A long battle has waged on between critics who blame Thomas Hardy, one of the greatest post-Victorian writers, of pessimism and those critics who favour Hardy’s meliorism. Therefore a further discussion over this would seem hackneyed. I, so seek to ruminate over the reasons of his ‘not so cheerful vision of life’. Some reasons are common enough like the influence of the Victorian Age on him and the growing estrangement between his wife and him. However if we probe deeper the latent reasons become apparent. His sensitive and vulnerable nature, his quest for the ‘well-beloved’, the influence of his native land of Wessex on him, his love for the mysterious yet mesmerizing Tryphena Sparks, his strained relation with Horace Moule because of it, his dislike of London life, his lack of religious faith and shattering of belief in Christianity, his childlessness, the death of his friends and beloved dog ‘Wessex’ among others were the myriad which served to make Mr. Hardy a sad man.
Thomas Hardy. After the publication of his first book ‘Desperate Remedies’, Mr. Hardy’s pen produced one gem after another. However his gems were overshadowed by a penumbra of darkness. He was coined as a ‘pessimist’. His feeble protests fell on deaf ears. Rather he himself said- “January 1, 1902 A pessimist’s apology-Pessimism (or rather what is called such) is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.”1 Many scholars since then have tried to delve into the reasons behind this gloomy vision of life. Throwing fresh light in this direction therefore was a daunting work.
However, rummaging through his life, his works, critical works on him, I found a number of causes which probably contributed their due share to his ‘not so cheerful view of life’. First of all we must understand the person Thomas Hardy and not just the author Mr. Hardy the writer. Thomas from a very early age was a boy of gloomy temperament. He became sad for reasons not even known to him. Gloominess surrounded him like a cloak. It wrapped and enclosed him in its sordid embrace. He was moved to tears by tunes played by his father- “This peculiarity in him troubled the mind of ‘Tommy’ as he was called, and set him wondering at a phenomenon to which he ventured not to confess. He used to say in later life that like Calantha in Ford’s ‘Broken Heart’ he danced on these times to conceal his weeping. He was not over four years of age at this date.”2 This melancholic nature grew with him and at a very young age life was but an empty show for him. He dons the mask of Father Time-the unfortunate son of Jude and Arabella in ‘Jude the Obscure’ and speaks- “All laughing comes from misapprehension .Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the Sun.”3 This peculiar feeling of sadness persisted with Mr. Hardy throughout his life. It became a second nature to him and spontaneously found its way to his novels, in which he tried to show his ‘real heart’.
He was also constantly affected by sights and scenes around him. He usually never forgot these incidents and faithfully penned down in some or the form in his novels. He was more often than not affected by the macabre and the gloomy things. He was greatly affected by human suffering like the death of a shepherd boy due to starvation brought tears of pity to his eyes “These sad incidents marred the innocent Thomas and this unforgettable pain, stamped itself so deeply on his imagination that when his facilities had reached the restive stage of development, he conceived his picture of life in its terms.”4
Another very important reason for his tragic inclination was his native land of Wessex. Mr. Hardy’s deep understanding of nature and his belief that it was the all over-powering force in whose hand, man was a mere tool, was due to his close proximity to a wild country side. Lord David Cecil comments in this regard- “His theme is mankind’s predicament in the Universe. The world he lived in had something to do with this. There was plenty of tragedy in the life of the Wessex labourer, with its poverty and its passion….Hardy too, was the man to realise the tragedy implicit in such a life.”5
In his famous novel ‘The Return of the Native’ Mr. Hardy through the character of Clym Yeobright describes his own love for Egdon Heath- “If anyone knew the heath well, it was Clym. He was permeated with its scenes, with its substance and with its odours. He might be said to be its product. His eyes had first opened thereon…..”6 Writes H.C.Duffin in this connection- “One might find much interest in the question of how great was the influence of Egdon on the shaping and colouring of Hardy’s genius. For he was born on the edge of the heath and ‘It was his playground when his genius was germinating.’ The paragraph which says of Clym Yeobright that ‘he was permeated with its scenes, with its substance and with its odours. He might be said to be its product…..His estimate of life has been coloured by it’- This is obviously autobiographical. Certainly the place, “perfectly accordant with man’s nature- ghastly, hateful nor ugly. Neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame, but- like man, slighted and enduring,” is eminently symbolical of Hardy’s Philosophy.”7
Another very important cause of Hardy’s embitterment was his struggle with religious belief. He could not be anchored to one common or dominant faith and was easily swayed by people around him in this matter. An incident of this can be found in an incident of July, 1856. As a student of architecture, he met a fellow pupil named Bastow, who had been brought up as a Baptist. This boy- “he said he was going to be baptized, and in fact was baptized shortly after. He, so impressed young Hardy with his earnestness and the necessity of doing likewise that though the junior pupil had been brought up in high church principles, he almost felt that he ought to be baptized again as an adult.”8
Though later on he realized there was no need of adult baptism, but he could not believe in Christian doctrines and practices. Therefore a very important reason of Mr. Hardy’s pessimistic temperament was his lack of religious faith. Concluding ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, he mutters –‘The President of the immortals has ended its sport with Tess’. Here Hardy’s tone is one of bitterness and resentment towards the omnipotent and omniscient Heavenly Father. In most of his novels Mr. Hardy does not represent God as benevolent and benign. His soul strived to find a ‘lord that it could magnify’ and he spoke of himself as ‘the would-be-religious’. In the end he parted ways with the Church. This step however left an indelible mark on his mind and greatly strengthened his gloomy attitude of life.
It is said we are a by-product of the Age in which we live. The same can be said about our great author. The Victorian Age, of which he was a part, was an age of sham and artificiality, of gloom and pessimism, of doubt and anxiety. It was an age of materialism and competition. Religion and Science were at logger’s head. Literally, every author or poet of that age dipped his pen in the ink of sorrow and pain and gave vent to their feeling of agony and anguish. Mr. Hardy’s cry was perhaps the most poignant.
Mr. Hardy’s dislike of London, the city in which he had to spend a good part of his life, his quest for his ‘Well-beloved’, his involvement with Tryphena and Horace Moule, growing estrangement with his wife Emma, their childlessness, death of his friends and his dear dog ‘Wessex’ all pulled the strings of his growing antipathy for life and its rosy vision.
However to end this research work, it is essential to mention that Mr. Hardy himself refuted the charges of pessimism and preferred the tag of a ‘meliorist’ instead. Many critics and scholars also support this claim of his. But the genius that Thomas Hardy was should not be put within brackets. A particular theory should not be imposed on him. Plain and simple he was a maestro, a maestro par excellence.
1. Michael Millgate(ed.) - The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy-MacmillanPress,1989 pp.333
2. Ibid pp.19
3. Thomas Hardy- Jude the Obscure- UBSPD Publication,1995 pp.410
4. Lord David Cecil- Hardy, the Novelist- London Constable,1954 pp.16
5. Ibid pp.19-20
6. Thomas Hardy- The Return of the Native- Oxford University Press,1990 pp.175
7. H.C.Duffin- Thomas Hardy- Oxford University Press,1963 pp.130
8. Michael Millgate(ed.)- The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy- Macmillan Press,1989 pp.33
Dr. Rinku Basu
Lecturer, Deptt. of English,
K.P. Inter College, Allahabad U.P.