Hardy was an artist and not a philosopher. He repeatedly affirmed that the ‘Views’ expressed in his novels were not his convictions or beliefs; they were simply “impressions” of the moment. His writings were all, ‘mood dictated’, merely, ‘explorations of reality, and so it would be wrong to expect any systematized philosophy of life. But when certain impressions persist and are constantly repeated in the creative works, diaries and letters, of a writer, the readers may be pardoned, if they take them to be his convictions. Moreover, Hardy is so often passing from particular facts to life in general that we may safely take some of his views to be his philosophy of life. In Hardy’s considered view, all life is suffering. Man suffers from the moment of his birth up to his death. Happiness is only occasional; it is never the general rule. As he says in “Vice Mayor of Casterbridge’, “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain”. There is none who gets more than he deserves but there are many who get much less than what they deserve. Not only man suffers, but all nature suffers. Suffering is writ large on the face of nature. A ruthless, brutal struggle for existence is waged everywhere in nature. All nature is red in tooth and claw and life lives upon life. Thus all life, including human life, is subject to this law of suffering and none can escape the operation of this law. But what is the cause of this universal suffering of man and nature alike. In Hardy’s view, the real cause is the “imperfection of the laws that may be in force on high.” Thus human suffering is the result of the imperfections of the First Cause, the power that caused or created this sorry scheme of things. He rejects the orthodox Christian belief that this power is benevolent, all-merciful, omnipotent and omniscient. He cannot reconcile the fact of universal, undeserved suffering with the omnipotence and benevolence of God or the First Cause. He indignantly asks, “What makes suffering and evil necessary to its omnipotence?” He regards this power as blind, indifferent, if not actually hostile, and unconscious and immoral. He uses ‘it’ and not ‘He’ for this power. This power has no sense of right or wrong, love or hate. In this blind, unconscious, impersonal working, it does not, and cannot, take into account human wishes and aspirations. Hence it’s working often causes men much pain and suffering. Usually, Nature in Hardy remains indifferent to and unconscious of, the suffering of Hardy’s character. For example, Tess’ suffering goes unheeded in Nature. She is violated in the lap of Nature, but all Nature remains unconcerned and indifferent. But sometimes, Nature seems to work against the characters of Hardy, or we, in our sympathy for them, feel nature to be hostile. The Return of the Native is a tragedy of character and environment; Egdon Heath plays a prominent part in the novel and is largely responsible for the tragedy. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the very stars seem to be hostile to Henchard. The fair organized by him, with such generosity and care, is ruined by untimely unexpected rain. The vagaries of weather ruin him financially and make him bankrupt. Bad weather had been foretold and on that basis, he made reckless purchases. But the weather cleared and he had to sell at far lower prices. Then quite unaccountably the weather changed again. There was rain and hail and Henchard was a financial wreck. Nature, thus, seems to be the instrument of some hostile power working against Henchard. It is in this sense that Nature is fate in Hardy’s novels. Sometimes, the ruling power on high expresses itself through the irony of circumstance. By the irony of circumstance, Hardy simply means that in this ill-conceived scheme of things the contrary always happens. We expect one thing and get its exact opposite. This results in much-undeserved suffering. Right things never happen at the right time: they happen either not at all, or too late when their happening brings nothing but misery and suffering in their train. The character may be destiny in Shakespeare, but it is certainly not so in Hardy’s worldview. In Hardy’s philosophy, the character is responsible for suffering only to a limited extent. Inherited traits and inborn instincts determine the actions of a person to a very great extent. Even if he wishes, he cannot act against them. Moreover, Hardy agrees with Schopenhauer in believing that, “a person can do what lie wills, but he cannot what he wills.” Thus man is not a free agent and is not responsible for his actions to any great extent. He has only very limited freedom of action.
The main critical associations of the term ‘realism’ are with the French School of Realists. “Realism’ was apparently first used as an aesthetic description in 1835 to denote the verite humaine of Rembrandt as opposed to the idealite poetique of neo-classical painting. It was later consecrated as a specifically literary term by a journalist, Duranthy. Afterwards ‘realism’ came to be used primarily as the antonym of ‘idealism. The life of man either rolls forth like a stream from the fountain or it spreads out into tranquillity like a placid or stagnant lake. In the latter case the individual grows old among the characters with whom he was born, and is contemporary – shares precisely the sort of weal and woe to which his birth destined him, – move in the same circle, and, allowing for the change of seasons, is influenced by, and influences the same class of persons by which he was originally surrounded.
