Thomas Hardy’s Women

The Bookman

Oct. 1902, pp. 131-133

Thomas Hardy occupies the same place in modern imaginative literature that Sophocles does in dramatic literature. The English novelist’s characters, especially his women, are the mere playthings of an inscrutable Fate; fine instruments on which Destiny, in her infinite sweeps, pipes a major or a minor and then flings to the cosmic rubbish heap. Neither Hardy nor Sophocles has formulated a theory of causation. Life is a series of accidental relations; effects proceed from causes not because this cause must produce that effect, but because the gods have willed that this or that shall come to pass. To understand Hardy’s women we must see them in their relations to his conception of the gods that rule our destinies. Each one of his books is a labyrinthine arterial system, and if we should cut a woman from his pages and attempt to consider her as an isolated personage the book would bleed to death.

Hardy stands rooted in his age, as Sophocles did in his. Differences in apprehending the same broad principles that govern life are superficial differences merely. Hardy is Sophocles emancipated. A modern of moderns, the Englishman was caught in the very centre of nineteenth century intellectual activity, and the waters of many streams have flowed into the deep of his thought. The last was a century of brilliant generalisations in science, of daring philosophic conceptions; a brooding, introspective century, beginning with Childe Harold, Rene and Werther, and ending with Tolstoi and Ibsen; a century that produced, on one hand, those prophets of spiritual chaos, Schopenhauer and Amiel, and on the other the Emersonian pæan and the sublime vision of unending progress glimpsed in the “Synthetic Philosophy” of Herbert Spencer. From this tangle Hardy has drawn the most mournful conclusions. A blind, omnipotent, non-moral force sways the affairs of men. Fate, to which the Greeks, truckling to the grosser symbols of the current polytheistic belief, gave a local habitation and [132] a name, in the Englishman’s pages goes unswathed, unnamed, unnamable; dwells in infinite spaces, nowhere, everywhere. She is subtle, unappeasable, and rules with a knout. She strikes down here and upraises there. The individual is nothing. Law flows, and the human débris flows with it.

In the Mayor of Casterbridge this conception of Destiny, of the nothingness of man and of the utter indifference to human affairs of the powers on high is worked out with supreme art. In the writer’s opinion, it holds the same place in fiction that the Œdipus does in dramatic literature. Nemesis, chance, disillusion are the reigning thoughts in this great book. There are no “bad” characters. From the history of Michael Henchard and those involved with him in the mesh of pain woven by the blind powers we rise in a fury against the forces that dominate our lives. The present presents itself to us as an endless past, where dwells a Gorgon, the Irrevocable. The clanking of the chains that bind is heard. Life smells musty. Actions are mere fungi. Henchard is a good man, as the world goes. For a fault committed in youth while drunk he is hounded through the years by an unappeasable Nemesis, who works a vengeance out of all proportion to his offense. Each action but the more completely insures his ruin. The Furies pluck him from place and power, roll him in the dust, lash him into shreds. The man he befriended overthrows him in business and marries the woman he loves. His imagined fatherhood is denied him at the moment of his greatest paternal felicity. In his old age, despised, neglected, driven from the town a gibe and byword, he dies alone, cursing himself and all his ways. Yet this man was upright and feared God. Fate broods over all. Everything is orderly. Event proceeds from event. Trivial actions are freighted with tragic consequences. But there is never a moment when Henchard could have arrested his doom. To do so would have required free will and omniscience. And in Hardy’s view man has neither.

Into this web of chance his women take their logical places. They never dominate. Their lives are ordered for them. They are stray angels in bonds, who stand forever in mortal fear of losing their reputations. Social law is everywhere in conspiracy against their souls. They are fickle and disloyal, but of necessity. To be loved is woman’s one aspiration, and she is carried along on the stream of her impulses with slight regard for the object of her desire. Physical propinquity is sufficient to arouse her emotions. Elfrida Swancourt, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, loves four men in rapid succession, and her disloyalty troubles her very little. Like almost all of Hardy’s womankind, she is in love with love, not with her lover. She is a female Edgar Fitzpiers, the hero in The Woodlanders, who loves three women at one time. Yet for all Elfrida’s vacillations, she is a beautiful creature, a true woman, sinned against by the gods, but never sinning.

It follows logically that Hardy sees no distinction between “good” and “bad” men and women. These adjectives express relations, not things. Viewed from the standpoint of ultimate consequences, a bad action may be good. There is a germ of evil in all things good. Moral principles are a matter of time, place and circumstance merely. All virtues are exquisite vices; all vices virtues performed at an unpropitious moment. A “good” woman is a legal fiction—a legislative invention. There are good or evil circumstances; no good or evil women. Tess is “a portrait of a pure woman.” She was seduced twice; the firs time because of her ignorance, the second because her family needed bread. In the second instance the dilemma is clear-cut: Was she to send her family to the devil or go herself? She chose herself. If this was not a “good”—nay, sublime—action, then we must recast the sacrificial code. What judgment, Hardy inferentially asks, shall we pass upon the Power that picks out these women with he brittle souls, these vessels of emotion, and damns them with their very virtues?

