English Literature » Notes » Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Hardy as a Pessimist
Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Hardy as a Pessimist

The fact that Thomas Hardy resented being called a pessimist is no reason why he should not be thus described. Hardy was the painter of darker side of life as it was no wonder if people charged him of “pessimist”. The opinion is both right and wrong in this context. In fact, there are some factors that compels us to believe him a pessimist. He was hypersensitive; his own life was tragic and gloomy. For a speculative soul, this world is a thorny field.

The gloomy effect of his age plays an important role in his writings. Doubts, despair, disbelief, frustration, industrial revolution, disintegration of old social and economic structure, Darwin’s theory of evolution were the chief characteristics of that age. All these factors probe deep into his writings and heighten its somber, melancholic and tragic vision.

His pessimism is also the outcome of the impressions that he receives from villager’s life. They were plenty of tragedies in the life of the poverty stricken Wessex folk.

Hardy’s philosophy of the human condition is determined by his natural temper and disposition. He says:

A man’s philosophy of life is an instinctive, temperamental matter.

Hardy, practically, excludes from his writings the sense of splendor and beauty of human life completely. Tess’ life is totally devoid of even a single moment of happiness. He is of the opinion:

Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Hardy’s conception of life is essentially tragic. He is one of those who believe that life is boom. His novels concentrate on human sufferings and show that there is no escape for human beings.

Tess is worst fated to the sufferings of life. She tries her best to come out of her fated circle of misfortunes but remains fail. Throughout the novel she keeps on revolving around the predetermined circles of her cruel fate. Being the eldest child she has to go to D’Urbervilles for earning. Her seduction plays a vital role in her destruction. She is rejected by society on becoming pregnant. She goes to earn for her family to Talbothays. Her love affair, her marriage and then sudden rejection by Angle Clare, all this make her a victim of conventional social attitude. Her sufferings in winter season of Talbothays after the departure of Angel Clare and in the courtship with Alec are untold. Her murder of Alec in order to rejoin Angel and her hanging soon afterwards also show a long series of sufferings but she faces them boldly.

All this shows that Hardy’s attitude towards life is highly melancholic and depressive. He loves people but he hates life intensely. He perceives it in the hands of cruel, blind and oppressive ‘Unknown Will’.

As flies to wanton boys,
Are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.

Hardy’s universe is neither ruled by God, the Father, not informal by divine spirit. Men are part of great network of cause and effect which make them, almost always, a prey to the chance over which they have no control. The creator of this hostile universe is called the “Immanent Will”, the spinner of Years, Fate, Doom and sometimes God.

Being a fatalist, chance and coincidence play a key role in his novels. In real life chance may lead to success or sometimes to failure but in Hardy’s case chance always proves mishap.

We can see Tess in the light of author’s fatalistic outlook on life. The death of his father, death of “Prince”, role of nature, her birth in a shiftless family, Tess’ attempts to confess to Angel, slipping of letter under the carpet, overheard conversation, too late arrival of Angel, meeting again with Alec, are the examples of fateful incidents. It sees that as they are pre-planned.

Time, also, is used as a motif of fate. The time of joy with Angel is transitory and time of miseries is very prolonged. Love, a source of happiness is also badly fated in Tess’ case. Her love with Angle roves futile. Tess becomes an agent of her own destiny / fate. She is a manifestation of irony of fate.

She is alone in desert island, would she have been wretched at what had happened to her?

Fate is also revealed by means of many omens and signs. Hardy’s tragic vision has a tinge of Greek tragedy in which character is helpless in the hands of fate. Shakespeare, on the other hand, holds character fully responsible for mishap.

Tess and Jude are helpless in front of fate or destiny. But in some novels, Hardy makes characters responsible too, as in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” Henchard is somewhat responsible for his tragic life. But Tess is shown thoroughly a toy in hands of fate. In the end of the novel he says:

Justice was done and the President of the Immortals, by Aeschelylian Phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.

This sentence represents the acme of pessimistic thinking and clinches the argument. But Hardy is not a thorough going pessimist. His pessimism is not oppressive. Bonamy Dobree observes:

Hardy’s pessimism is not oppressive, it is not the outcome of a soul which rebelled against life. Rebellion against life itself …

He is not a pessimist – a misanthrope like Hobbes. He is a pessimist like the classical writers who consider Man merely a puppet in hands of mighty fate. Simply he is gloomier than they are.

His pessimism is redeemed by two other ingredients in his work – his lofty view of human nature and his capability to make us laugh at comic side of things. Hardy is not a cynic by any means and his comic gift relives the atmosphere of gloom and despondency in his novels:

To cal Hardy a thoroughgoing pessimist is to forget his conception of human nature male and female.

Hardy himself says:

My pessimism, if pessimism it be, does not involve the assumption that the world is going to the dogs … On the contrary my practical philosophy is distinctly Melioristic.

Now it is crystal clear that Hardy is a meliorist rather than a pessimist. R. A. Scott James observes:

Hardy did not set out to give us a pessimistic philosophy … Hardy is pessimistic about the governance of the Universe, but not about human beings.

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