Philosophy of Life in Wessex Novels of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

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      Hardy’s attitude towards life is essentially tragic and pessimistic, he ranks with those to whom life is by no means a boon. His entire outlook towards life can be summed up in a few words. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, he says “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” In this connection, Baker remarks, “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 a profane of 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 these melancholy festivals. This hankering after the gloomy, the ghoulish, and mysterious helps to account for what has been called the ‘fetishism’ in Hardy’s view of nature and man.....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.”

      Hardy was much affected by his environment. 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 village. The world he lived in was a tragic one. ‘‘There was plenty of tragedy in 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 oppressions of the social system and the caprice of the weather, at every moment of their existence 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 lopped 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....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, then, he argued, pain and disappointment were outstanding characteristics of human existence.” Further, the disturbing age in which he lived confirmed and increased his disposition to melancholy.

Life — a Tragedy and a Comedy

      To Hardy “life is a tragedy and comedy, and often enough both together. There is an inescapable logic of sequences in it, and there is a wild absurdity, there is an anguish, and there is joy, there is, in the end, the scene of contemplation of a whole in which all varied elements fall into one place. That is how they approach life naturally — that is to say — unobsessed by philosophical dogmas — inevitably feel, whether or not they happen to be artists of a tragedy, and also at times a force, a source of delight, sometimes of horror, even sometimes of irony, in short, as Dante phrased it a ‘Divine Comedy.’ Life has indeed always been so far the natural man, from whatever Adam - Eve you choose to trace him.”

Was Hardy a Philosopher?

      It is the irony of fate that the man who disliked to be called a philosopher, is ranked with the philosophers. Indeed, he has not given a definite philosophy as other philosophers have done. In his novels, he shows concern with good and bad, ugly and beautiful, moral and immoral in life. No sooner does he touch them than he becomes a philosopher. But before discussing his philosophy we must remember that Hardy is primarily an artist. Whatever sense of life, he has conveyed in his novels, may well be called ‘impression’. In the preface to Tess, he says, “Let me repeat that the novel is an impression not an argument.” It is these impressions which are so profusely present in his novels that we may call them Hardy’s philosophy of life. Havelock Ellis observes, “He (Hardy) interested himself a little in philosophy, and more in art, as the years went on he interested himself in fiction as an art, his own in particular, and even wrote suggestively about it. But whether or not he was a great artist, he was not a philosopher.”

      But we cannot agree with it. Hardy had a definite philosophy of life which though not in the form of arguments, compels attention. “It was Hardy’s own fault if people insist on discussing his philosophy. He pleaded that he was not a philosopher which was true; yet he was continually talking about this philosophy of his and explaining it, and not merely explaining it away either.”


      The general impression of Hardy’s philosophy of life is pessimistic. He presents a melancholic or tragic view of life. 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 to me like a half expressed, an ill-expressed idea......There may be a consciousness infinitely far off, at the other end of phenomena, always striving to express itself and always baffled and blundering 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 than it need be. When he has got rid of a thousand 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 looks a compensating admiration.....Hardy is pessimistic about the governance of the Universe, but not about human beings.”

Irony of Fate

      Another important element of Hardy’s philosophy is the irony of fate. In every novel, we see that his characters fall a pitiless victim to cruel fate. They try their best to find happiness but all in vain. All their plans are thwarted by the cruel fate. Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge fails because of the irony of fate. But in Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy has introduced the tyranny of society. Tess is a victim of the irony of fate as well as of the tyranny of society. Hardy has called Tess ‘a pure woman’. She tries her best to remain chaste but she is cleverly seduced by Alec — the man whom she dislikes most. It is the irony of fate. She cannot escape it. “.....why so often the coarse appropriates the finer, thus the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.” But it was the tyranny of society that marred her chances of a happy married life later on. Her unhappiness was increased by the social code and institutions. She lived in the Victorian age where the chastity of a woman was the only passport to lead a happy life in society? But alas! She had lost it. She tries to break the social code by maintaining a very high order to purity of feeling and mind but all in vain. Angel Clare though an intellectual of a very high order, too, falls a victim to the social code. He would fly to Brazil because Tess could join him there. Thus we see that irony of fate and the tyranny of society both conspire to destroy the happiness of Angel Clare and Tess.

      From what goes about it becomes clear that Hardy’s attitude towards life is melancholic. Man tries his best to find happiness but he fails. From reading his novels it appears that he has no faith in the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God. For example in Far From the Madding Crowd when Fanny is on the verge of death. She needs somebody’s help. There is none to help her. When a dog tries to help her, a stone strikes him and he dies leaving Fanny helpless. Critics have gone to the extent of calling this dog a disciple of Hardy. Thus we derive the conclusion that human actions are not free from external forces. In this connection, Mrs. Tomkins has observed, “Determinism is, possibly, a better word to describe the philosophy of Thomas Hardy. Human action is not free but is determined by motives which are regarded as external forces, acting on the will. The characters would appear, therefore, to be helpless.

University Questions

Write a note on Hardy’s philosophy of life as revealed through the Wessex novels in general and Tess of the d’Urbervilles in particular.
Discuss Hardy’s attitude towards life with special reference to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

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