Hardy’s Greatness as a Novelist
Hardy has come now to be universally recognised as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. Indeed, he is one of the greatest novelists in the whole range of English Literature. Some critics have even called him the Shakespeare of the English novel. Let us here consider the various merits and demerits of his art and then form our own estimate of his true greatness as a novelist.
The Classification of Hardy’s Novels
Hardy’s first novel the Desperate Remedies appeared in 1871, and thereafter novels after novels flowed from his pen in quick succession. His-last novel, Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1895, was vehemently criticised as being immoral. This hostile reception made him give up novel writing for good, for exclaimed he, “a man would be a fool, to deliberately stand up to be shot at.” The Mayor of Caslerbridge, The Return of the Native, Tess of the D’urbervilles and Jude The Obscure are regarded by universal consent as his masterpieces, and they have been compared to the four great Shakespearean tragedies. Prof. L Abercrombie has divided Hardy’s novels in to two groups — the dramatic and the Epic. Dramatic novels are those in which our interests is divided between a group of character whose actions and interests clash with each other, such conflict forming the main point of the novel. The Return of the Native and Far From the Madding Crowd are dramatic, for in them the chief interest arises from a clash between the main characters. In the epic novels the interest of the novel centres round the life of a single character. The background is vast and imposing and there is no sub-plot. Tess of the D’urbervilles obviously belongs to the second class, for in this novel the action centres round a single character, a milk-maid, whom Hardy calls a “pure woman”. The Mayor of Casterbridge shares the qualities of both these kinds. Hardy was a born poet and even his novels are the works of a poet. Poetic scenes of great power abound, and they have earned for Hardy World-wide acclaim and popularity.
Hardy as a Regional Novelist
Hardy is a regional novelist. He is the creator of “Wessex” a small tract of country consisting of six odd countries in South England. His knowledge of this limited region is as thorough as that of Scott of his beloved Scotland and that of Wordsworth of the Lake District. “Wessex” appears and reappears successively in one novel after another and it is seldom that he strays out of it. But his treatment of this locality is not narrow or provincial. He has raised it to the level of the universal. Wessex scenes and sights are made a part of universal nature and his characters are at one with humanity as a whole. Wessex heaths and woodlands have an epic grandeur and his principal characters have the greatness of epic heroes and heroines. He has thus imparted a new emphasis and significance to the regional novel which had already been dignified by the Bronttes.
But above all Thomas Hardy is the creator of the philosophical novel. Uptil now the English novel was a vehicle of social criticism. Man in society had been its theme so far. But Thomas Hardy uses the novel to inquire into the cause of things. His novels are questionings about life. He constantly inquires about the why and whereof of things and constantly attacks accepted beliefs. Man’s predicament in the universe is the theme of Tliomas Hardy’s novels. He has no faith in the benevolent and omnipotent God of Christianity. He conceives of the First Cause as blind, indifferent and unconscious. Man suffers owing to the imperfections of the powers on high. The Return of the Native is a tragedy of character and environment but even here chance and fate play an important role in bringing about the tragedy. Character is responsible for the tragedy only to a very limited extent. Thus his conception of tragedy differs radically from that of Shakespeare. His characters suffer for no fault of their own, but because they happen to inhabit a blighted planet. In Tess of the D’urbervilles, Tess suffers even though she has done no wrong. She is essentially a pure woman more sinned against than sinning. She has no ‘tragic-flaw’ in the sense in which all the tragic heroes of Shakespeare have it. In this way, Hardy is the father of a new form of tragedy. He has given to the English novel depth, richness and significance.
The Creator of the Democratic Novel
To Thomas Hardy must go the credit of having democratised the English novel. Aristotle had taught that the hero (at least the tragic hero) of an epic, drama, or novel must belong to the highest rank of society so that his fall from his previous greatness may rouse the emotions proper to tragedy. Writers in general followed this precept of Aristotle. Witness, for example, the great tragic heroes of Shakespeare. But the heroes and heroines of the great Hardian tragedies are all drawn from the lowest rank of life. Hcnchard, the hero of The Mayor of Casterbridge, is a haytrusscr, Tess is a milkmaid, Giles is a cider-maker and pine-planter, Gabriel Oak is a shephard and Clym is a furze-cutter. He has thus completely broken away from tradition and his novels do not suffer in any way. He has revealed the essential nobility and grandeur of the soul of humble humanity that remains unknown in country isolation. Tess, though an humble milk-maid, has the nobility and grandeur befitting an empress. Hardy’s tragedy is as great an apotheosis of the human spirit as the tragedy of Shakespeare.
Hardy: Treatment of Sex
Hardy has broken new ground in another respect also. He was the first English novelist who dared to make a woman who had sinned, or who was an adulteress, the heroine of his novels. Tess is a woman with a past, yet Hardy has made her the heroine of Tess of the D’urbeivilles. Similarly, Sue Bridehead, heroine of Jude the Obscure, is an adulteress. Hardy thus shocked Victorian notions of morality and was vehemently criticised as being immoral and a corrupter of the people. His books were burnt. But he did not yield; he rather chose to give up novel-writing when the bitter attacks of his critics were too much for him.
