Thomas Hardy's View On Women Characters in Novels

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Three Types of Women Characters in Hardy's Novels

      The women characters in Hardy's novels can be placed in three groups. The first group should include only Tess, Sue, Eustacia, Bathsheba and Elizabeth Jane. All these five women are full-length studies and they belong to a high order of personality. The second group may cover Elfride, Ethelberta, Grace, Vivette and Anne—all of whom are also full-length studies but not of the same importance as the women of the first group. The third group is also a group of full-length studies of women but they should be classed as the mixed group, and to this group Paula, Marty, Arabella, Tamsie, Lucetta and Picottee should belong. There are other women in Hardy's novels who stand in the background but who at the same time are quite interesting on their own individual account. These women are Tabitha, Matilda, Fanny, Charlotte, Mrs. Yeobright, Mrs. Swancourt, Mrs. Melbury, Susan Henchard and a few others.

The Character of Tess

      Of all the women characters of Hardy, Tess claims our attention first, then Sue, then Eustacia and then others. Hardy has named Tess as a 'pure woman' and also as a 'standard woman'. Tess undoubtedly possesses purity of the spirit. Tess's morals are of the mind as well as of the heart. Henry Charles Duffin says about Tess, 'She is moral as any prude, her behavior, her thoughts, her desires on all perilous occasions—with Alec d'Urberville, early and late, with Clare, with her other admirers—are unimpeachable, considered from the most critical code and point of view. Moreover, her shame and remorse are infinite. She has conscience that is quite amazing in view of the probability that conscience is almost entirely a matter of what one has been taught in very early childhood. Mentally and morally she is stainless, with a strong intent to keep so, and probably continues so from first to last; even during the latter period of dissipation with Alec d'Urberville her mind is drugged and dead with weariness, pain and despair, and so guiltless. But the body of Tess was so full of vitality and youthfulness that it was antagonistic to her soul because Hardy more than once speaks of the splendid animal nature of Tess Hardy has further suggested very clearly that Tess's mind 'the touch of yieldingness that was just necessary to allow the touch of animalism in her flesh to respond to great external pressure. Hardy says about Tess that "there was something of the habitude of the wild animal in the unreflecting instinct with which she wandered on from place to place" but then, she had at the same time most rare and delightful mental qualities. She was high-strung, impressionable and poetic. Her soul travels into space at night, she is heroic in her self-chastisement and self-suffering, particularly in her endurance of the agonies of isolation. She has splendid faith in Clare, she never feels—guilty of having wronged any creature on earth. Tess will always remain as one of the most lovable of Hardy's heroines.

The Character of Sue

      Sue, unlike Tess creates in the onlooker anything but a favorable impression. The most striking feature of her character is her sexlessness. Sue believes in marriage without sex union, because she believes in platonic affection. Bernard Shaw like Hardy has actually suggested that spiritual marriage is possible and it should be distinguished from physical marriage in the sense that the one means a spiritual necessity while the other is a biological necessity. While painting the character of Sue Hardy probably had in his mind the many complications of modem sex-relations. When Jude declares that Sue is a bodiless creature with very little animal passion in her, Sue answers him, "I am not so exceptional a woman as you think. Fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer". Mark another bit of short conversation between Jude and Sue:

"But surely you loved me?"
"Yes. But I wanted to let it stop there, and go on always as mere lovers; until"
"But people in love couldn't live for ever like that!"
"Women could, men can't because they won't. An average woman is in this superior to an average man—that she never instigates, only responds. We ought to have lived in mental communion and no more."

      According to the sex-psychologists, there is no difference between man and woman so far as their sexual desire or desire for sexual union is concerned; and therefore, from the psychological point of view, Hardy's creation of a sexless character like Sue is rather a little strange and striking. Hardy himself has confessed somewhere that he always liked the type of woman like Sue. Was it because Hardy himself was sexless or rather physically impotent? His childlessness and unhappy marriage might be due to his sexual impotency, which no other critic has so far pointed out but which may be very true. Henry Charles Duffin makes very significant remarks in this connection. 'Sue herself denies that the attribute goes deep enough to warrant her being called 'cold and sexless' and here she seems to show the self-knowledge we should expect of her, for her relations with Jude exhibit no absence of any but the most primitive form of sex. She was certainly of the late-developing type, in direct contradiction to Tess. And one may pause to wonder at the creative insight that enabled Hardy to handle these two opposed types with equal sympathy, understanding and conviction.

