The Pessimism of Thomas Hardy

Is Hardy a Pessimist?
Much ink has been spilt in proving, and disproving too, that Hardy is a pessimist through and through. But Hardy himself repeatedly denied this charge in his prefaces, letters and diaries. He called himself an “evolutionary meliorist” and a realist. Let us here examine the arguments, both for and against, and then from our own conclusions.

Arguments of Hardy’s Critics
Those who charge Hardy with being a pessimist do so on account of his ‘twilight’ or gloomy view of life. They point out that in Hardy’s considered view all life is suffering. Suffering is the universal law and happiness is but an occasional episode. In one of his poems, “Tire Poet’s Epitaph”, he calls life a “senseless school” and in another one that “Life offers only to deny.” In hide the Obscure a child, called Father Time, murders his step brothers and sisters and then hangs himself. He does so because he feels that life is not worth living, and it is better not to have been born at all. Hardy himself adds the comment that Father Time symbolises the coming universal wish not to live.
Hardy Pessimistic about the First Cause
Moreover, Hardy’s critics point out, he is pessimistic about the governance of the world. He rejected early in life the Christian belief in a benevolent and omnipotent anthropomorhic God or First Cause. He rather conceives of Him as malevolent, as one who take delight in the suffering of us mortals. In Tess we are told, “Justice was done, and the President of the immortals had ended this sport with Tess.”
In one of his poems he speaks of the Creator as, “Godhead dying downwards, with eyes and head all gone” and elsewhere refers to it as some “vast imbecility”. Thus in his view ‘the supreme power is blind, imbecile and malevolent and it takes joy in killing and torturing his innocent creation. In this ill-conceived scheme of things, with an hostile imbecility as the supreme governing force, there can be nothing but, “strange orchestra of victim shriek and pain.” If this is not pessimism, ask the critics of Hardy, then what is?
Hardy’s Own Point of View
But Hardy vehemently denied this charge, times out of number. He pointed out that he was an artist and not a philosopher. It would be wrong to read any considered belief or theory of life in his mood-dictated writings. Expressions, like the one in Tess, regarding the President of the immortals, were simply poetic fancies, merely poetic devices like the use of ghosts, witches, fairies, etc., commonly used in all imaginative literature. Poems like “The Poet’s Epitaph” were merely impressions of the moment and did not represent his considered view. He should not be judged by them. In his letters, diaries and prefaces he frequently explained his own point of view and called himself an, “evolutionary meliorist”, or an “explorer of reality.”
Hardy a Realist and Not Pessimist
The fact is that Hardy was a thorough realist. Born and bred in a scientific age, he could not shut his eyes to the fact of suffering. Therefore, the cheap, blind optimism of poets, like Browning, who sang,
“God is in His heaven
All is right with the world.”
failed to satisfy him. Rather, the brutal and ruthless struggle for existence which he saw being waged in Nature everywhere, the starvation, hunger, sickness and disease which stalks the earth, made him feel that God was not in heaven and all was wrong with the world. He claimed, and rightly, that his position was nearer the truth. Nor could he agree with the Romantic poets, like Wordsworth, who said that Nature had a “Holy plan” and that there was joy everywhere in Nature. How could it be so, when number of children were born to shiftless parents, like the Durbeyfields, to bring misery to themselves and to others. The world was already over crowded, there were already too many hungry mouth to be fed. Acutely conscious of this fact of universal suffering, he felt with his own Jude that mutual butchery was the law of nature. This is not pessimism, but realism. This state of affairs can be mended not by turning our backs to it, but by facing it squarely. He therefore taught :
“If a way to the better there be
It implies a good look at the worst.”
This is a perfectly sane and healthy view of life and no rightminded person can object to it.
