Towards the middle of the Victorian Age there was a reaction against Victorian materialism and optimism. The reaction became more effective in the last two decades of the 19th century and many writers, following the new scientific and philosophical theories, began to write novels which were labelled “Anti-Victorian”. They did not identify themselves with their age, as the early Victorians had done, but they were critical about it and attacked its superficial optimism. They began to write about the clash between man and his environment, illusion and reality, dreams and their fulfillment. Hardy was one of them.
LIFE: Thomas Hardy was born in a small village near Dorchester, in Dorset , in 1840. Since from his childhood, he was a melancholy boy, fond of nature and solitude. He was interested in books and prone to meditation.
He became an architect and moved to London. There he underwent an intellectual crisis which shook his religious beliefs. Dissatisfied with London life, he went back to Dorset . He met Emma Gifford who became his wife. Emma encouraged him to give up architecture and to become a full-time writer. In the following years he wrote many novels which were well accepted by the London literary society. His last novels were criticized for the excessive pessimism and many critics also attacked them as immoral. After his wife’s death he married his secretary. When he died, he was buried in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
WORKS: Hardy was a novelist as well as a poet. Among his first novels we can quote: Desperate Remedies (a tale of mystery,surprise and moral deviation) , Under the Greenwood Tree (two young lovers overcome many difficulties before they can happily marry), Far from the Madding Crowd (the vicissitudes of a farm labourer who eventually marries the woman he loves), The return of the Native (a selfish ambitious woman who distresses the life of many people .) They were successful enough and he decided to devote himself full-time to writing. He produced twelve novels which he defined as “novels of character and environment“ to mean the two elements which he thought shaped man’s destiny, one personal and the other social. These novels are also known as Wessex Novels because Wessex was their setting. Among his best novels we may quote The Mayor of Casterbridge (the story of a man who gets drunk and sells his wife and his daughter) and above all Tess of de D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles deals with a poor sensitive country girl of sixteen who is sent to work as a domestic of a rich family. She is seduced by their son, Alec, who is a cynical seducer. She runs away from him while she was pregnant and gives birth to a sick baby who soon dies. She starts a new work as a dairymaid and a new romance with Angel Clare, the son of a parson she had met there. They marry but on the wedding night she confesses to Angel her seduction by Alec. Angel rejects and abandons her and leaves for Brazil. She meets Alec again, and becomes his mistress. Angel repents and comes back to her. For fear of losing Angel a second time, Tess murders Alec and runs to Angel telling him what she had done. Angel promises to protect her and they hide near Stonehenge, where she is eventually arrested, tried and hanged for Alec’s murder.
As said before, the novel was considered immoral because her character, who according to the vision of the woman in the Victorian Age had to be considered a “fallen woman”, is defined by Hardy as “a pure woman”. It is likely that Hardy used this subtitle in ironic way because he wanted to stress the limited Victorian idea of moral purity.
While Tess is torn between two men, Alec, the flesh, and Angel, the spirit, in Jude the Obscure the situation is reversed. Here we have a main male character, Jude, who is torn between a woman representing purity, Sue, and another one representing sensuousness, Arabella. Jude is a young stonemason with intellectual aspirations. He wants to enter the university but he meets troubles because he falls in love with Arabella, a trivial and superficial woman, and he is tricked into marrying her. He is very soon deserted by his wife and turns to study again. But he falls in love with his cousin Sue, a sensitive and free spirit woman who is married to another man. Sue leaves her husband because she is physically disgusted by him and by sex in general.She goes to live with Jude but for some time they don’t have intimacy. Jude eventually persuades her to sleep with him and they have two children.They have problems with the local people because they live together unmarried. Jude loses his job and they live in poverty. In the family there is also a boy nicknamed “Little Father Time“.He is the son that Jude had had from his first marriage to Arabella. He is a disturbed boy. He thinks that he is responsible together with the other two children for Jude’s problems with the local people. He kills his step-brothers and commits suicide. Sue is convinced that her children’s death was God’s punishment because she lives with Jude unmarried. Then she leaves Jude to remarry her former husband. Jude,too, remarries Arabella, but he is still in love with Sue. He becomes seriously ill and dies within a year.
Jude the Obscure was the most fatalistic and the most pessimistic among Hardy’s novels. When it was published, it shocked the readers and caused a serious scandal because it dealt with taboos like sex and religion in such an explicit way to offend Victorian prudery. After that Hardy decided to stop writing novels and devoted to Poetry.
