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«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»

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Stotko 1

Table of Contents

Introduction…………………………………………………………………2 - 10

Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction……………11 - 36

Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in

The Return of the Native…………………………………..37 - 45

Chapter Three: The Immanent Will and Hardy’s Art……………………46 - 58

Bibliography: ………………………………………………………………..59 - 60 Stotko 2 Introduction Philip Davis describes agnostics as being “honest doubters symptomatically torn between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ — suspended in between belief and disbelief” (100). In this dissertation I will be exploring Victorian agnosticism, a concept that is seemingly paradoxical to the modern reader faced with the ambivalence of the Victorian intellectual rejection of the traditional faith of their ancestors combined with an emotional reluctance to part with the Christian ideals of morality. In this study of Victorian agnosticism I have chosen Thomas Hardy’s mature fiction and a selection of his poetry to illustrate my contention that the influence of Christianity and the Bible, in particular, on the psyche of the Victorian literary mind was so pervasive that, even when Reason rejected the miraculous and undermined their belief in God, the doubters could never quite disentangle themselves from the faith that had played such a central role in their formative years. This possibly subconscious enmeshment with Christian doctrine played an important role in the writers’ perception of the world and is reflected in their art.

Thomas Hardy’s views on religion are well documented in his writing. They provide a rich source for a study on religious doubt and its consequences for an author’s art. I plan to show that Hardy’s particular brand of agnosticism is unique in that his dilemma is not so much one of doubt as to whether there is a God, but rather a selective acknowledgement of certain Christian doctrines combined with a rejection of others. This study aims to investigate Hardy’s relationship with Christian doctrine by means of a close critical analysis of his treatment of religious themes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), Jude the Obscure (1895), The Return of the Native (1878) and a brief selection of his poetry. The analysis of the novels and poetry will be conducted with reference to three fundamental evangelical Christian principles with a view to establishing as precisely as possible the areas of religious doubt and allegiance peculiar to Hardy’s religious belief system. In this dissertation I argue that there appears to be sufficient evidence in Hardy’s literary output to indicate that his simultaneous affiliation to the Hebraic doctrines of sin and atonement and rejection of the doctrines of salvation and forgiveness are the chief factors responsible for his predominantly pessimistic world view. Furthermore, I wish to show that the doomed universe of Hardy’s fiction was born out of the pessimism that followed in the wake of Hardy’s loss of faith.

Agnosticism was a by-product of the vast changes that swept over Victorian England as a result of the advances of science, exponentially increasing industrialisation, and the enormous impact of the writings of prominent men of science such as Darwin and Spencer, (Lerner whose theories overturned beliefs that had comfortably been accepted for centuries 167). The importance of religion in the daily lives of the Victorians cannot be overestimated and is significant to this study as it places Hardy’s preoccupation with religion within the context of the Zeitgeist which was prevalent during his lifetime. Religion was the fundamental core of Victorian society. It determined a person’s social existence and behaviour (Jay 24).

Thomas Carlyle puts it succinctly when he says, “A man’s religion is the chief fact with regard (Collins 4). It follows, therefore, that loss of faith is a shattering experience which to him” Stotko 3 seriously affects the lives of agnostics. Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere is an accurate account of the effects of loss of faith on the protagonist’s psyche and its impact on his relationship with his wife, family and society in general. This novel illustrates the kind of mental agony Hardy must have experienced when his faith failed him.

The mental stress and morbid disillusionment that plagued Hardy as a result of his loss of faith are central to my dissertation and form the basis from which an investigation of the ambivalent nature of Hardy’s agnosticism evident in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure will be launched. The plots in both novels are dominated by a process of spiritual disintegration leading from faith to unbelief in the lives of the protagonists. Hardy explores the mental and physical repercussions of loss of faith in both Tess and Jude. Parallel to these developments, he also depicts the reverse: Sue Bridehead develops from agnosticism to belief and Angel’s agnosticism is shown up to be a thin façade which cannot obliterate the faith he imbibed in his childhood. By juxtaposing the agony of the road to unbelief in Tess and Jude with the subversion of the very concept of agnosticism in Sue and Angel, Hardy illuminates the complexity of religious conflict that was ever present in his own heart. Although he explores many aspects of faith and unbelief, the final outcome of the plots of Tess and Jude send a powerful message: the road to unbelief is painful and it ends in annihilation. This study seeks to establish the link between the pessimistic world view expressed in Hardy’s art and his religious leanings, and to show that the former was a direct consequence of the latter.





Walter Pater asks: “Who will deny that to trace the influence of religion upon a human character is one of the legitimate functions of the novel?” (Knoepflmacher 11). Hardy illustrates Pater’s maxim in delineating the spiritual journeys of his protagonists Tess and Jude. Both display a deep religious awareness from a young age and are unable to reconcile the beliefs they acquired as children with real life as it unfolds for them. The disillusionment that pervades their outlook on life stems from their loss of faith and is a reflection of Victorian agnosticism and Hardy’s agnosticism in particular.

Jan Jêdrzejwski states the Hardy was an agnostic who “remained emotionally involved with the church” and that the tension between his emotional attachment to the church and intellectual distancing from it was the controlling force behind the development of Hardy’s art in its religious aspect (212). This statement sums up an important aspect of Hardy’s spiritual dilemma which I will explore in this dissertation with reference to his portrayal of the institution of the church and its clergy and its influence on the lives of his characters.

The inconsistent and often contradictory image Hardy created of the church bears witness to this conflict. However, I will argue that the conflict between emotion and reason in Hardy’s quest for faith was perhaps not the controlling force behind Hardy’s art in religious terms. I contend that perhaps it lay neither in the faith he lost, nor in the clash between his emotional attachment to the church and his intellectual alienation from it, but rather in those aspects of the religious doctrines that he retained. I wish to show that it is the pervasive influence of Stotko 4 these doctrines that shaped Hardy’s thinking and framed the hopelessness and woe that characterise his world view.

