Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy; drawing by David Levine

“A desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill…” “The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom…” A solitary figure—or a van, a gig, a spring-cart, a wagon—appears upon the deserted highway, or “the pale thoroughfare,” or “the long laborious road, dry, empty and white.” We are in Wessex again, on the eternal vale, barrow, down, verge, upland, fallow, or “featureless convexity of chalk and soil.” “It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where…dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real.” Or, “one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible.” Or, “It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.”

Thus the unchanging moonscape of Hardyland reaches out to engulf us at the outset of all the Wessex novels, a variety of which are represented by these quotations. The theatrical lighting, the arranged silhouettes, the mournful vocables, the rhetoric, the archaisms, and even the occasional pointers to classical authorities, all alert us to expect an encounter with destiny on the grand scale. Because of Hardy’s evident pretensions—because, as E. M. Forster puts it, his novels are designed “to give out the sound of hammerstrokes as they proceed”—the reader can hardly stand indifferent: he either plunges into Hardy’s world with glad anticipation of “tragical possibilities”—or runs as fast as exasperation will carry him, the other way. A middling response to Hardy has in fact been something of a rarity. In the century that has passed since Hardy first took to novel-writing, critical reaction to his work has careened from extreme to extreme, somewhat along the lines of Eliot’s remark at the expense of Hardy’s style. That is, his novels have been considered alternately vile or sublime, “without ever having passed through the stage of being good.”

Hardy is either a marvelous natural storyteller, or a terrible bore. He either raises melodrama to the level of myth, or uses it to pad out his serials. His Wessex is either one of the great imaginary geographies, or an implausible blur. In scenes of passion “Hardy can claim a place not much lower than that which the world has assigned to Shakespeare” (Carl Weber); or, “This extreme emotionalism seems to me a symptom of decadence” (T. S. Eliot). He is a shaper of the modern mind, or a shrewd appropriator of worn-out Victorian conventions. Either way, Hardy plainly knew what he was about. His crashing effects, rather like those in Wagner’s operas, may seem profundities or mere tricks. But Hardy’s conscious skill, like Wagner’s, is not in question.

The yea-sayers are still in the ascendancy. Hardy is perhaps the only English Victorian who has not been even temporarily dislodged from his place as classroom classic during the past half-century. It is now as one of the “Masters of World Literature” (the distinguished series edited by Louis Kronenberger), and in the company of Milton, Dante, and Balzac, that he becomes the subject of a fine new study by Irving Howe. For Hardyphobes as well as Hardyphiles, Mr. Howe provides the ideal reintroduction to Hardy’s work. Even those who have sworn never to set foot in Wessex again will have difficulty resisting his persuasive invitation. Mr. Howe writes gracefully and lucidly; he moves easily through the critical literature, sorting out insights from blind flashes; he responds with warmth and affection to the best of Hardy’s prose and poetry, and with calm discrimination to the worst. The measure of Howe’s success as a critic of Hardy is how far he carries along with him the resisting reader: roughly to the verge of the first barrow.

“It can no longer be assumed—it must now be argued—that Hardy is a great writer.” To make this argument, Mr. Howe proceeds with moderation. He does not really want us to read The Dynasts, nor expect us to look at all of the Collected Poems. He understands, if he does not share, the general indifference to Hardy’s short stories. The light, comic, mystery, or society novels he is willing to enjoy, when that is possible, as “entertainments.” As to the major novels, he wisely dislodges The Return of the Native from “classical rank,” and happily presses the claims of Far from the Madding Crowd, a pleasant work that has meant little to the most ardent Hardians. “Only Virginia Woolf has seen the book for what it really is,” Howe writes, “a spectacle of country life brimming with an energy and charm such as we do not customarily associate with Hardy.” Howe finds in The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy’s most successful hero, and he writes powerfully of the drama of rebellion presented in that novel. He does not try, however, as other critics have done, to make Michael Henchard into an Oedipus or a Lear.


But any critic who takes Hardy as seriously as does Howe must rest his claims for the novelist on his last, most pretentious works of fiction, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). In the 1890s, the age of Shaw, Wells, Moore, Ibsen in translation, Gissing, Wilde, and Havelock Ellis (the latter was one of the first to talk of Hardy’s greatness), Hardy felt called upon to make a major fictional statement on the burning issue of the day: sex in society. Jude is supposed to epitomize the mating problems of the male: trapped into marriage with a coarse-minded country girl who claims she is pregnant, Jude misses out on the scholarly life to which he had aspired, and to which a union with his proper soul-mate would have contributed. One sentence—and what a sentence!—makes Hardy’s point. There is “something wrong,” he says, “in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labor, of foregoing a man’s one opportunity of showing himself superior to the lower animals, and of contributing his units of work to the general progress of his generation, because of a momentary surprise by a new and transitory instinct which had nothing in it of the nature of vice, and could be only at the most called weakness.”

Hardy said that the novel was not to be read as a manifesto on the marriage question, and it is in fact cluttered with dilemmas. Is it really the “social ritual” of marriage that stands in Jude’s way, or instead Jude’s social class, his country upbringing, his too strong sexual drives, his too weak sexual drives, his idealism, his laziness, his materialism, his superiority, his weakness? Hardy also mentions the decline of rural England; the snobbery and pedantry of the universities; the malign influence of heredity (“‘Tisn’t for the Fawleys to take that step…”); Natural Law, which is of course “mutual butchery”; and plain Fate.

