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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)

By Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)

THOMAS HARDY is of that rare fellowship of novel-writers who are actuated in their portrayal of life by a spirit as disinterested and as seemingly unsympathetic as the spirit of nature itself. His realism is indeed less the realism of art than of the raw material of everyday existence. His straightforward account of the changes and chances of this mortal state is unsoftened by optimistic prejudice. But precisely how far his creations are true to the facts of human experience, is a matter of individual rather than of general judgment. An analysis of his most characteristic novels may show that their realism is after all one-sided, and that they are closer exponents of a Hardy theory regarding life, than of life itself.

What is this theory? and how is it embodied in Hardy’s novels? Stating it briefly, it is that the law which governs human events is rendered just beyond calculation by an admixture of luck. There is just enough of chance in the moral order to warrant the implication of jugglery in the Ten Commandments. Acknowledging no creed, this most modern of modern novelists is eminently Calvinistic in his portrayal of men and women as predestined to misfortune or failure; as pulled about or tossed about at the impish pleasure of the god Circumstance. The keynote of his work indeed is the effect of circumstance—of luck—upon man’s war with the lower elements in his nature. Some foreordained event for which he is in no wise responsible turns the tide of the battle against him; yet he is held accountable for his defeat. He reaps where he has not sown. He is overwhelmed with punishments for sins committed by others. He is literally badgered through life by the modern devil of ill luck. In ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ the heroine Elfride is victimized by circumstances. The adverse star is already risen above her brow when the book opens. She goes artlessly as a child into the hopeless labyrinth of mischance from which death alone can release her. Tess is an innocent sinner, browbeaten by bad luck into a guilty one. So persistent is this evil fortune, this malign spell which might be broken by a word more or less, that Tess becomes well-nigh an irresponsible being, a mere bruised flower floating on an irresistible current of doom.

Between these two heroines, the one of Hardy’s earliest, the other of his latest day, is a long sequence of men and women, all more or less handicapped by fortune. Their humanity is traceable with greater distinctness in their failures than in their successes. Hardy is perhaps the first novelist except George Eliot who has had the courage to portray failure. What he himself calls “the optimistic grin which ends a story happily” is never present in his work. His stories end much as the little dramas of real life end: in compromise, in the tacit acknowledgment that it is better to make the best of a bad bargain and so to live on in a semblance of security, than to die for the impossible.

Hardy himself began to undergo life in 1840. At the age of sixteen he entered upon the study of architecture. For several years he vacillated between literary pursuits and his chosen profession. His first novel, ‘Desperate Remedies,’ published in 1870, showed at least that he was a good story-teller. Characteristically, the persons of the book are all engaged more or less in a tussle with adverse circumstances; but the melodramatic elements in the intricate plot remove it from the sphere of great art. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ followed fast upon ‘Desperate Remedies.’ In this woodland story, Hardy first exhibits the fairest qualities of his genius. It is free from the taint of the battledore-and-shuttlecock conception of man and the almighty Something in the clutch of which he wriggles. It is an idyl of the fields. That wonderful grasp of rural life which marks Hardy out from his contemporaries and links him at times with Shakespeare, is here shown in its fullness; the smell of the primeval earth is here; between Hardy and the rustic there is a living bond. Few authors have been able to do as he has done, to depict Hodge in his native fields in such a manner that the humorous aspect of the picture will be most apparent.

Hardy’s peasantry say nothing which is consciously witty. His art has discovered the unconscious humor of their homely talk. The serenade of the church choir in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree,’ the gossip of the rustics opening a vault in ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes,’ are rich in this elemental humor. So talk the clowns of Shakespeare; Grandfer Cantle is linked with Dogberry. Yet the clowns of Hardy have a worldly wisdom of their own. In ‘The Return of the Native’ the question of the advisability of church-going is discussed by the natives of Egdon Heath. “I ha’n’t been these three years,” said Humphrey; “for I’m so mortal sleepy of a Sunday, and ’tis so mortal far to get there, and when you do get there ’tis such a mortal poor chance that you’ll be chose for up above, when so many bain’t, that I bide at home and don’t go at all.” Here are a few observations on dancing:—