Woman is the supreme illusion. She beckons on to a divine world, and in trying to attain it men waste their lives and build the house of pain. This disillusionising spirit is everywhere rampant in the Wessex novels. Humanity never attains. In the morning of life we dress for a feast. But it is a perpetual postponement. In the evening of life we sup on the memory of what might have been. We are stripped of our last few rags and [133] prepared for the tomb. In that remarkable, but little-read book, The Well-Beloved, the whole mechanism of illusion is laid bare. A man is doomed to pursue for sixty years the Ideal which he believes resides in woman. It leads him from form to form. As he is about to clasp it, it darts away and embodies itself otherwhere and beckons him on again. Release from the anguish of everlasting pursuit comes only with the extinguishing of all passion; when the intellect, released from the slavery of the imagination, emerges in a calm survey of its feverish and futile past.

The trivial and incidental often decide the fate of the heroines of the Hardy novels. I say “trivial” and “incidental.” But to the seer these words have no meaning. In real life there are no worked-up climaxes, few dramatic moments. These latter, when they do occur, are often trivial, an of less importance in the evolution of character than ordinary events, unnoticed and disregarded. In A Pair of Blue Eyes it is not the episode of the elopement of Elfrida and her lover in itself that wrecks the lives of the three principal characters. It is an incident connected with the episode. In The Return of the Native it is Eustachian Vye’s momentary indecision in opening the door to let in her husband’s mother which causes the death of that personage, the suicide of Eustacia, the death of her lover, and changed the subsequent career of the central male character. A woman’s mischievous prank, innocent in itself, in Far from the Madding Crowd sets in motion forces which culminate in murder and insanity. Even in Tess of the d’Urbervilles the climax is incidental—a mere culmination of things gone before, the momentary incarnation of the spirit of the drama.

His men and woman thus stand forever in the shadow of an impending doom. The trifles that make up the day’s round insinuate, hint of coming things. Appeal is made of the imagination of the reader. Unity of mass there is always, but it is for you to grasp. A few swift touches, you must infer the rest. Yet your inferences will be infallible. This foreboding prevision is incarnated in Eustacia Vye, the heroine in The Return of the Native, Hardy’s most remarkable feminine creation.

The opening chapter is a description of Egdon Heath, which for sheer power has never been excelled in English literature. This stretch of land, cursed of God, grim, and breathing doom in all its aspects, assails the mind of the reader like an incubus of the night. He wonders if the sun will rise on the morrow; whether spring will come again. The dark hollows on this heath rise at twilight to clasp the engulfing night, as though it had a hatred of light. In the daytime things stand out spectre-grey. The thickets are tangled blight, the roads highways of care. Against this Rembrandt-like background rises the figure of Eustacia Vye, who lives an almost solitary life in the very centre of Egdon. The child of faded worth, breathing a Byronic despair, demanding all things, inconstant, imperious in her beauty, she but escapes from one set of hostile circumstances to fall into the jaws of another. In the nature of things, she can never be happy. Her mind is a centre of centrifugal forces; she is one with the heath that is her home, and a child of a century that did not find its spiritual aliment. She is self-slain. Yet upon her the feeling reader will set the seal of his pity. She did not will her nature into being. She is a victim—one of the non-adaptables. She came from afar, and the waters of Lethe had not fully submerged her before her entry here. Eustacia Vye is the exception among Hardy’s women. They are all born renunciants perforce. But Eustacia was a spiritual Amazon. She preferred quiescence to acquiescence.

It is thus that Hardy’s women are woof and warp of his thought. They are nothing in themselves. They are merely corks on a current. Like his great Greek prototype, this seer and bringer of grim tidings surveys mankind and womankind from his imaginative height and delivers judgment. It is better not to be. Impotent days pass into tearful nights and all life is a vexation. Overhead is the vast dome of grisly nature; beneath, insects that crawl to their appointed doom. Ruling both an implacable Fate, that neither chastens nor brutalises, but forever scourges.

Benjamin DeCasseres.


After this article was published, De Casseres sent a copy of it to Thomas Hardy. Hardy replied on Nov. 11, 1902, with the following statement:

My dear Sir:

I duly received the copy of the Bookman containing your essay, & thank you much for sending it—I ought also to add, for writing so sympathetic an article. What you call (in your letter) your philosophic prejudices are I think becoming by slow degrees the convictions of honest thinkers concerning the world as they see it around them, & I can never hold that an unbiassed recognition of terrestrial circumstances will do harm.

Believe me

Yours truly
Thomas Hardy.

(Quoted from The Selected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Vol. III: 1902–1908, edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, p. 37.)

An abridged and somewhat reformulated version of this essay appeared as a letter to The New York Times Saturday Review of Books on July 18, 1907.