Critical Essay Hardy's Philosophy and Ideas


Hardy is primarily a storyteller and should be viewed more as a chronicler of moods and deeds than as a philosopher. Yet a novel such as Far from the Madding Crowd, which raises many questions about society, religion, morals, and the contrast between a good life and its rewards, is bound to make the reader curious about the author who brings them up.

Hardy lived in an age of transition. The industrial revolution was in the process of destroying the agricultural life, and the subsequent shifting of population caused a disintegration of rural customs and traditions that had meant security, stability, and dignity for the people. It was a period when fundamental beliefs — religious, social, scientific, and political — were shaken to their core and brought in their stead the "ache of modernism." The new philosophies failed to satisfy the emotional needs of many people. As a young man, Hardy read Darwin's Origin of the Species and Essays and Reviews (the manifesto of a few churchmen who held radical theological opinions), both of which were to influence his views toward religion. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the idea of a beneficent, omnipotent, and omniscient deity with the fact of omnipresent evil and the persistent tendency of circumstances toward unhappiness.

When one thinks of Hardy the novelist, that aspect of his work that comes to mind most readily is his frequent use of chance and circumstances in the development of his plots. But the reader must learn to view Hardy's stories in the light of the author's fatalistic outlook on life, for Hardy fluctuates between fatalism and determinism. Fatalism is a view of life which acknowledges that all action is controlled by the nature of things, or by a Fate which is a great, impersonal, primitive force existing through all eternity, absolutely independent of human wills and superior to any god created by man. Determinism, on the other hand, acknowledges that man's struggle against the will behind things is of no avail, that the laws of cause and effect are in operation — that is, the human will is not free and human beings have no control over their own destiny, try as they may. Hardy sees life in terms of action, in the doomed struggle against the circumstantial forces against happiness. Incident, for example, plays an important role in causing joy or pain, and often an act of indiscretion in early youth can wreck one's chances for happiness. In Hardy's novels, then, Fate appears as an artistic motif in a great variety of forms — chance and coincidence, nature, time, woman, and convention. None is Fate itself, but rather all of these are manifestations of the Immanent Will.

The use of chance and coincidence as a means of furthering the plot was a technique used by many Victorian authors but with Hardy it becomes something more than a mere device. Fateful incidents (overheard conversations and undelivered letters, for instance) are the forces working against mere man in his efforts to control his own destiny. In addition, Fate appears in the form of nature, endowing it with varying moods that affect the lives of the characters. Those who are most in harmony with their environment are usually the most contented; similarly, those who can appreciate the joys of nature can find solace in it. Yet nature can take on sinister aspects, becoming more of an actor than just a setting for the action.

Besides the importance of nature in Hardy's novels, one should consider the concept of time. There is tremendous importance placed on the moment, for time is a great series of moments. The joys of life are transitory and the moments of joy may be turned to bitterness by time. Woman, also, is used by Hardy as one of Fate's most potent instruments for opposing man's happiness. Closer to primitive feelings than man, woman is helpless in the hands of Fate and carries out Fate's work. In her search for love, the motivating passion of her life, woman becomes an agent in her own destiny. In short, one is, according to Hardy, powerless to change the workings of Fate, but those things that are contrived by man — social laws and convention, for example — and which work against him can be changed by man. Man is not hopelessly doomed.