Thomas Hardy by birth and ancestral associations belongs to the soil and land which he describes; his writing is instinct with these associations, bred in the physical fibre and in the imagination. In the Wessex novels the older ways, the older thought, the older wisdom, speech and humour are reflected by a mastermind. He has studied closely the life of his ‘native shire’ and those neighbouring counties which together comprised the ancient kingdom of Wessex. In fact, being a sincere disciple of realism, Hardy gives a true and life-like picture of the personages, ways and customs of the characters he created. A great observer, he discovers in the landscape of Wessex not merely what is but what has been. The roads and uplands, the streets, and lanes of the country town are haunted for him by the spirit of the past. He looks with a clairvoyant eye upon the multiform procession of strange races which have made Wessex their home since the beginning of time. The American novelist and critic William Dean Howells conceived of realism as a device for depicting simple, everyday people with ‘work worn’ brave kindly faces. Hardy’s realism seems to be of this kind.
It is said that literature is a reflection of society and it should serve as a mirror to men. Poetry may sometimes find comfort in the dances of fairies or see visions, and drama may deal in pure romance and venture, but the novelist must represent faithfully the men and the conditions of the age he writes about. When we make a detailed and critical analysis of the novels of Hardy we find that they present a valuable picture of the social, economic and cultural conditions of the society in which he lives.
So far as realism in the works of Thomas Hardy is concerned, we must note that there was an important literary influence coming from France. The contemporary interest in manners and realistic literature developed into what has come to be known as naturalism. The term means a frank and complete portrayal of life. In France men like Flaubert and Zola and in England persons like George Eliot, Butler and Gissing were carrying on the movement of naturalism.
Hardy himself has written an article on ‘Candor in English Fiction in which he lamented that the great bulk of English fiction of the day was characterized by its lack of sincerity. Thus Hardy makes his own contribution to the new trend in literature called naturalism. The novelist designs his book to present life, as he sees and understands it. The convention of plot and inter-related character is a means of imposing order on the flux and chaos which exist in the mind. In an article ‘An Artificiality distilled from the fruits of observation, Hardy again expresses his views about realism: “The Most devoted apostle of realism, the sheerest naturalist cannot escape any more than the withered old gossip over her fire, the exercise of Art in the labour or pleasure of telling a tale. Not until he becomes an automatic reproducer of all impressions whatsoever can he be called purely scientific, or even manufacture on scientific principle. If in the exercise of his reason he selects or omits with an eye to being more truthful than the truth he transforms himself into a technicist at a move.”
Since the intention of the novelist is to bring out the philosophy of certain unchanging everyday facts, he will often have to alter events for the benefit of verisimilitude but at the expense of truth, for ‘truth may sometimes seem improbable.’ The realist, if he is an artist, will seek to give us not a banal photographic representation of life, but a vision of it that is fuller, more vivid and more compellingly truthful than even reality itself. Selection is necessary, though, it is a blow to the theory of ‘the whole truth.’ Life is made up of elements that are utterly different from each other, of things utterly unexpected country and incongruous; it is harsh, inconsequent, incoherent, and filled with disasters which inexplicable, illogical and contradictory as they are, must be gathered together under the heading ‘sundry happenings,’ That is why the artist, having made his choice of subjects should select from this life, crowded as it is with accidents and trivialities, only those characteristic details that are useful for his theme. Some critics would allow a writer of fiction no freedom. According to them, he should write conventional stories to please their somewhat valetudinarian tastes. He should draw a veil over all the unpleasant facts of life. Seduction should barely be hinted at, adultery should not even be mentioned, and the existence of such an institution as the gallows should not be made to obtrude on the delicate–minded reader’s attention. Hardy is also sometimes criticized for being too frank in portraying rural life and its rough ways. And even if in depicting certain aspects of country life, Hardy’s realism is a little coarse, country life itself is coarse; so what would you have?
The novelist by the nature of his art, is closest to the pulse of the people because the raw material of his work is human beings whom he transmutes into the fictitious characters of his stories, but who are often more real than actual living persons. There are certain aspects in which is it not unnatural to see a parallel between Thomas Hardy and George Crabbe. Each is the spokesman of a district, each has a passion for the study of mankind, each has gained by long years of observation a profound knowledge of local human character, and each had plucked on the open moor, and wears in his coat the hueless flower of disillusion. But this similarity ends here.