Irving Howe accepts the confusions in Hardy’s portrait of the obscure Jude, which strike him as very modern: Jude’s “mental life, in its creasing divisions and dissociations, is that of the modern metropolis.” More convincing is Howe’s claim for Jude as “a sort of rural cousin” to the striking figure of the self-educated Victorian workingman. “To grasp the full stringencies of Jude’s private ordeal,” he writes, “one must possess a strong historical awareness.” By bringing his own to bear on Hardy’s last novel, Howe demonstrates that Jude can still arouse interest, at least as a document.

But the Hardy novel that finally separates the philes from the phobes is Tess of the d’Urbervilles. For Albert Guerard the work stands “at the summit of Hardy’s achievement. It is both a popular novel and a great novel.” For Carl Weber “it is to be regarded not merely as Hardy’s greatest novel, but as one of the great works in English literature…an Anglo-Saxon social landmark.” “I have put in it,” said Hardy, “the best of me.” Howe on the whole agrees. He sees the novel “if not as [Hardy’s] greatest then certainly his most characteristic.” And he puts the question of our reaction to Tess as a challenge: “Those readers or critics who cannot accept its emotional ripeness must admit that for them Hardy is not a significant novelist.”

According to Howe, Hardy fashioned Tess from a “cultural stereotype” elevated “through the sheer intensity of his affection” onto a high plane of moral seriousness. The problem is, which cultural stereotype. Tess is everything. She is the milkmaid, sensual, full-bodied and open-hearted, with swimming eyes and a flower mouth which takes on, at moments of strain or terror, “almost the aspect of a round little hole.” She is also “A Pure Woman,” as Hardy’s subtitle puts it. In spite of her peasant upbringing, close to the earth and the men who work it, Tess manages to reach maturity in ignorance of what goes on under the hedges of rural England. “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk,” she asks her sluttish, fecund mother, after being seduced by Alec d’Urberville. “Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way.”

Then there is the emancipated, modernized Tess. Perhaps because she doesn’t waste her time on novels, she attains “a leading place” at school, passes all her exams, and is singled out as material for a good schoolteacher. Education enables Tess to speak throughout the novel in a mixture of folk and stage English, “expressing” (as Hardy puts it) “in her own native phrases—assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training—feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism.”


There is also the good-girl, governess-type heroine of Victorian convention. This is the self-denying and self-punishing Tess, who sacrifices herself on behalf of her indigent relations whenever Hardy remembers to bring that Dickensian brood back on stage. In discharging this role, however, Tess is allowed a touch of condescension: she “became humanely beneficent towards the small ones, and to help them as much as possible she used, as soon as she left school, to lend a hand at haymaking.” Underneath it all, Tess does not really belong to peasant Wessex: she is the doomed descendant of the ancient, noble race of d’Urberville. This last romantic stereo-type may have been Hardy’s favorite, for he used it to open the novel and to seal its finale. When Tess finally dispatches her wicked lover with a carving knife, Hardy asks us to ponder “what obscure strain in the d’Urberville blood had led to this aberration—if it were an aberration.”

Earth goddess, modern woman, doomed bride of balladry, prostitute, Victorian daughter, unwed mother, murderess, and princess in disguise: Hardy’s Tess is surely the all-purpose heroine. Mr. Howe puts it in this way: “Tess is finally one of the great images of human possibility, conceived in the chaste, and chastening, spirit of the New Testament.” Another way to put it is that Tess is a fantasy of almost pornographic dimensions, manipulated with clearly sadistic affection. “Why it was,” Hardy ruminates, “that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive….”

Howe reminds us of Hardy’s revealing attitude toward novel-writing. He did not take the form seriously, always preferred to consider himself a poet, and admitted that he wrote to please the public. He took a thoroughly down-to-earth view of his professional obligations: “the writer’s problem is, how to strike the balance between the uncommon and the ordinary so as on the one hand to give interest, on the other to give reality.” All this was in the great Victorian tradition, but Hardy lacked the convictions about the novel (and perhaps about its public) that had inspired his predecessors. As a novelist he appears to have been a follower, not a maker of taste—and nowhere more obviously than in his “New Thought” novels of the 1890s.

Hardy was in the habit of speaking scornfully of the early- and mid-Victorian novelists, as he helped himself to the leavings of their genius. Howe and other Hardians have noted his indebtedness to Dickens, Trollope, the Brontës, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins; they could make more of his debt to Walter Scott. Though visitors to Max Gate were treated to his low opinion of Scott’s novels, Hardy had the respect of the professional for a work like The Bride of Lammermoor, which he considered “an almost perfect specimen of form.” Indeed, he duly rifled the work for much of the romantic folderol in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. To Hardy’s somewhat overripe, if calculated, excesses, there is in fact no better antidote than a return to the gusty romance, the canny rustics, the gothic scenery, the storms and pastorals and hearty good humor of Walter Scott. Perhaps Mr. Kronenberger might consider making a place among the Masters for this unfashionable begetter of the Victorian novel.

This Issue

November 9, 1967