Hardy’s View of the First Cause: Scientific
As regards the creation and the Creator, Hardy was much influenced by the scientific theories of his age. He agreed with evolutionary scientists, like Darwin, that the universe could not have been created out of nothing by a single act of creation. It was in a constant process of evolution. With all modern thinkers, he lost faith in the benevolent, anthropomorphic God of Christian orthodoxy and conceived of the First Cause as an inhering force or energy, working constantly from within. Thus Hardy’s universe is in a constant state of evolution. He conceives of this energy as indifferent and unconscious, without any hostility or any sense of pleasure in causing pain. This is his considered view. But when carried away by his indignation, he shakes his fist at the cause of things and personifies it as a conscious and hostile Creator. For example, with indignation burning in his heart at the unmerited suffering of Tess, he calls the First Cause as the President of the Immortals who kill us for their sport. He may be excused for inch poetic’fancies, for they have been made use of by all poets and writers of fiction. They do not reflect in any way this logical position.
Ultimate Enlightenment of the First Cause
Moreover, he believes that this energy or power would gradually evolve consciousness and then human lot would undergo amelioration. Towards the end of his epic-drama, The Dynasts, his most philosophical work, he holds out a hope of the gradual emergence of a better order of things. In this drama, he calls the First Cause, Immanent Will, and says that already,
“….. a sound of joyance thrills the air,
Consciousness the will informing
Till it fashion all things fair,
And the rages of the ages shall be mended.”
This is certainly not pessimism. It may be what Hardy called, “evolutionary meliorism.”
Philosophy of Resignation, Not of Nihilism
Besides this, Hardy is not a Nihilist. Except in his last novel Jude the Obscure, he never advocates a rejection of life. Suffering, no doubt, is the universal law but human lot can be ameliorated a great deal through tact and wisdom and through wise social reform. It is a philosophy of resignation which he teaches. The Wessex rustics are resigned to their lot and suffer patiently. Joan Durbeyfield’s suffering is not so intense, because when faced with misfortune she again and again mutters, “It was to be”, and then goes about her way as usual. Elizabeth-Jane and Thomasin tactfully adjust themselves to their circumstances and so escape much misery.
Emphasis on Wise Social Reform
Social reforms can go a long way towards ameliorating human lot. Marriage laws, specially, should be liberalised in favour of the fair sex. ‘Pure’ women, like Tess, who are more sinned against than sinning, should not be looked down upon and treated as outcasts. Our double standards of morality must go. A marriage should be dissolved as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the two contracting parties, for it is then no marriage at all.
Hardy’s View of Man
Moreover, Hardy does not take a degarded view of mankind. Odious villains, detestable and condemnable rascals, are few in the Wessex Novels and none of them is an unredeemed villain. Thomas Hardy cannot draw completely odious people. David Cecil writes in this connection, “Odiousness implies meanness; and mean people neither feel deeply nor are aware of any issues larger than those involved in the gratification of their selfish desires.” If Hardy tries to draw such a mean person, he is a dreadful failure. It does not mean that all his successful creations are virtuous. Henchard and Eustacia commit sins, but they do so in a grand manner. There is no calculated selfishness in them. Moreover, they know they are wrong : they are torn with conscience. They are simply carried away by an over-mastering passion. Therefore, we do not dislike them. Mankind for Hardy always assumes heroic proportions. The Wessex Novels are the, “apotheosis of the human spirit”, and not expositions of its meanness.
Hardy a Humanist, and Not a Pessimist
The spirit of, “Loving-kindness”, Hardy advocates, should he the basis of all human relations. Much of human misery results from the imperfections of the First Cause, but much more suffering can be avoided if we are kind and sympathetic to each other. Instead of seeking refuge in nature and turning our back on life, we should rather turn to our own kind, for,
“There at least discourse trills around,
There at least smiles abound,
There sometimes are found,
A poet who could write like this cannot be called a pessimist. Thomas Hardy is a ‘humanist” or what he called himself an, “Evolutionary meliorist.”
To Sum Up
1.      There has been hot controversy as to whether Hardy    is a pessimist or not.
2.      Those who consider him a pessimist point out :
(a)    In his view all life is suffering and happiness is only an occasional interlude.
(b)    The ruling power is blind, unconscious of human suffering and lacking in moral sense. Its activity is purposeless.
3.      Hardy considered himself a realist and an evolutionary meliorist. He believed that,
(a)    If a way to the better there is, it requires a good look at the worst.
(b)    The rulling power would be gradually enlightened with the passing of time.
 (c)    Human lot can be improved by tactful and adjustment to one’s. circumstance, by wise social reform and “loving-kindness.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s