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Thomas Hardy And His Tragic Tales Of Wessex Post by :61170 Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1872

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Thomas Hardy And His Tragic Tales Of Wessex


No one will question the assertion that Thomas Hardy is the greatest living English writer of fiction, and the pity of it is that a man with so splendid an equipment for writing novels of the first rank should have failed for many years to give the world any work in the special field in which he is an acknowledged master. Hardy seems to have revolted from certain harsh criticism of his last novel, Jude the Obscure, and to have determined that he would write no more fiction for an unappreciative world. So he has turned to the writing of verse, in which he barely takes second rank. It is one of the tragedies of literature to think of a man of Hardy's rank as a novelist, who might give the world a second Tess or The Return of the Native, contenting himself with a ponderous poem like The Dynasts, or wasting his powers on minor poems containing no real poetry.

Hardy's best novels are among the few in English fiction that can be read again and again, and that reveal at every reading some fresh beauties of thought or style. The man is so big, so genuine and so unlike all other writers that his work must be set apart in a class by itself. Were he not so richly endowed his pessimism would be fatal, for the world does not favor the novelist who demands that his fiction should be governed by the same hard rules that govern real life. In the work of most novelists we know that whatever harsh fate may befall the leading characters the skies will be sunny before the story closes, and the worthy souls who have battled against malign destiny will receive their reward. Not so with Hardy. We know when we begin one of his tales that tragedy is in store for his people. The dark cloud of destiny soon obscures the heavens, and through the lowering storm the victims move on to the final scene in which the wreck of their fortunes is completed.

Literary genius can work no greater miracle than this--to make the reader accept as a transcript of life stories in which generous, unselfish people are dealt heavy blows by fate, while the mean-souled, sordid men and women often escape their just deserts. Hardy is not unreligious; he is simply and frankly pagan. Yet he differs from the classical writers in the fact that he is keenly alive to all the strong influences of nature on a sympathetic mind, and he is also a believer in the power of romantic love.

No one has ever equaled Hardy in making the reader feel the living power of trees and other objects of nature. You can not escape the influence of his scenic effects. These are never theatrical--in fact they seem to form a vital part of every story. The scenes of all his novels are laid in his native Dorsetshire, which he has thinly disguised under the old Saxon name of Wessex. In Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy first demonstrated the tremendous possibilities of rural scenes as a vital background for a story, but in The Return of the Native he actually makes Egdon heath the most absorbing feature of the book. All the characters seem to take life and coloring from this heath, which has in it the potency of transforming characters and of wrecking lives. And in Tess the peaceful, rural scenes appear to accentuate the tragedy of the heroine's unavailing struggles against a fate that was worse than death.

Hardy's parents intended him for the church, but the boy probably gave some indications of his pagan cast of mind, for they finally compromised by apprenticing him to an ecclesiastical architect. In this calling the youth worked with sympathy and ability; the results of this training may be seen in the perfection of his plots and in his fondness for graphic description of churches and other picturesque buildings. One curious feature of this training may be seen in Hardy's sympathy and reverence for any church building. As Professor William Lyon Phelps very aptly says of Hardy: "No man to-day has less respect for God and more devotion to his house."

The antipathy of Hardy to any kind of publicity has kept the facts of his life in the background, but it is an open secret that much of the longing of Jude for a college education was drawn from his own boyhood. It is also a matter of record that as a boy he served as amanuensis for many servant maids, writing the love letters which they dictated. In this way, before he knew the real meaning of sex and the significance of life he had obtained a deep insight into the nature of women, which served him in good stead when he came to draw his heroines. All his women are made up of mingled tenderness and caprice, and though female critics of his work may claim that these traits are over-drawn, no man ever feels like dissecting Hardy's women, for the reason that they are so charmingly feminine.

