Pessimism of Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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      Hardy’s attitude towards life is definitely pessimistic. The age in which he lived, made a deep impression on his mind. He must have not forgotten the boy laborer who died from starvation and was found under a hedge, or the woman who was publicly hanged at Dorchester, or the ravages of cholera in the bad houses of the village, which he saw in his boyhood days. His was an extremely sensitive temperament and was given to melancholy. In this connection, Baker in The History of English Novel has observed, ‘According to all accounts of Hardy’s early life his was an extremely sensitive temperament, rather given to melancholy, easily moved to tears, fond of solitude, though by no means inaccessible to good-fellowship and enjoying a good laugh as much as anyone, especially if the joke was of a profane or sardonic character. All his life he had a weakness for gruesome incidents, grim legends, creepy stories, accounts of spells, omens, ghosts, murders, suicides, and the like. He was always jotting down such things in his diary, and would visit the scene to find out all he could about some sinister event and enjoy its full flavor. He never seems to have missed a funeral, at least of anyone distinguished or of his own kin, and is full of reminiscences of those melancholy festivals. This hankering after the gloomy, the ghoulish, and mysterious helps to account for which has been called the ‘fetishism’ in Hardy’s view of nature and man. To him there was no such thing as inanimate nature. He could never banish his deep-rooted sense of the supernatural, or reduce himself to the calm indifference of a Huxley or a Leslie Stephen. By accepting the scientific attitude he rationalized his acute apprehension of mankind’s tragic plight; but it was only with his intellect that he accepted it; something deeper was always in conflict with the rationalization. He never found full satisfaction in the materialistic philosophy to which he resigned himself. It was not merely that he had repudiated one orthodoxy to capitulate another, that other by no means more stable, if so be that rationalism ignores faculties of the mind as valid as pure reason, if pure reason be only one half of human intelligence. It was not merely that his mind staggered and oscillated from one theory of causation to another, from seeing man in the grip of hostile forces to the acceptance of pure change as the arbiter and then from a view approximating to the idea of character as fate to the conception of an immanent will pervading and controlling all things but unconscious of any purpose. He had a grudge against the universe which he could not throw off, a feeling of resentment at injustices and wanton cruelty which must have some object on which to wreak itself. The problem of evil was monstrous and harassing conundrum. Assuredly, some power that hated good must be in the saddle thwarting every endeavor of man to circumvent his fate. The absurdity of a trust in Providence drove him to the opposite belief.

      “As seen by him it is a tragic theme. The world he lived in had something to do with this. There was plenty of tragedy in the life of the Wessex laborer with its poverty and its passion. Life to them was life in the raw. Dependent and ignorant, exposed alike to the oppression of the social system and the caprice of the weather, at every moment of their existence of the people among whom Hardy was brought up were made conscious of men’s helplessness in the face of circumstances, Hardy, too, was the man to realize the tragedy implicit in such a life. He had a tender heart, unusually responsive to the spectacle of suffering. As a little boy, he even hated seeing the boughs looped off the trees; the first time he saw a dead bird he was struck by an appalling, unforgettable chill of horror. By the time he was fifteen, a shadow had already fallen across his vision of life. He tells us he remembers lying back in the sun and wishing that he need not grow up. He wanted to stay just as he was, in the same place, with the same few friends. The infinite possibilities of mature life seemed to hold for failure and for suffering appalled him, and made him shrink back into such security as he already knew. This shrinking from life embodied itself in the form of spectral fear. He fancied he says, “that a figure stood in his van, with arm uplifted, to knock him back from any pleasant prospect he indulged in as probable.” And not only him it was the enemy of mankind in general. For Hardy’s was a speculative mind, instinctively reasoning from particular observations to a general conclusion. Since the world he looked at seemed so full of pain and disappointment, that, he argued, pain and disappointment were outstanding characteristics of human existence.”

      “It seems somewhat curious that Hardy has occasionally indicated that he does not particularly enjoy being called a pessimist. He thinks that his view of life is one and only possible one, but he is slow to admit that he looks at life with darkened lenses. It has been frequently noted that he indicates at times that there may exist loopholes of escape from the prison of despair; that there may be after all an ultimate hope for a world in misery and travail. This rather vaguely defined hope or faith in the ultimate rightness of things takes three general forms; the Nirwan or non-existence, the growth of consciousness — the will, and a melioristic belief in a gradual improvement in life through the idealistic efforts of enlightened man.”