      Of course, in Giles Winterborne also we find the same absence of sensuality as we find in Sue. But then, sexless love does not constitute Sue's entire personality. In her general attitude towards men, Sue indeed appears to be without that fire or frailty of the flesh. The manner in which she moves with men, talks to them, and makes many other experiments of emotion appears to be rather dangerous, but then, all her behavior speaks of her great power over herself, not merely her sexlessness. In the eyes of some people Sue may appear to be a confirmed flirt in the eyes of other people but she appears to be highly intellectual, which, of course, she is. But Sue can think as well as feel. Her reasoning power blends with her sexlessness and it gives her the power of speech. Sue is far more expressive than Tess or Elfride. She plays dangerously with her emotions but her intellectuality or sexlessness saves her sometimes. Sue declares that she does not belong to either the modem or the medieval world but to the world of pagan gods. She is in fact irreligious. Jude speaks about her to Mrs. Edlin. 'She was once a woman whose intellect was to mine like a star to a benzoline lamp; who saw all my superstitions as cobwebs she could brush away with a word. Then bitter affliction came to us, and her intellect broke, and she veered round to darkness.

The Character of Eustacia

      Eustacia is quite the extreme of Sue. In Sue the spirit governs the flesh while in Eustacia the flesh governs the spirit—Eustacia is all flesh but glorious and exultant flesh, she is full of blood-red passions, and that, is why, she has been justly called an epicure in emotion. Hardy describes Eustacia in his own words, "As far as social ethics were concerned Eustacia approached the savage state, though in emotion she was all the while an epicure. She had advanced to the secret recesses of sensuousness, and yet had hardly crossed the threshold of conventionality." Sue also has been branded as an epicure in emotion but with what a difference! Eustacia is conspicuous among Hardy's women by her rich sensuousness, but her sensuous nature is incapable of thought. Her indolence hides her smoldering passions. Every action of hers is the result of some strong and impetuous desire. She is made of nothing but instinct, and as such, she can never resist an impulse and such a woman is bound to play the readiest victim to all kinds of follies and frailties. She knows only emotions and animal wants. Reason is completely absent in her. Her very soul is consumed in the fire of the flesh.

The Character of Elfride Swancourt

      Elfride Swancourt is the Teutonic type of a woman. She does not possess the grandeur of character which Tess or Sue or even Eustacia possesses. And yet she is an interesting character. She is fickle, and is easily tempted by the young and the romantic, by the strong and the intellectual, by the wealthy and the aristocratic. The very fact that she is the bone of contention between Smith and Knight proves that she is a woman of wide appeal. She is extremely feminine, which is her weak point and she is often foolish, but she is quite high strung, nervous and unpoetic. The black spot in her character is her desertion of Smith for Knight but her punishment is out of all proportion with her offense.