One may fancy that Hardy took great delight in his architectural work, for it required many excursions to old churches in Dorsetshire to see whether they were worth restoring. When he was thirty-one Hardy decided to abandon architecture for fiction. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was crude, but it is interesting as showing the novelist in his first attempts to reveal real life and character. His second book, Under the Greenwood Tree, is a charming love story, and A Pair of Blue Eyes was a forerunner of his first great story, Far From the Madding Crowd. It may have been the title, torn from a line of Gray's Elegy, or the novelty of the tale, in which English rustics were depicted as ably as in George Eliot's novels, that made it appeal to the great public. Whatever the cause, the book made a great popular hit. I can recall when Henry Holt brought it out in the pretty Leisure Hour series in 1875. Three years later Hardy produced his finest work, The Return of the Native. He followed this with more than a dozen novels, among which may be mentioned The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure.

In taking up Hardy one should begin with Far From the Madding Crowd. The story of Bathsheba Everdene's relations with her three lovers, Sergeant Troy, Boldwood and Gabriel Oak, moves one at times to some impatience with this charming woman's frequent change of mind, but she would not be so attractive or so natural if she were not so full of caprice. His women all have strong human passion, but they are destitute of religious faith. They adore with rare fervor the men whom they love. In this respect Bathsheba is like Eustacia, Tess, Marty South or Lady Constantine. Social rank, education or breeding does not change them. Evidently Hardy believes women are made to charm and comfort man, not to lead him to spiritual heights, where the air is thin and chill and kisses have no sweetness.

In his first novel Hardy lightened the tragedy of life with rare comedy. These comic interludes are furnished by a choice collection of rustics, who discuss the affairs of the universe and of their own township with a humor that is infectious. In this work Hardy surpasses George Eliot and all other novelists of his day, just as he surpasses them all in such wholesome types of country life as Giles Winterbourne and Marty South of The Woodlanders. No pathos is finer than Marty's unselfish love for the man who cannot see her own rare spirit, and nothing that Hardy has written is more powerful than Marty's lament over the grave of Giles:

"Now, my own, my love," she whispered, "you are mine, and on'y mine, for she has forgot 'ee at last, although for her you died. But I--whenever I get up I'll think of 'ee, and whenever I lie down I'll think of 'ee. Whenever I plant the young larches I'll think none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad, and whenever I turn the cider-wring, I'll say none could do it like you. If I forget your name, let me forget home and heaven! But, no, no, my love, I never can forget 'ee, for you was a good man and did good things!"

The Return of the Native is generally regarded as Hardy's finest work. Certainly in this novel of passion and despair he has conjured up elements that speak to the heart of every reader. The hand of fate clutches hold of all the characters. When Eustacia fails to go to the door and admit her husband's mother she sets in motion events that bring swift ruin upon her as well as upon others. At every turn of the story the somber Egdon heath looms in the background, more real than any character in the romance, a sinister force that seems to sweep the characters on to their doom. Tess is more appealing than any other of Mr. Hardy's works, but it is hurt by his desire to prove that the heroine was a good woman in spite of her sins against the social code. What has also given this work a great vogue is the splendid acting of Mrs. Fiske in the play made from the novel.

In Jude the Obscure Hardy had a splendid conception, but he developed it in a morbid way, bringing out the animalism of the hero's wife and forcing upon the reader his curious ideas about marriage.

But above and beyond everything else Thomas Hardy is one of the greatest story tellers the world has ever seen. You may take up any of his works and after reading a chapter you have a keen desire to follow the tale to the end, despite the fact that you feel sure the end will be tragic. Nothing is forced for effect; the whole story moves with the simplicity of fate itself, and the characters, good and bad, are swept on to their doom as though they were caught in the rush of waters that go over Niagara falls. Hardy's style is clear, simple, direct, and abounds in Biblical allusions and phrases. In nature study Hardy's novels are a liberal education, for beyond any other author of the last century he has brought out the beauty and the significance of tree and flower, heath and mountain. They may be read many times, and at each perusal new beauties will be discovered to reward the reader.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Thomas Hardy And His Tragic Tales Of Wessex

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