  • “You be bound to dance at Christmas, because ’tis the time of the year: you must dance at weddings, because it is the time of life. At christenings folks will even smuggle in a reel or two, if ’tis no further on than the first or second chiel. And this is not naming the songs you’ve got to sing. For my part, I like a good hearty funeral as well as anything. You’ve as splendid victuals and drink as at other parties, and even better, and it don’t wear your legs to stumps in talking over a poor feller’s ways as it do to stand up in hornpipes.”
  • In ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes,’ Hardy’s third novel, he passes under the domination of the one aspect of life which has impressed him most forcibly. Little Elfride, the blue-eyed heroine, the dainty child of the hills, formed by nature for tenderness and joy, is unlucky enough to have been beloved, before the story opens, by a village youth in her father’s parish. She was not altogether unconscious of his far-off worship. She led him on a little. Through that slight girlish concession to a passing coquetry she blights her life. Her punishment is out of all proportion to her offense. The youth pines away and dies. His mother becomes the active enemy of Elfride. She blackens a thoughtless adventure of the girl’s with a subsequent lover into a sin, and by means of this scandal alienates forever the one man above all others whom Elfride really loves. She in her turn tightens the miserable tangle of affairs by an over-exaggeration of her imprudence. She makes the mistakes of a schoolgirl, and is punished for the sins of a woman.

    In ‘The Return of the Native’ it is the hero who plays this uneven game with chance; and chance, as so often happens in Hardy’s novels, takes the form of a woman. It is Eustacia Vye, “with pagan eyes full of nocturnal mysteries,” who leads Clym Yeobright into the wilderness of love, stripped of his ambitions. “Throw a woman into this bargaining matter of life, and its intricacies are increased tenfold,” might be Hardy’s motto in the treatment of his “dainty heroines.” And here a word may be said concerning these heroines. Hardy’s women are even more real than his men. He understands woman nature, or rather the nature of the eternal woman as opposed to the woman who is an artificial product of a period or of a system. Sue in ‘Jude the Obscure’ is the one striking exception to this rule. She is the type of the over-civilized, neurotic female who has unholy shivers over nature’s pure ordinance of marriage. Happily she has no predecessors. She has little in common with the warm, bright Bathsheba, with the tender, fair Lady Constantine, with demure little Anne, with the quaint and gentle Elizabeth Jane, with Elfride, or with the frankly human ‘Group of Noble Dames.’ Hardy’s women are always lovable; and because they are so they make men more or less irresponsible, and thus add to the confusion, the moral disorder, of which Hardy sees so much in the working out of character. In ‘Two on a Tower’ Lady Constantine draws the eyes of the boy astronomer from the stars to gaze into her own. She enters his life only to render his primitive austere devotion to science forever impossible. Eustacia Vye leads Clym Yeobright a devious dance in the direction of nowhere. Jude is purloined from a possible Oxford career, first by Arabella, then by Sue. But women are not altogether to blame for the mischief which is always brewing in Hardy’s novels. ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ is the story of a man hampered by himself. In a fit of drunkenness, he sells his wife and child to the highest bidder. For his hour of dissipation he pays a lifetime of struggle and remorse.

    The irony of circumstance is ever present in Hardy’s portrayal of the ambitions and good intentions of men and women. Their “hopes and fears, so blind and yet so sweet,” have always death about them to Hardy: the trickery of death, its hideous surprises, its untimely interventions. In ‘Life’s Little Ironies,’ a middle-aged man, laboring under the delusion that marriage can patch up a wrong done to a woman, heroically resolves to take this step after many years of cowardice. His melodramatic self-sacrifice to the woman once sacrificed to him is turned by the irony of circumstance into mere clumsiness, since his appearance in the neglected little family ruins the chances of his daughter to make a match of smug respectability. In ‘Fellow-Townsmen,’ one of the ‘Wessex Tales,’ Lucy Saville, a middle-aged widow, says no to the man who has loved her and waited for her through many years, because she does not think it good form to say yes at once. She sends a note after him, however, asking him to call again; but he has taken her at her word, and has left the town forever. Such an incident has a marked resemblance to certain incidents of real life. Hardy has the courage always to tell a thing as it really happened, not as weak-hearted humanity would like it to happen.

