, Alec d'Urberville, Jorelyn Pierston, but also great female characters i.e., Tess, Sue, Bathsheba, Elizabeth Jane, Elfride, Eustacia, Ethelberta, Vivietta, Grace, Marty...come sweeping by and inhabit our mind and heart.

      In Hardy the most alive of the men are the creatures of the intellect and the most alive of the women are the creatures of passion.

His Male Protagonists

      Let us first consider his chief protagonists among the male category and try to find out what the case is. Jude is a man in whom Passion is comparatively unimportant. His mind retains its level throughout; there are no storms and not subsiding: and this is a mark of reasonable nature. In fact he is a creature of Intellect. Passing over to Gabriel Oak we find him also of the same category. He is never overpowered by his love for Bathsheba. His reason is his guide always. And, then, Angel Clare though once reason fails him, it can't be questioned that he is an intellectual being. By his reason he leaves his dogmatic paternal religion. His serious intellectual questions shake the faith of Tess and through her that of Alec. Moreover, he is never overpowered by his emotions and passions. Again, Clym Yeobright is a man who has little allegiance to emotions. His general comprehension of truth is obtained rather through the medium of reason than through that of Passion. His plan of life is closely considered and thought out from a nobly rational point of view. It is reason that brings him from Paris, formulates his didactic projects, gives him endurance under misfortune and plays a considerable part, though a part shared by emotion, in his quarrel and attempted reconciliation with Eustacia. Farfrae is an alloy of reason and emotion. Again, in John Lovedale we see a nice balance of reason and emotion.

      So we see most of the male protagonists and, certainly not all, are Creatures of intellect. But one remarkable fact is, that he avoids indulgence in intellectual complexities that delight some novelists. His best characters are not subtle and complex. Subtle characters, it is true, he does essay at times, and he is too fine a psychologist to fail entirely in portraying them, but they are certainly inferior to his simple and more primal types.

      Now let us consider his female characters. Most alive of them are the Creatures of Passion. The most alive of the women of Hardy are Tess; Sue, Eustacia, Batlisheba and Elizabeth Jane. All of these love their lovers passionately "Passion (an ambiguous term, but no other connotes the necessary intensity) is used with a spiritual significance, denoting 'elements in the higher nature of man' (to misquote Jowett), and covering Love, Religion, and Poetry—all three words being intended in a mystical sense." (Duffin). Now, we see Tess, Sue, Eustacia, Bathsheba and Elizabeth Jane love their lovers with intensity, without any reason and their love tends to attain spiritual heights.

His Female Protagonists

      Though it can not be said of him that "he had no heroes, only heroines" (as it can be said in case of Shakespeare and Scott) or even that his women—put the men in the shade yet we must admit that admirable as many of his male characters are, they yield both in clarity and intensity of interest to his women. These women stamp themselves on our memories in those heightened moments when their fascination, putting forward its full power compels the hearts of men. Really, Hardy is almost a specialist in women. We see them from the lovers' angle: they are real. It is only one aspect. But since Hardy's stories are love-stories, it is enough to make them convincing.

His Presentation: Unlike Photographers

      When Hardy describes men or women, he does it not like a photographer, not even like the general run of portrait-painters but like a transcendental phrenologist. That is why his characters are no portraits but living beings. And, then, these living beings are not only living beings but human beings as well. They are neither angels nor devils. They belong to earth, they are earthly. They are gems but 'flawed gems' not pure gems. There are villains but not unredeemed villains. He simply can't create odious people. Odiousness implies meanness; and mean people neither feel deeply nor are aware of any issues larger than those involved in the gratification of their own selfish desires. And he can only draw at full-length people whose nature is of sufficient fine quality to make them realize the greatness of the issues in which they are involved. If Hardy does try to draw odious persons, he is a dreadful failure. Simply he can't get into the hearts of such persons and see how life seems to them. Not all of his successful creations are virtuous - Henchard and Eustacia, to name no others, commit sins in the grand manner. But the grand manner is the expression of an overmastering passion, not the calculated consequence of selfish lust. Moreover, they know they are doing wrong—they are torn with conscience. We do not dislike them.

      In short, Hardy's characters belong to earth. They are universal characters as Nell i.e., they are neither realistic only, nor types. Like a photographer, with an eye of camera, he does not present only an outside view of his creations except in the portrayal of country folk, even over country folk a veil of romantic glamour is thrown, they are in a degree idealized. On the other hand, through photographic portraits of individual, the designer of type figures plunges further into the depth of human nature, gets below the surface of idiosyncrasies, he classifies individuals and arrives at types and presentation of one 'type' and reveals nothing of another 'type' of characters. Great characters of Hardy's novels are neither types nor individuals but 'Universals' each comprehending within itself the whole of human nature.

      And to portray human nature correctly he chooses his characters from the lower strata of society because in his opinion, the conduct of the upper class is screened by conventions, and thus the real character is not seen; if it is seen it must be portrayed subjectively; whereas in the lower walks, conduct is a direct expression of the inner life: and thus character can be directly portrayed through the act.

      Now, we have come to his art of character-portrayal. It is a question of presentation as well as conception. As far as question of presentation is concerned, his characters are made living to us by their conversation as well as action. He exhibits his characters first by their actions, and secondly by their word. As concentrated he is exclusively on the grand tragic issues of human fate, his characters live in virtue of their vitality when such issues are in question. The actions he emphasizes are important actions that reveal their motives and feelings. Their inner life is left to our - imagination of which we make use to understand their individuality by their speech. Further, his conception of human nature is not by any means a low one. He does not conceive of low natures; he brings forth at full length only those people who have nature of sufficiently fine quality to make them realize the greatness of the issues with which they are involved and they must have that magnetism or beauty of nature which makes a poetic presentation appropriate.

His Poetic Hold over the Souls of His Characters

      The unreasonable, almost violent and cruel ideal of womanhood that belongs to Clare is essentially poetic in appearance, nature and power. Is not Jude's dream of scholarship and Sue's conception of conjugalities poetic? Not otherwise is philanthropy of Yeobright and serene and NatureSweet chivahy of Winterborne. But sometimes his poetic conception of a character fails. In Jude the Obscure when we first meet 'Father Time' in the train he is a memorable and poetic conception, but increasingly he becomes the author's mouthpiece; and thus, we realize he is the good little child of sentimental Victorian fiction. But his worst failure is when we read of "Father Time's killing' of Sue's children and his suicide: "Done because we are too many." Here Hardy's imagination fails him. We cannot believe all this.

His Limited Range of Characters

      He cannot think of Man but ranged against an 'Immanent Will'. So all of his protagonists are representatives of Man fighting against an evil fate. Essentially; fundamentally, basically, they are 'Men' rather than individual 'Man'. His memorable characters all have a family-likeness. Most of them can be divided into a few simple categories. And when Hardy tries to cross the limitations of his range and deliberately attempts to break away to a new type he fails in the end to make it intrinsically different from the old. In fact, Hardy's view of life made this kinship between his creatures inevitable. He always conceives man in relation to his ultimate destiny, and in such a relation only certain qualities strike him as significant.


      In a harsh world Hardy sees man thirsting for happiness and imagining that he will find it by love in some form or another. This love may make him selfless or selfish, forgiving or resentful, he may struggle or he may submit; but his object is always the same. So, a character of Hardy always reacts to his circumstances in one of the above-mentioned ways. Another cause of the limitation of his range of characters is his attachment to Wessex. Almost all his characters belong to Wessex and to the low strata of society. Hardy's range includes not great ladies or great men. But within his own range, he is an "unchallenged master." He has; created immortal characters.

Previous Post Next Post