Hardy was a lover of old ways and plain country life, yet he was doomed to see the flesh and faith of his forefathers turn to thin and spectral transparencies before his eyes. For a building to be old fashioned is a recommendation with Hardy. If changes are introduced they are more often than not ‘reversals,’ strange deformities, tremendous paralyses, and the same view is extended to people and their customs. The general theme of Hardy’s novels is the definite disapproval of, and dissatisfaction with the influence of modern civilization on the ancient customs, conventions and traditions of the Wessex people. He is very much impressed with the simplicity, joys and sorrows of the simple rural characters. So he disliked the effect of the urban environment upon the rural people. He says, ‘God was palpably present in the country and the Devil and his troop had fled to the town.’ In his times the industrial revolution was destroying the old agricultural England. There was the disintegration of the old social and economic structure which also caused the disintegration of ideas.
The minuteness of observation, the sense of natural truth, the combined unconventionalism and delicacy, impartiality and prejudice, so strongly typical of everything he writes: point directly to this contact with the deeper solitude of life, and have been fostered if they were not created by it. Hardy always gives us sufficient indication of dialect to produce the impression he wishes. One who knows the country of which he speaks catches the key-note and has the tune always in his ear; but the outsider is not puzzled by too much dialect and many strange words.
His description of scenes is excellent and realistic. The description of the farming operations, for instance, the sheep-shearing, and the haymaking, and the sheep-washing, with the tender episode attached to it, and the lambing in the cold winter among the snow, are graphically given. There is a vivid reality about the description of the fire in the farmstead, the terrible thunderstorm that ruined love-lorn Farmer Boldwood’s stacks, though it failed to awakedn the drunken revelers in Bathsheba’s barn, and the midnight pursuit of Bathsheba when she stole away to Bath. Then there is that most unconventional picture in ‘the hollow amid the ferns.’ The provincial town and villages, heaths and woods of Wessex, which were the world of his youth. No reader of his Wessex tales would have him shake this influence off, for it is part of his greatness as a novelist. Thomas Hardy is the only man among them who can scour the village and miss nothing. The closing years of the nineteenth century see the end of many things in country parts, of the peasantry who never go beyond their parish of quaint manners and customs of local modes of speech and ways of looking at existence. The worst effect of this mechanization of life is to be seen in the emotional life of a man. The emphasis on material prosperity and material comforts had led to a depreciation of human values. The general tendency to glorify the intellect had led to emotional starvation and emotional imbalance. He may not appear to have offered any concrete solution to the complex problems arising from industrial progress, but his emphasis on the acceptance of human values as against the money values is sufficiently indicative of his attitude in this matter. Science was progressing by leaps and bounds; technology had been introduced in many walks of life, particularly in agriculture. Industrial towns had come up. Agricultural labour was migrating from the village to the towns which tempted it to new jobs. But very often the town life brought more misery and unhappiness than was ever known to the simple village folk. Hardy lived during this period and noted all these changes in human life and values very carefully. This experience provided him with the subject of his novels.
Thomas Hardy always had a hatred of innovations, or alterations to any place he knew well and was interested in, and knowing this I made a point of always consulting him before making any noticeable alterations, either in the house itself or the garden…… It was but natural that sight of the old scenes should awaken memories of the long past, memories freighted with pleasure and pain, and that, moreover, as usual in life, pain should predominate. Like Scott, Hardy was fortunate for his are in being formed just as age was ending. Actually, faithfully conscious of the modern world as he was, he looked back to the past and summed up in his fiction a life that was lying around when he was a child, a life cut off from the mainstream of national life, more primitive, more pagan. In his novels, he always tries to bring a cultured man or woman and forces him or her to live among the rustic people. Those who come are generally ‘superior’ to the uncivilized villagers, yet according to the criterion of humanity, they are proved inferior. The contacts of the superior and inferior bring many disturbances and sometimes become the main cause of the tragedy. In his novels, Hardy deliberately lowers the key of the urban standard of humanity – the real touchstone of man. This shows Hardy’s deep love for the countrymen and contempt for the urban. Hardy’s feet are rooted in the soil of Wessex, his vision extends far beyond that is the measures of Hardy’s greatness.