Hardy, a Specialist in Women
The touchstone of a novelist’s power is his handling of hi; female-characters, and Hardy is a specialist in the field. His male character: yield to his women, both in clarity and intensity. A number of bright and beautiful women, as glorious as the heroines of Shakespeare, move across the stage of the Wessex novels. Tess, Eustacia Vye, Bathsheba, Grace, Elfride, Sue, etc., are only a few of the portraits in the wonderful art-gallery of Thomas Hardy. It is an immense wealth of material that we find spread before us as soon as we enter the world. As Duflln points out, it is possible to divide the women of Hardy into four groups on the basis of the space devoted to their portraiture and of their personal significance in the action of the novel.
Classification of His Female Characters
Some of these delightful creatures are painted at full length and are of a high order of personality; Tess, Sue, Eustacia, Bathsheba, Elizabeth Jane, for instance. There is a second group which consists of full-length portraits, but of a much lower order of personality. To this group belong Elfride, Ethelberta, Grace, Viviette and Ann. There is a third group which consists of women who are neither studied at length nor are of any great personal significance — Paula and Fancy, Marty and Arabella, Thomasin, and Lucetta. To the fourth group belong those who remain standing modestly in the background, though, of course, each one of them too, is of great interest individually. Tabitha, Matilda, Fancy, Charlotte, the three Avices, the three milk-maids in Tess, Mrs. Yeobright, Mrs. Swancourt, Mrs. Malbury and Susan Henchard, all belong to this last category. It is all a glittering array, alluring enough to charm the mind and heart of any man.
The Secret of His Success
What gives Thomas Hardy this astonishing mastery over the female mind and heart ? For one thing, Hardy acted as the village Munshi when a boy at school at Dorchester. Village maidens used to approach him frequently to write their love letters. A woman’s heart and soul, her psychology, can be truly and really studied only when she is under the influence of love, and Thomas Hardy was lucky enough to get such an opportunity. He studied the psychology not only of one or two love-lorn maiden, but of quite a large number of them.-And when he took to novel-writing, he made good use of this knowledge. Secondly, women are more the creatures of instinct and impulse than men, and as Compton-Rickett puts it, Hardy’s greatest success is achieved with simple, primal characters : “Admirable as many of his male characters are, they yield both in clarity and intensity of interest to his women: and since woman is more elemental than man, swayed far more by the instinctive life, their superiority is another illustration of Hardy’s peculiar skill in dealing with the primal type.”
Thomas Hardy’s female characters are also subject, like his male characters, to the limitations of his imaginative range. He cannot draw successfully city-women or women belonging to the upper classes. Mrs. Charmond in the Woodlanders and Ethelberta in the Hand of Ethelberta are not among the successful creations of the novelist. He has practically, no thoroughly odious women; he simply cannot get into a really odious person, male or female. Even Arabella Don has a likeable side to her personality.
His Range and Variety
But within these limits, the range and variety of Hardy’s womanhood is astonishing. Even the women of the same type or category are skillfully distinguished from each other. Minute differences of personality, subtle distinctions, are carefully noted and brought out. A few instance would make the point clear. The most noted feature of Tess’ personality is, “her luxuriance of aspect” and, “a touch of animalism in her flesh”. Sue, on the other hand, is distinguished by her sexlessness, by her desire for marriage without physical union. She is a woman of the late developing type, in direct contradiction to less. Both these women are among Hardy’s masterpieces, and, as C. Duffin puts it, “One may wonder at the creative insight that enabled Hardy to handle these two opposite types with equal sympathy, understanding and conviction.” Love, both with Tess and Sue, is a passion, spiritual in nature, but how different ! With the former it is mixed up with the animal instinct of sex : with the latter it is entirely fleshless. Sue stands, similarly, in sharp contrast with Eustacia. They represent the two extremes of the splendid in women; the one, a woman governed by the spirit, and the other having rich sensuousness as her most dominant characteristic, and guided purely by her emotions and animal instinct. Yet Hardy uses the same phrase to describe them both. He calls both of them, “epicure in emotion”, but how different are the emotional feasts which they enjoy ! Similarly, Sue, Ethelberta and Elizabeth-Jane are all intellectuals, but the intellectuality of each of them is entirely different. Sue feels as well as thinks — a rare fusion of emotion and intellect; Ethelberta is nothing but cool, calculating reason, mathematical even in love; and Elizabeth Jane is a special type, a little philosopher, the only woman of Hardy with a sense of humour. Such power of differentiation is not a universal possession of great novelists. One is compelled to agree with Duffin that, “profound as is his comprehension of human nature itself, it is in the female personality that he is most marvelously learned.”