WESSEX: In the Anglo-Saxon period of the Heptarchy, Wessex was one of the seven Kingdoms. Hardy resumed the old name of his country because Dorset was included in Wessex. He made it the imaginary setting of most of his novels. Wessex was a unifying element of Hardy’s novels and also a link between past and present. Hardy himself justified the adoption of the term Wessex with his need to give “territorial definition and unity of scene” to his novels because ”the area of a single county did not affords a canvas large enough”.Wessex also provided the rural landscape and natural environment which he described in detail and which acted not only as a background but also as an essential part of the story.
INFLUENCES: the first influences were the ones coming from his parents and from the place he lived in, the Dorset , which he loved so much.
His father transmitted him the love for music, folk songs and ballads, while his mother made him love literature. The county of Dorset, in South-West England, a rural country with historical remains such as Stonehenge, Roman ruins, Saxon and Norman castles, was the setting to many of his novels.
As far as the development of his intellectual formation, he was influenced by his best friend, Horace Moule, who encouraged Hardy’s passion for writing, pushing him to study Greek drama and European literature. When Horace committed suicide, Hardy was enormously struck by his tragic death. The greatest influences were, however, the ones coming from Darwin and Arthur Schopenhauer.
PESSIMISM: Hardy had a pessimistic view of life. He was above all affected by Darwin’s The Origin of The Species and by the quarrel between the Christians and the scientists. He was also deeply struck by the new geological discoveries which had shown, against the Christian traditional belief, that the world had existed longer than man. This led him to refuse Christian doctrine and the Bible and to develop his pessimistic theory according to which man, because of his HEREDITY, was predestined to failure. He was no longer responsible for his actions which were determined by forces beyond his control(Shakespeare).Being a creature conditioned by heredity, he was deprived of all FREE WILL and so he was at the mercy of an indifferent FATE he could not oppose to. He was alone in his desperate struggle to survive, a powerless victim of an IMMANENT WILL (Schopenhauer) which corrupted his possibilities of happiness.
NATURE: In this context also Nature, like the indifferent God, leaves man alone in his struggle for survival against destiny: it is a step-mother( Leopardi) which turns from a friend into a hostile indifferent power. But, notwithstanding that, Hardy loved Nature very much. His love for Nature is like the one of Wordsworth and the Romantics. He believed that ”only in rustic life man could reach his passion to the full”. To Hardy nature and man were inexplicably joined. In one of his poems, Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard, he describes the dead living again in plants fed by their decomposing bodies (Dylan Thomas).
CHARACTERS: He wrote that his aim was “to illustrate the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead and the squalid real life he was fated to live”(Larkin). All his heroes are denied happiness by the malign influence of hostile destiny; they are only “poor puppets” or playthings of Fate, doomed to failure and sorrow. In their lives, as Hardy said, “Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain”. His characters are mostly ordinary men and women, simple country folk or the inhabitants of the country towns. He wrote about simple people who had personal dreams and aspirations (power for the Mayor of Casterbridge, education for Jude, marriage and happiness for Tess ). The minor characters, usually rustics, often appear as a source of humour and speak the rich west county dialect.
THEMES: the constant themes in Hardy’s novels are: the struggle between man and the indifferent impersonal forces, inside and outside him, that control his life; the clash of modern man with man’s natural life, his instincts, his landscape and security; the alienation one from the other of the city and the country; the vision of man trapped in the implacable mechanism of the Fate that works through a series of coincidences and accidents and the destruction of man’s true nature by the modern world(Lawrence); Love, that quite often ends in disillusion and failure, either destroyed by Institutions like marriage or by society or even more by the operation of the Fate.
Because of his last novels, (Jude and Tess ) he was charged with nihilism, lack of religious belief and immorality.
THE POET: When Hardy stopped writing novels, he devoted to poetry, which had been his first love. He wrote a lot of poems, some of which can be mentioned among the best in English Literature. His poetry can be considered post-Victorian because it is very different from the one of the great Victorian poets. He wrote sonnets,elegies, ballads and other different types of poems. They share with the novels the same view of life and deal with the same themes. He also wrote poems on the war and may be considered a forerunner of the “War Poets“(Owen,Sassoon).