Characterisation is an important aspect of the art of a novelist and Thomas Hardy is a master of the art of characterisation. Some of his characters are among the immortal figures of literature. They remind us of the immortal creations of Shakespeare. He chooses his characters from the lower strata of society because he believed that while the character and actions of people from high society are concealed by conventions, the rustics are free from any such control. Hence in their case character is fully revealed and can easily be portrayed. Thus Thomas Hardy excels in the portrayal of simple, elemental natures. His female characters are better and more forceful than his male characters, because women are more elemental, nearer to nature, than men. Thus his range of characterisation is limited. AH his important characters belong to Wessex and to the lower strata of society. When he strays out of Wessex or attempts to portray complex characters drawn from the upper classes of society, he fails miserably. But this does not mean that his characters have only a topical or local interest. He deals with the universal passions of man and so his characters are universal in their interest. They appeal to people in all ages and countries. One has to think only of Henchard, Clym, Tess, Eustacia, Giles, Marty South, etc., to realise the truth of his statement.
Thomas Hardy’s characters are all human beings, with common human weaknesses and virtues. They are neither saints nor angels, nor unredeemed villains. His characters may have some faults; they may sin but they are never mean. We never hate them, we love them despite their faults. They are grand even in the faults they might commit. They have conscience, and they are torn within themselves when they do some wrong. Henchard is jealous and revengeful, his wrongs are the result of impulse, never the result of calculated malice. Whatever we may call him, we can never call him mean. Similarly, Tess has sinned, but she is essentially a pure woman whom we pity, and whose heroic struggle against heavy odds we admire.
Hardy’s characters may be divided into two broad classes —major and minor. His major characters include such unforgetable. and forceful figures as Henchard, Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane. Clym, Eustacia, Giles, Marty South, Bathsheba, Gabriel Oak, Tess, Angel Clare, Sue, Jude, etc. His minor characters are sons of the soil, real children of the earth. They are representatives of antiquity. They perform the function of the Greek Chorus in the novels of Hardy. They comment on action and people and tell us of what has happened off the stage. They are the main source of humour in his novels. They provide a norm by which to judge the main characters of his novels. Often they are the spokesmen of Hardy himself and express his views on life. They appear in groups and generally remain in the background. They may be likened to the clowns of Shakespeare or to his rustics. They, too, are unforgetable and unique in their own way and constitute much of the charm of his novels. When they are absent, as from Tess, even the best of his novels lose something owing to their absence.
Hardy’s novels are masterpieces from the point of view of plot construction as well. They have an architectural finish and symmetry. The architectonics of Hardy have been praised by all who have studied him. The forethought, the careful planning, the pattern and design, the majesty and grandeur of the plots of his novels, is explained by his early architectural training. They are all massively built. As an edifice rises brick by brick, joined together by mortar according to a particular plan, so are Hardy’s plots constructed scene after scene, and his wessex and his philosophy are the cement that weilds the scenes into a single whole. Digressions are there, still everything develops according to a preconceived design. There is no looseness, unfinished odds and ends.
The Faults of His Plots
But his plots are old fashioned. They are all love stories. The wrong man meets the wrong woman or vice versa and thus complications arise leading the characters to their doom. The “eternal triangle”, is always there. Moreover, they follow the old fashioned dramatic plot-pattern in the convention of Fielding. There is action, sensation and thrill; but there is no such introspection, or psychol-analysis as we expect from a modern novelist, and as we get in the novels of writers like Henry James. While Hardy is a modern as far as the thought content of his novels is concerned, he is conventional and old fashioned in his plot construction. Moreover, his plots turn too much on chance and coincidence. This is unrealistic and jars upon the reader’s sense of probability.
The style of Hardy has come in for a great deal of criticism. Mr. Erza Pound accused him of writing with a blunted pencil. Others have called him pedantic for his use of obsolete, dialectic words and such words and expressions drawn from the terminology of the arts and the sciences, as are unlikely to be familar to the average reader. He has been condemned for his faulty grammar —for his split infinitives, unrelated participles, and the misuse of articles and prepositions. These arc serious faults, no doubt, anil it is right that they should be pointed out. But the fact remains that Thomas Hardy’s style is the best suited for his purposes. It is a poetic style. He has an almost Shakespearean felicity of expression, and has the rare, and invaluable nack of using the best word for his purpose. At every step his style reveals the sincerity of the man. He uses obsolete words and expressions, and scientific terminology only because he wants to be exact and convey his sense to the readers as accurately as possible. He is master of the use of similes and metaphors. When at his best, images after images come out of his pen as sparks from a chimney fire. His rustics speak their own dialect, but they use it most forcefully and effectively. Hardy instinctively chooses the best possible vehicle of expression for them and for himself.
The Modern Note
Hardy is largely a traditional novelist. His plots, his characters are all conventional. His narrative is straightforward. We do not find in him that probing into the human soul which we find in the modern psychological novel. He does not, “move backward and forward in time as a stream of consciousness” novelist does. He does not disregard chronology or the logical sequence of events. His form is conventional, but as far as his matter is concerned he is entirely a modern. He is a modern in his views of God and religion, and in his free and frank treatment of sex.
Position of Hardy as a Novelist
What is Hardy’s true position as a novelist ? To answer this question we can do no better than quote from the estimate of Thomas Hardy’s art given by L. Johnson in his admirable critique on our novelist : ‘In the largeness of design, in the march and sweep of imagination, in the greatness of his great themes, he has given to the novel a simple grandeur and impressiveness, the more impressive for his preoccupation with the concerns of modem thought.” Thus Hardy occupies an important place in the development of the English novel.