    In ‘Tess’ Hardy has written the modern classic of misfortune; in ‘Tess’ the finest and most characteristic qualities of his art are focused. In the portrayal of this primitive tragedy, this spirit-rending story of a girl’s struggle with destiny, Hardy has put forth his consummate effort. In ‘Tess’ the Calvinistic idea of fate, predestination, the treacherous power outside of ourselves which makes for confusion, as opposed to the rational Greek idea of pursuing punishment for sins committed,—in ‘Tess’ this Calvinistic idea receives its finished embodiment. The subtle poison of the book lies in the false theory which actuated its production, not in the working out of the theory. Tess is a pure woman; the defiant sub-title is unnecessary. Only the inexperienced would wag their heads dubiously over it as they read the tale in sheltered and respectable parlors. Hardy to the contrary, it is society, not the Almighty, which is to blame for the moral gaucherie, for the malignant blunders which entrap Tess. Nature is non-moral. She herself would have put no obstacles in the way of the recuperation of this fair-souled, high-minded country lass, knocked into the mud by a lustful hoof. The virginal spirit of the maiden would have regained the birthright violently snatched from her, if conventional opinion in the form of Angel Clare had not intervened. This young man, half seraph, half prig, meets Tess at a dairy, miles away from the scene of her trouble. He is a gentleman’s son, and the gentle nature in him is drawn to this rare wild flower sprung from the forgotten graves of the D’Urberville knights. He loves the maiden Tess. On their marriage day he confesses a certain folly of his, a three-days’ unholy fever for an unworthy woman. Tess gives back confession for confession. Clare, under the spell of false tradition, throws her from the heights which she has regained back into the limbo of the hopeless. He cannot separate her body from her soul. He the deliberate sinner passes judgment on her, the sinned against. Rejected by love itself as unclean, Tess drifts on to her tragic doom. The mercifulness of nature and of God are alike unknown to her. Her case is against man. In ‘Tess’ Hardy has perhaps unconsciously stigmatized the man-made moral order.

    The soil which smells of grass and flowers in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree,’ in ‘Jude the Obscure’ sends up a sour odor to the nostrils. If ‘Tess’ is the classic of the unlucky, ‘Jude’ is the classic of the neurotic woman. The hero has after all little to do with the working out of the story. His part is to a great degree passive. Like certain other heroes of Hardy, he is born under an evil star. His boyish ambition to become a student at Oxford is thwarted continually by the assertions of his lower nature; but—and this again is essentially in the spirit of Hardy—accident, chance, take sides with his baser elements. He is tricked into marriage with the sensual Arabella. He has the misfortune to run across his cousin Sue at a time when it is most necessary for the accomplishment of his purpose that he should enter into the sexless temper of the scholar. Sue is intellectual, pseudo-passionate, morbidly pure. She is a type of the modern woman, whose intellect is developed at the expense of her earthy nature. The awful innocence of Sue throughout the book is the innocence of the bold thinker whose flights of fancy reach to Mars, but who knows nothing of the soil underfoot. It is futile to call the actions of the two bewildered children Jude and Sue immoral; a new adjective will have to be evolved to meet their essentially modern case. ‘Jude’ is the book of an era where between one and one there is always a shadowy third.

    Hardy’s novels of rustic life will give probably the most pleasure to coming generations. The chapters of the dairy life in ‘Tess,’ the idyl of the lush green meadows, will save her tragedy from oblivion. ‘Far from the Madding Crowd,’ with its troop of men and maidens of the fields, will give solace when ‘A Laodicean’ is well-nigh forgotten. ‘The Trumpet-Major’ and ‘The Return of the Native’ are revivingly sweet and clean with the breath of the sea and with the heather-scented wind of the moors. In Hardy’s stories of his beloved Wessex country there is the perennial refreshment of nature. His peasantry are primitive. Their quaint humor, their wise saws, their hold upon Mother Earth, might have been characteristic of the homely parents of the race in the first dawn of the world. They are “representative of a magnificent antiquity.”

    Hardy is as much in sympathy with the natural world as he is with those men and women who seem a part of the soil on which they live. He has the love of genius for the open air. Nature is the perpetual background for the scenes of his novels; and as in Shakespeare, the aspect of nature reflects the moral atmosphere of the scene. The happiest time of Tess’s life begins in the flowery months of May and June. Her desolate existence, after she has been forsaken by her husband, coincides with the bitter, barren winter-time upon the upland moors. Elfride’s love story seems well-nigh a part of the processes of nature in its interchange of storm and sunshine. The majority of Hardy’s people are near to nature: sensitive, passionate lovers of the sea, and of the heath. His genius comprehends at once the natural, primitive man, and man the product of modern hypercultivation. In this wideness of human view lies perhaps his surest claim to greatness.