The Philosophy of Thomas Hardy

Hardy: An Artist and Not a Philosopher
Hardy was an artist and not a philosopher. He repeatedly affirmed that the ‘Views’ expressed in his novels were not his convictions or beliefs; they were simply “impressions” of the moment. His writings were all, ‘mood dictated’, merely, ‘explorations of reality’, and so it would be wrong to expect any systematised philosophy of life. But when certain impressions persist and are constantly repeated in the creative works, diaries and letters, of a writer, the readers may be pardoned, if they take them to be his convictions. Moreover, Hardy is so often passing from particular facts to life in general that we may safely take some of his views to be his philosophy of life.

Suffering: A Universal
In Hardy’s considered view, all life is suffering. Man suffers from the moment of his birth upto his death. Happiness is only occasional, it is never the general rule. As he says in “Vie Mayor of Casterbridge’, “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain”. There is none who gets more than he deserves but there are many who get much less than what they deserve. Not only man suffers, but all nature suffers. Suffering is writ large on the face of nature. A ruthless, brutal struggle for existence is waged everywhere in nature. All nature is red in tooth and claw and life lives upon life. Thus all life, including human life, is subject to this law of suffering and none can escape the operation of this law.
Imperfections of the First Cause: Human Suffering
But what is the cause of this universal suffering of man and nature alike. In Hardy’s view the real cause is the, “imperfection of the laws that may be in force on high.” Thus human suffering is the result of the imperfections of the First Cause, the power that caused or created this sorry scheme of things. He rejects the orthodox Christian belief that this power is benevolent, all merciful, omnipotent and omniscient. He cannot reconcile the fact of universal, undeserved suffering with the omnipotence and benevolence of God or the First Cause. He indignantly asks, “What makes suffering and evil, necessary to its omnipotence ?” He regards this power as blind, indifferent, if not actually hostile, and unconscious and immoral. He uses ‘it’ and not ‘He’ for this power. This power has no sense of right or wrong, love or hate. In this blind, unconscious, impersonal working, it does not, and cannot, take into account human wishes and aspirations. Hence its working often causes men .much pain and suffering.
Nature as Instrument of the First Cause
This power manifests itself in a number of ways. Sometimes, it expresses itself through some force of Nature. Usually Nature in Hardy remains indifferent to, and unconscious of, the suffering of Hardy’s character. For example, Tess’ suffering goes unheeded in Nature. She is violated in the lap of Nature, but all Nature remains unconcerned and indifferent. But sometimes, Nature seems to work against the characters of Hardy, or we, in our sympathy for them, feel nature to be hostile. The Return of the Native is a tragedy of character and environment; Egdon Heath plays a prominent part in the novel and is largely responsible for the tragedy. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the very stars seem to be hostile to Henchard. The fair organised by him, with such generosity and care, is ruined by untimely unexpected rain. The vagaries of weather ruin him financially and make him a bankrupt. Bad weather had been foretold and on that basis he made reckless purchases. But the weather cleared and he had to sell at far lower prices. Then quite unaccountably the weather changed again. There was rain and hail and Henchard was a financial wreck. Nature, thus, seems to be the instrument of some hostile power working against Henchard. It is in this sense that Nature is fate in Hardy’s novels.
The Irony of Circumstance or Life
Sometimes, the ruling power on high expresses itself through the irony of circumstance. By irony of circumstance, Hardy simply means that in this ill-conceived scheme of things the contrary always happens. We except one thing and get its exact opposite. This results in much undeserved suffering. Right things never happen at the right time : they happen either not at all, or too late, when their happening brings nothing but misery and suffering in their train. The heroines of Hardy, like Tess and Eustacia, as well as his male characters, like Clym, Henchard, Angel, Alec are all the victims of the irony of circumstance. The wrong man comes first, and when the right man comes it is too late. Thus Tess remained a vague, fleeting impression to Angel Clare, till she had been violated by Alec, and it was too late for them to live happily together.
Elizabeth-Jane consents to take up Henchard’s name, and then he suddenly discovers that she was not his daughter : “77ie mockery (irony) was, that he should have no sooner taught a girl to claim the shelter of his paternity than he discovered her to have no kinship with him. This ironical sequence of things angered him like an impish trick from a fellow-creature. Like Prester John’s his table had been spread, and infernal harpies had snatched up the food.”
He had planned and schemed for months to have Jane as his daughter and now the fruition of the whole scheme was such, “dust and ashes” in his mouth.
Elizabeth-Jane, too, is the victim of this very irony of fate, for, “Continually it had happened that what she had desired had not been granted her, and that what had been granted her she had not desired.”
