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Title: Human behaviour and responsibility in the prose works of Thomas Hardy
Author: Southerington, Frank Rodney
ISNI:       0000 0001 1759 2266
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1968
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Thomas Hardy's writing cannot be separated from his personality; and that personality was in part moulded by a variety of social and family pressures. His upbringing in a remote part of England which was undergoing transition confronted him with the daily phenomenon of change, and not infrequently of suffering. Side by side with ancient habits and customs he saw the slow encroachment of a new order which appeared, at times, to challenge his strongest sympathies. In his own family he confronted a once-powerful race now shorn of most its possessions and all of its social rank. While recognising his family past with genuine pride, Hardy was nonetheless disturbed by signs of irregularities of conduct among each branch of his family, and he appears to have been disturbed by the facts of his own birth, which took place less than six months after his parents' marriage. His sensitivity about his family's past, together with his own emotional involvements as a young man, appear to be primarily responsible for the presence of ancestry and heredity as recurring themes in the poems and the novels. Any account of Hardy's early manhood must consider the assertions of Lois Deacon, both those proved and those remaining questionable (Providence and Mr, Hardy, London, 1966); just as any understanding of his personality must take account of the English and American collections of letters from Hardy and his two wives. Intellectually, Hardy was affected by Darwinism and the "rational" approach to religion; he may have been affected, too, by his own rejection by the Church, At all events, his Christian faith collapsed, and he began a life-long search for some replacement for his lost faith, a replacement to be based on reason rather than emotion, though satisfying to the latter. In this he may have failed, but his inquiry brought him into contact with the main streams of philosophy, and still more with the minor streams represented by essayists and correspondents of the Victorian periodicals. A review of the notebooks made from these and other sources shows a life-long preoccupation with the nature of human conduct, and the decree of freedom accorded to man. An intellectual development is shown in these notes which parallels tho development of the earlier novels, and which is also reflected in the poems. The novels, up to and including The Return of the Native, embody a fairly consistent argument. From the beginning Hardy is concerned with the plight of man as a conscious being in a universe whose control is in the hands of unconscious forces: not merely whatever creative powers may exist, but also the forces of decay, death, and destruction. The earliest novels, however, are equally concerned with the nature of society as a single structure belonging to a larger organism which embraces the natural environment and the universal. Even in Under the Greenwood Tree Hardy presupposes a natural unity which is not so distant from the organism presented in The Dynasts. The preservation and maintenance of the social unit, and thus the health of the total organism, is shown to be partly in the hands of men. Man may, by creating and preserving a balance between creative and destructive forces, also create the opportunity for the material improvement of his environment. Thus the nature of men's decisions, and the pressures to which they respond in making choice, become a fundamental theme of Hardy's earlier work. In particular, there is a stress on the unreliability of emotional or irrational choice, and the desirability of reasoned decision based on an understanding of universal and environmental forces, as well as on an understanding of the self. Man is seen, on the one hand, as a part of the natural organism; he is also seen, however, as distinguished from the natural organism, isolated by his possession of consciousness. He is obliged to accept the existence of universal forces, Chance, Time, and Decay; he is also obliged to recognise that his own actions are subject to the force of Consequence. Forethought, therefore, becomes a principal requirement of his reasoning powers. Throughout there is the assumption that 'good' conduct is conduct aimed at the material improvement of men's conditions, and, as an implicit corollary of this, at the elimination of pain. The Return of the Native marks a development of these ideas. The personal equilibrium displayed in Gabriel Oak of Far From the Madding Crowd, achieved through growth and self-knowledge, is not abandoned as a desirable objective which creates a parallel equilibrium in society; but there is a recognition that reason and consciousness are themselves products of evolution. This perception is accompanied by the further insight that with the emergence of consciousness has come a new awareness of men's predicament, and consequently a change in their understanding of their environment and their attitude towards it. In Clym and Eustacia Hardy embodies the new and the old forms of perception and aesthetic response, and shows that in this world the old way is not merely inadequate, but unable to survive. Thus a novel which seems originally designed to repeat the themes of Far From the Madding Crowd was drastically re-cast to become virtually an allegorical treatment of modes of understanding. However, the book embodies, too, Hardy's regret at the necessity of a new awareness, and suggests that his sympathies were strongly with the past though his reason recognised the new. The Mayor of Casterbridge returns to the theme of the organic society, and to the pattern of consequence which human actions may create. For the first time, too, Hardy faces openly the incompatibility between the claims of the temperamental individual and the claims of society. Again there appears to be a conflict between his sympathy for the individual and his reason, which approves the communal purpose. In Hardy's subsequent works these earlier themes are not abandoned, even though there is a stronger awareness of the irrational and potentially destructive nature of the passions and of sexuality. The basic premises of his approach to society are not altered. Nonetheless, there is a greater recognition that human institutions are frequently ill-adapted to their environment, and that in ignoring the passions they make it harder and not easier for men to function. The attack on the laws governing marriage and divorce grows naturally from his concern with the social organism however, and his concept of the nature of society is not different in kind from that of Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd. These novels, the later one more centrally, show an awareness that corruption may affect the social organism as easily as the individual. In each case the responsibility is man's, since man alone possesses the faculty of understanding. In these later novels, however, not only intellectual pressures are at work. Personal and subjective features become dominant, and the themes of sexual and hereditary determinism spring as much from personal obsession as from rational inquiry. Hardy's youthful attitudes and experiences, never completely absent, become central to an understanding of his work. Jude the Obscure in particular depends for its force on pressures not directly related to the book's themes, nor arising from then.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Human behavior in literature ; Responsibility in literature