The Character of Bathsheba

      The character of Bathsheba Everdene is a distressing picture of feminine folly, which the average woman commits in spite of good heredity, good education and upbringing. Women are generally attracted by the tinsel and very seldom by gold. Bathsheba is a striking example of woman's frailty in spite of all her strength of character as the manager of her farm, as a com dealer, as the master of her farm servants, and as a woman in her dealing with the common generality of the male sex. The very fact that Bathsheba is tempted by Troy at the very first encounter goes to prove her mettle and the mettle of her race, particularly when there is no strict strong guardian behind her. As compared with Oak and Boldwood, Troy is a scoundrel because he not only gambles with the hearts of women but betrays them most treacherously as he betrays both Bathsheba and Fanny. Bathsheba is indeed very true to life in the sense that most women are frail and foolish like her. Jealousy is the cause of ruin in the case of both Bathsheba and Sue. Bathsheba marries Troy secretly and hastily simply because Troy tells her a lie that he has seen a more beautiful girl than Bathsheba. Bernard Shaw would interpret Bathsheba's weakness for Troy as the urge of the "Life-Force" in her which seeks to swallow and consume altogether any young man whoever comes before that 'Life-Force'. Henry Charles Duffin remarks about Bathsheba. 'There is nothing subtle or wonderful in Bathsheba's nature. She is more commonplace than any of the four women Tess, Sue, Elfride and Eustacia, even Elfride has the inexplicable charm of a dainty Caroline lyric. Bathsheba is prose, and pedestrian at that. Yet she is a fine character, and Hardy certainly thought her worth studying. Indeed, he was enthusiastic enough about her to call her an Elizabeth in brain and a Mary Stuart in spirit. She is a little overshadowed by some among her company, but she, gains beauty from the tale of which she is the center. One gathers, moreover, that the book Shows her only in this work shop, undergoing the probation of pain that is to make her the woman she is meant to be the worthy mate of Gabriel Oak. One fancies her, in an imaginary sequel, clothed in the sunset hues of graver wisdom, a saner sufferer in love, and a staunch comradeship that is fore-shadowed in the scene of the saving of the corn stacks'.

The Character of Ethelberta Fetherwin

      Ethelberta Fetherwin is an intellectual woman, with a blend of passion, intellect and emotion. Ethelberta is governed by cool, calculating reason; there is no trace of passion about her, while emotion is completely hardened by reason. Ethelberta surely deserves praise on account of her fighting against thousand odds, but then, no woman is admired merely because of her coldblooded strength. The ideal of Ethelberta being not very high is not worth so much of praise. Even in love she is quite calculating and therefore, her marriage with Lord Mountclere may be regarded as either her reward or her punishment.

The Character of Elizabeth Jane

      Elizabeth Jane does not impress anybody at the first sight but on closer intimacy, one can bind in her a sober mien, a cold reasonableness, and a subtle soul. She has got a sense of humor to suffer all sorts of buffets of fortune and this quality is not very common to the women characters in Hardy's novels. She is undoubtedly an intellectual type but she is quite distinct from other intellectual women of Hardy. She is, however, very modest and simple in the early stages but in the later stages she is fond of good clothes and other articles to show off her dignity and aristocracy. Like Susan, Elizabeth Jane too passes through all sorts of tribulations, and that is why, she learns to suffer heroically without bending or bowing before the tyranny of circumstances. Although she is the daughter of Newson yet she seems to possess some of the characteristics of Henchard, particularly, his waywardness and sensitiveness but then, she has considerable control over her emotions which unfortunately Henchard does not possess. Hardy calls her the flower of Nature inspite of the fact that she is single-hearted and not sufficiently fair to Henchard although she makes sufficient amends for her unfeelingness at the close of the story during the dying moments of Henchard.

The Contrast between Grace and Marty

      We can compare Grace and Marty because they are rivals in love. Grace is loved by Giles who is again loved by Marty. Grace behaves like a girl throughout evert when she is a woman. She gets spoilt partly by her superior education and partly by her father's admiration for her. She is weak for her overbearing father but she is tyrannical to generous souls like Giles and Fitzpiers. Grace's emotions are not very high as they are not high in the case of Sue or Bathsheba. Grace suffers degeneration when she withdraws her affection for Giles. She does not get broken down by Gile's death, rather she feels relieved by it. Grace has absolutely rib claim upon any kind of distinction as a woman except that she is the object of fancy in the eyes of a person like Giles. Marty, according to certain critics, deserves to be the heroine of The Woodlanders as much as Grace, because Marty is far more pretty than Grace. She, however, does not appear in the novel too frequently as Grace appears nor does she take any very direct part in the action of the story. The moment Marty realizes that Giles whom she loves is in love with Grace she becomes at once a silent watcher of the game of love between Giles and Grace. Duffin remarks about Marty, "Marty is no inarticulate country wench, and though her speech rises and falls, now crude, now finally expressive—her thoughts are always lofty. In her plain unpolished steadfastness, she is a deliberate foil to Grace. She had opened the book, and she closes it with those words of divine simplicity, and mysterious beauty. It is great loss to literature that Hardy did not make her the subject of full-length study."