In fact, Hardy’s characters in general, and not in one or two novels alone, are the victims of this irony. Their intentions and aspirations are constantly frustrated, as if some hostile power were working against them.
The Role of Chance and Fate
There is a great difference between chance and irony of circumstance. Chance is entirely unexpected or accidental and has no relation either to character or to the course of action, while the essence of irony of fate or circumstance is its opposition to the whishes or merits of a particular character. Chance may sometimes work in favour of a particular character, but in Hardy’s works it always operates against them, for it is caused by the same indifferent, even hostile, First Cause. Thus Chance is another agent chosen by the Supreme to express itself. Chance or accident plays an important part in life and so in the novels of Hardy. The unexpected and the undesired always happens. Thus Tess suffers because the letter she had written to Angel on the eve of their marriage never reaches him. By chance it slips beneath the carpet and is not found. Many such accidents or chance events also happen in 77ie Mayor of Casterbridge. The coming of Farfrae in Casterbridge just at the time when Henchard was being taken to task for the sale of bad wheat, the sudden arrival of Newson in Casterbridge for the second time, the entirely unexpected appearance of the old furmity-seller in Casterbridge to drive the last nail in Henchard’s coffin, etc., are a few of the chance events that create the impression that Hardy believed in the operation of fatal forces hovering all around us and driving us to our doom. Chance or accident is thus an essential element in Hardy’s philosophy of life.
Love: A Potent Cause of Suffering
Love is another force which causes suffering in the world of Thomas Hardy. The women-folk, specially, are its chosen victims. As we are told in Tess, the cruel cause of things has hardened them with the powerful sex-instinct which they have never desired nor welcomed, and as a result of which they have to writh feverishly and pass sleepless nights. Love causes untold suffering to Elizabeth-Jane, to Tess, to Eustacia, to Bathsheba and to all other female characters of Hardy.
Human Freedom of Action: Its Limitations
Character may be destiny in Shakespeare, but it is certainly not so in Hardy’s world-view. In Hardy’s philosophy, character is responsible for suffering only to a limited extent. Inherited traits and inborn instincts determine the actions of a person to a very great extent. Even if he wishes, he cannot act against them. Moreover, Hardy agrees with Schopenheur in believing that, “a person can do what lie wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Thus man is not a free agent and is not responsible for his actions to any great extent. He has only a very limited freedom of action.
Ways for the Amelioration of Human Lot
(1) Tact: But within these limits he can do much. If he is rash, hot-headed and obstinate, like Henchard, or Eustacia, he can bring about his own downfall. On the contrary, if he is wise and tactful, like Elizabeth Jane, or Thomasin, he can make much of his limited opportunities. Anyhow, it is his duty to adjust himself to his environment. He must not exult when fortune smiles upon him for at best it is only a short interlude, and may be followed by sudden and devastating misfortunes. And at such times, he must remember, like Elizabeth-Jane, that there are many others who have not got what they deserved or desired.
(2) The Rustic Philosophy of Resignation: Man must be resigned to his lot. It is useless to complain, for no complains can reform this ill-conceived scheme of things. It is equally futile to pit overselves against the inexorable, pitiless laws that govern our destiny, for if we do so we are sure to be pounded to atoms. We must learn the lesson of resignation, and we can do so only from primitive communities living in the lap of nature. The Wessex rustics when confronted with overwhelming misfortunes are never frustrated. They merely exclaim, ‘it was to be’, and go about the daily business of their life with renewed courage. Hardy is all admiration for such heroic souls, and prefers a simple life in their midst to an artificial life in a big city.
(3) Social Reform and Loving-Kindness: But this does not mean that in Hardy’s view man should make no attempts to ameliorate his lot. Hardy distinguishes between the natural and the social environment. While man can do nothing to change the natural environment, and must submit passively to it, he can do much to change his social environment through wise social reforms. Marriage laws, for example, should be liberalised in favour of the weaker sex. Unfortunate women, like Tess, who are more sinned against than sinning, should be accepted by society. No stigma should attach to them, for they are essentially pure. A spirit of “loving-kindness” should pervade all human relations and then all would be well. Life is suffering, but man should not increase its misery by this cruelty to his fellow-men, to women, and to the lower creatures.
Conclusion : Hardy’s Humanism
Such is Hardy’s philosophy of life. It is certainly a gloomy one, for he regards life as suffering and man as a puppet in the hands of Destiny. But it cannot be called pessimistic, for pessimism implies negation of life, a wish not to have been born at all. It is only in his last novel, Jude the Obscure, that some cynism enters and Hardy becomes pessimistic. Otherwise, Hardy is a humanist, a poet who wants man to turn from nature to his own kind, for,
“There at least discourse trills around,
There at least smiles abound,
There sametime are found,
Life-Loyalties.”
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