      Hardy is not a thorough going pessimist his pessimism is not oppressive. In this connection, Bonamy Dobree observes, “Hardy’s pessimism is not oppressive, it is not the outcome of a soul which rebelled against life. Rebellion against life itself—has never produced great art, for the great artist can, with Keats, see ‘beauty in all things’, even in the inexorable working art of the odds against man.

       “Greeks saw man trapped in the meshes of Fate; Shakespeare, largely in those of character, from which was derived the well-known clench, not wholly justified, ‘character is destiny.’ In what particular sort of web did it seem to Hardy mankind is caught? Hardy’s attitude was, as with all great writers,
essentially of his time, and the fatal web in which he saw man entangled was that of man’s own consciousness of futility. Man suffers, man struggles; Christianity gave him reasons for the suffering and the struggle, and made them worthwhile; but when a man comes no longer to believe in Christianity, the sufferings to which he is subjected seem only the work of some maleficent, or faintly sardonic, indifferent demon, infesting the universe. We come across his statement of it repeatedly; in Tess, where we are told that Angel Clare ‘became wonderfully free from the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent power.’ Hardy’s tragic net is essentially a product of modernity.

      “The pity of Tess lies in the fact that she was too delicate an ‘instrument to carve life into a satisfactory shape.’ It was because of her sensitiveness, her integrity, her purity, that she was brought to ruin, not because she once, half-unwittingly, committed a fault. Had she been as lumpish, as thick-skinned, as her mother, she would have found no difficulty in adjusting herself. It is always fineness which brings about the crash of Hardy’s heroes and heroines, and it is fineness which impels Hamlet and Othello. But whereas in Shakespeare the fineness is always marred by a fatal flaw in character which brings about the disaster, with Hardy the fault usually lies in the wanton, unseeing motion of the universe, of the Immanent will, full of sound and fury. It works in spite of itself, unconsciously after the manner of organism, as shown to us in The Dynasts. In Hardy, it is usually the will which does the harm, but not always. The Mayor of Casterbridge e.g., gives the picture of a man who fell by his own fault as much as by that of an insentient creation, even if creation, and this is true of Shakespeare also, and is ultimately responsible for making the character.”

      Thus we see that according to Hardy cruel fate works against the designs of man and thwarts his happiness. He is made to suffer and suffer endlessly. But as pointed above let us not infer that Hardy is a thoroughgoing pessimist. In this connection a famous critic of Hardy has observed. “To call Hardy a thoroughgoing pessimist is to forget his conception of human nature male and female. Granted that he sees the world, abandoned by God — perhaps definitely given over to the Devil—and strangled by an evil system of society, nevertheless, these stand out from his dark canvas the heroic forms of mighty Adam and a beauteous Eve. Your true pessimist is he who, like Swift represents man himself as degraded, mean, loathsome. There is nothing whatever of this in Hardy. With him man is certainly not Godlike, but still a creature, eminently worthy of respect and homage both as a piece of mechanism and as moral being.”

      From the study of his novels, it appears that to him life held a disagreeable prospect. In his opinion “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” He seems to believe that all is not right with the world. In regard to his pessimism, his own remark is worth quoting. He once said, “The world often seems like half-expressed, an ill-expressed idea.....There may be a consciousness infinitely far off, at the other end of phenomena, always striving just as the spirit seems to be.....My pessimism, if pessimism it be, does not involve the assumption that the world is going to the dogs, and that “mammal” is winning all along the time. On the contrary, my practical philosophy is distinctly melioristic. What are my books but one plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man to woman—and to lower animals, whatever may be the inherent evil or good of life, it is certain that men can make it much worse that it need be. When he has got rid of thousands remediable ills, it will be time enough to determine whether the ill that is irremediable outweighs the good.”

      Now it becomes clear that Hardy is a meliorist rather than a pessimist. In this connection, R.A. Scott James observes, “Hardy did not set out to give us a pessimistic philosophy. He did set out to show certain persons, selected because they were interested, having certain characters would behave under certain circumstances.....We are not shocked by the end of his tragic novels, but on the contrary are profoundly moved by the behavior of the persons and the sublimity of the scene. Destiny may seem pitiless and cruel, but the nobility of the characters in facing it with courage and sympathy towards one another evokes a compensating admiration.....Hardy is pessimistic about the governance of the Universe, but not about human beings.”

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