His Favourite Type
Though Hardy’s womanhood includes all types and natures, his, “favourite heroine is a country girl with a dash of culture.” The dash of culture may vary from woman to woman, but it is never much. Sue, Bathsheba, Elizabath-Jane, Grace, Marty South, Tabitha Lark, etc., are all pure country born and bred, and all have some slight cultural background. Only Tess; pure country bred, faces life in the full naked loveliness of ignorance absolute
His Women more Active than Men
Albert Gucrard in his famous study of Thomas Hardy’s novels point: out that his male characters have certain self-effacing quality which, “make: Hardy’s Women all the more vital.” He finds this contrast between Hardy’; male and female characters well-marked. It is just possible as, is pointed out by Hardy’s biographer, Evelyn Hardy, that the dominaing character of Hardy’s mother, and of his first wife, made him, “tend to regard woman as the more energetic and forceful of the sexes, around whom men revolve like obedient satellites.” However, it cannot be said of Hardy, as it has been said of Shakespeare, that, “he has no heroines”. His menfolk, Henchard, Clym, Jude, Oak, Angel Clare, etc., are as virile and energetic, as alive and kicking, as any one of his female characters.
Though Hardy’s pictures of womanhood glow with love and admiration, he was certainly no feminist. He was quite alive to feminine frivolity and weaknesses. The character of Elfride is almost a satire on womanhood. She prefers ear-rings to a, “well chosen little library of the best music,” because, she thinks, “It is of no good.” She insists that her lover should tell her that he likes the colour of her eyes even though he has told her frankly that he loves a different colour. Hardy is emphatic on the power of flatery—and jealously—over women. Bathsheba marries Troy, a worthless rascal, even though his behaviour is offensive and insuling, only because that behaviour signifies an admiration for her person. Women in Hardy, as in real life, are capable of the most astonishing errors in the judging of men. The portrait of Bathsheba, “is as distressing a picture of feminine folly as one may well desire, and the most distressing thing about it is that the picture is absolutely true to life. Never was the ruthless veracity of Hardy’s character-drawing made more plainly manifest”.
Moreover, all over his novels there are scattered observations on “the sex” not very favourable, and indicating an attitude which some would call cynical. Most of them are concerned with a woman’s inability to appraise a man. Here are a few such remarks taken at random :
1. ‘Women do not know how to manage an honest man.”
2. ‘Women are never tired of bewailing men’s fickleness in love but the) seem to snub his constancy”.
3. “Feminine opinion of a man’s worth is founded on nonessentials.”
4. “It is next to impossible for a woman to have a positive repugnance towards an unusually handsome and gifted man.”
5. “Directly domineering ceases in the man, snubbing begins in the woman.”
The last one has almost passed into a daily,’ household proverb. All these views are thoroughly realistic and their truth can easily be verified by personal observation.
The Suffering of Women
This very realism of Hardy is seen in the fact that women in his novels suffer more than his men. “Out of his ten principal heroines, five are brought to tragic ends after great suffering, and the rest endure great suffering. In the case of two — Tess and Eustacia — we get the soul’s tragedy more harrowing and painful than in the case of men.” But all this does not mean, as has sometimes been said, that Hardy took pleasure in inflicting tormant upon women.” It only means that Hardy is true to life; Women being the weaker sex suffer more in life : and so they also suffer more in the Wessex novels. “It is not Hardy who treats women cruelly, but life —life as Hardy saw it.”
Thus in his treatment of womanhood, Hardy is neither a feminist, nor a misogynist, but a realist. C. Duffin rightly remarks, “What Hardy could do for his women he did —he made them full of beauty, interest, fascination and lovable qualities of all kinds, he gave them great parts to play, and let them (generally) play these parts well. His estimate of women is high, but tempered and conditioned by keen observation of the realities around him.” He has a high ideal of her as a creature nobly planned and bright with angelic radiance, but he knows also that it is only in rare cases that she is found free, undimmed, ideal.