Thomas Hardy: A Mixture of Conventional & Modernity

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      The 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 on such improbable situations as found in the novels of Dickens. Besides, Meredith is considered the master of plot technique although surprisingly enough, in his novels, the plots are inordinately loose. The plots of his novels are not-well-connected but there is merely a 'quick succession' of scenes which feed the imagination of the reader. But although Meredith invented a realistic form, he is typically Victorian in the mode of his thinking. His ideas are commonplace ideas as an average mid-Victorian 'Romfrey' would willingly cherish.

Hardy: the Revolutionist

      The credit of effecting a revolution in the field of ideas was reserved for Hardy. Historically, one can say that Hardy is one of the main transitional figures between the popular moralists and the popular entertainers of Victorian fiction and the serious, visionary, which are the symbolic characteristics of the novelists of today. Hardy's novel-writing career is reflective of the great movement from the Victorian to the Modern. Desperate Remedies (1871) his first published novel has much in common with the Victorian sensation-novel. 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) of a new type of man of character (Henchard). Hardy contributes many new tilings to the English novel. He is the first and greatest 'regional novelist'. Again he suggests for the first time the idea of 'epical-tragical' in connection with the novel. The reader finds in him a curious blend of diagonally opposed talents. He is essentially a poet and yet none can challenge his realistic outlook. He is 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.

Blend of Traditionalism and Modernism

      Hardy's blend of traditionalism and modernism is most vividly brought out in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The tragedy of Henchard is similar to the traditional tragedies of Lear, Hamlet and Oedipus and similar to the existence of a moral order in the ancient way in which experiences of man work as the drama of his salvation and the drama of his damnation. This moral order rests satisfied only when it comes down to the total humiliation of the offender. Henchard's self-alienation which is an impulse of self-destruction is drama, tied with modern traits.

His Conventionality in Plot and Characterization

      The situations in the novels of Hardy 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 ware 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 fail to hate the modernists' conception of plot but in his thoughts he is truly of our own times. Though by nature emotional, he always followed the dictates of his intellect; and thought he lived in and wrote of a place which was Far From The Madding Crowd yet 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 empiricist, he truly states that the sum-total of the misery in life is more than the sum-total of happiness.

The Dualism in Hardy

      Among the modern novelists the most common conflict that exists is between sympathy and judgment, immoral and rational preferences and unconscious allegiance and conscious commitment. Those we admire are at times disliked by us and those we condemn, we at times are attracted towards them. Hardy exhibits the dual characteristics of a "moral antagonism" to the aristocrat and at the same time a predilection d'artiste for the aristocrat. Hardy shows the individual destroyed though he has sympathy for the individual against the community. He both envied rebellion and non-conformity but at the same time he thought that he approved of them. He rather, advocated the docile and the unaggressive. It is because of Hardy's secret identifying sympathy for the outlaw that The Major of Casterbridge has attained such greatness.

Hardy and the Naturalistic Mode

      Haray can be classed with those writers of the modern age who pride themselves for being the followers of Ibsen (drama) and Zola (fiction). One of the many effects which 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 the individual responsible for his own 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 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 an implicit faith in determinism. Hence, they make no useless effort of preaching and reform the society. They give a merely naked description of it.

      One can see the partial application of this 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 on philosophical realism. He might have exaggerated, a little here or there in Jude the Obscure but on the whole his study of the Wessel 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 Tesses and Henchards, the sins of their fathers and ancestors are continually visited.

Hardy's Directness

      Hardy, the great, humane, simple and primitive novelist did not make an attempt to explain anything with the help of elusive symbolic content as technical subtlety. He boldly presents his matter in an obvious and direct way where enough importance is given to the human material. The directness of Hardy is clearly brought out in the great memorable scene of the sale of the wife in The Mayor of Casterbridge. This story is presented as simply as scripture history. It is not easy to forget the furmity-seller who appears as a magistrate before Henchard and who narrates her story about the 'large crime' which she had witnessed twenty years back. This is a very important moment in the book and would have normally been dealt within twenty pages or so but Hardy with his directness slides over the scene in merely four pages. The strength of the novel lies not in the subtlety or elaboration of art but in the imagined material itself.

Hardy's 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 institution of marriage. He already anticipates, though unconsciously, the sex theories of Freud and the psycho-analytical method, when he considers sex as a question not-outside of the but as a source of achieving the principle of life.


      Thus, in the form and construction of his novels, Hardy is a traditionalist but in his outlook and conception he is truly modem. With Hardy, begins the modern novel in its complete form; for while Meredith experimented upon and gave a new form to 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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