The Character of Arabella

      Arabella is a unique character in Hardy's novels in the sense that she is full of impudence, coarseness and animal depravity. She can be contrasted with Sue who possesses fineness and spirituality. Lady Constantine is weak and stupid. But Mrs. Yeobright is noble-hearted, she has great strength of character and yet she is not admirable because of her anger and jealousy. She is sane and good. Mrs. Melbury has more shrewdness and humor than her husband. Miss Fancy Day is not a great woman like any of the women of the first group we have analyzed, and her character is quite interesting.

Hardy's Superiority in Delineating Women's Character

      Hardy has a much deeper insight into Women's character than into Men's character. It is only in the case of Jude and Clare that Hardy seems to have an unusually acute insight into male character. There are varieties of women characters in Hardy's novels but some of them possess similar characteristics. It is because Hardy is not only a pure artist but also something of a philosopher and a poet. Hardy does not always paint the world as he finds it but sometimes he paints it as he wants to see it or as it appears in his poetic or philosophic vision. It cannot be said of Hardy as some critics have said that Hardy's novels have heroines but no heroes. It cannot even be said that Hardy’s women are superior to his men. Hardy's men and women are equally full of interest, significance, moral and general quality. Hardy is not a feminist.

Cynicism Domiates Hardy's Depiction of Women Characters

      But Hardy's attitude to woman in his novels is generally cynical. This tone of cynicism is easily perceptible in many of the words spoken by the various characters in the novels. Mark what Ruben Davy speaks to his son Dick "When you have made up your mind to marry, take the first respectable body that comes to hand, she is as good as any other, they be all alike in the groundwork; it is only in the flourishes there is a difference." One of the Lylyan epigrams says. "It is woman's nature to be false except to a man, and man's nature to be true except to a woman." Hardy himself has put down many a word about women in his private notes:

"I often think that women do not know how to manage an honest man,"
''Women are never tired of bewailing men's fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub their constancy".
"It is next to impossible for an appreciative woman to have a positive repugnance towards an unusually handsome and gifted man."

      In A Pair of Blue Eyes we find the following passage:

"Self-dispraise stirs a kindly response in a sensible man but inevitably leads the most sensible woman in the world to undervalue him who practices it. Directly domineering ceases in the man, snubbing begins in the woman; the trite but no less unfortunate fact being that the gentler creature rarely has the capacity to appreciate fair treatment from her natural compliment."

      Another passage quoted from The Well-Beloved Hardy writes:

"She was another illustration of the rule that succeeding generations of women are seldom marked by annulation progress, their advance as girls being lost in their recession as matrons so they move up and down the stream of intellectual development like flotsam in a tidal estuary. And this perhaps not by reason of their faults as individuals, but of their misfortune as child rearers."


      In Hardy's eyes, the average woman was inferior to the average man, but the uncommon woman was as much a flower of the human kind as the uncommon man. Hardy has dealt in his novels more with the rural type of women than he has dealt with the rural type of men. It is only in A Pair of Blue Eyes and A Laodicean, which are regarded as society novels, that the women are of a more exalted birth. Lady Constantine is also another exception. Practically all the rest of the women in Hardy's novel are country women with or without any dash of learning or culture. Grace, for example, has a little bit of superior education, which makes her neither a fish nor a fowl. Henry Charles Duffin makes his concluding remarks about Hardy's views on women. After all, Hardy saw life as a very hard "school, and if the woman suffers more than the man, it may be because woman is the weaker vessel. But surely, some of the grimness may be due to a hurt idealism-to Hardy's sense of the gulf between woman's possible best and her actual achievement towards it. The pathetic deficiency seems to have come home to him with appalling force, and his ruthless pictures of woman's folly and suffering are the bitter cry wrong from him by grief. It is not Hardy who treats his women cruelly but life as Hardy saw it. What Hardy could do for his women he did, he made them full of beauty, interest, fascinating and lovable qualities of all kinds, he gave them great parts to play, and let them play those parts well. His estimate of women is high, but tempered and conditioned by keen observation of the realities around him. He has the necessary ideals of her as a creature nobly planned and bright with angelic radiance, but knows also that it is only in rare cases that she is found free, undimmed and ideal.

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