By way of introduction to Hardy’s literary-religious context, a general (and, given the limits of this study, necessarily only glancing) comparison between Hardy’s novels and those of selected contemporaries might point up the extreme pessimism that is peculiar to Hardy and helps to explain why Hardy’s beliefs differ so dramatically from those of other Victorian novelists. Furthermore, such a comparison highlights the unique nature of his religious views and, I plan to show, reveals the perhaps subconscious philosophical conditions that shaped his work. I have chosen the novelists Charles Dickens, Elisabeth Gaskell and George Eliot for the purposes of comparison since they represent the basic Victorian religious categories and cover a broad area of the Victorian religious spectrum against which Thomas Hardy’s religious affiliations and their effects on his work can be sketched.

Both Dickens and Gaskell used the novel as a vehicle for exploring and transmitting religious views, sometimes even with a didactic purpose in mind (Lerner 13). They sought (amongst other things), to alert the public to the woes of poverty and to appeal to the Christian sense of neighbourly love to help improve matters. Walder states in Dickens and Religion: “Whether Christian or humanist, or both, nineteenth-century novelists were all concerned to adopt some position in relation to the religious activities and ideas prevalent then” (4). While I have reservations about the generalisation “all”, (particularly with reference to Hardy), it is a description considerably more appropriate for Dickens, Eliot and Gaskell.

Each novelist often indexes — although not always unproblematically — his or her religious orientation. Walder, in his discussion of Dickens’s “religion of the heart” which was humanistic in character rather than doctrinal or theological, describes in detail the broadly traditional Christian view Dickens espoused, complete with his unmistakeable prejudice against dissenters. For example, the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby are the personification of Christian charity and demonstrate Dickens’s belief in the power of the individual to spread goodness in society through good works. Hardy’s novels, on the other hand, demonstrate a far less equivocal belief in the power of an individual to exert an influence for the good on his own life or his social environment. Clym Yeobright and Jude are both equipped with the necessary intelligence and noble vision to ameliorate life, yet they are condemned to failure because they are simply insignificant parts of the universe which is governed by laws of Nature put in place by the “Immanent Will,” against which human beings strive in vain.

Dickens preaches what Walder calls a “social gospel” through the example of characters like Amy Dorrit, whose long-suffering, unconditional love and capacity to forgive emphasise the value of Christian virtues and Dickens’s belief that love is an all conquering redemptive force that can change lives. Walder points out that for Dickens, redemption is possible through the unfailing goodness of semi-divine idealised females like Amy Dorrit and Agnes Wickfield who exert a powerful force that can overcome evil and bring deliverance to the men they love (144). In Hardy’s world, characters lacking a belief in God turn to love to fill the Stotko 5 yearning in their hearts. Initially they think they have found that something that gives meaning and fulfilment to their lives, (Tess and Angel; Jude and Sue; Clym and Eustacia) only to discover that love brings nothing but misery and pain in the long term. In Collins this disillusionment is referred to as “a negative religious experience” (125). Comparing Hardy’s women to Dickens’s heroines one is struck by the fact that far from being instruments of deliverance, in some cases they are instruments of the destruction of their lovers, like Arabella, Sue Bridehead and Eustacia Vye, while Tess literally destroys her lover and becomes a sacrificial victim on the altar of love. For Hardy’s characters, love is a liability and not a vehicle for improving the human condition.

A comparison of religious themes in the novels of Dickens and Hardy shows that while Dickens’s novels reflect the positive power of Christianity, focus on the importance of New Testament virtues such as love, and send an uplifting, hopeful message of mercy and redemption, Hardy’s reveal a harsh world where Christianity is portrayed as a feeble ritual based on a myth that lacks force and Christian virtues make characters vulnerable rather than powerful. His novels focus on Old Testament laws of sin and atonement which provide no means of escape or redemption. His message is one of “unhope”. It appears that Dickens and Hardy represent polar opposites on the scale of Victorian religious thought ranging from a life-embracing faith to doubt and despair.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction offers a valuable contribution in an investigation of the link between religious faith and authorship. She was a Unitarian minister’s wife with first-hand knowledge of dissenting communities who expressed her religious sentiments and concern for the poor in her writing. In fact her writing was so inextricably linked to her religion that it included verbatim or paraphrased transcripts of factual reports published by the Unitarian Church on the plight of the poor (Fryckstedt 98). Like Dickens and Eliot, her message is predominantly one of hope. She unabashedly expresses her belief that God is omnipotent and has a redemptive plan for humanity. In Mary Barton, even the irascible John Barton says of Esther: “there glimmered in his darkness, the idea that religion could save her” (92). Her novels bear the stamp of many biblical citations, and promote the Biblical teachings of mercy, forgiveness, trust in God’s goodness, comfort in faith and a belief in peace and rest in God at death. Dickens and Gaskell share a positive belief in the regenerative power of Christianity which is reflected in their fiction and noticeably absent in Hardy. Regeneration cannot occur in Hardy because characters are unable to exert an influence on their world, and God, if He exists at all, seems impervious to the fate of individuals. Hardy questioned the existence and omnipotence of God which Gaskell found reassuring and had long abandoned a belief in salvation and everlasting life. One could say then that Gaskell’s views on religion are diametrically opposed to Hardy’s. Although abject poverty and misery are central themes in Gaskell’s novels, her faith acts as a vibrant and edifying force of hope and offers the possibility of overcoming evil. In contrast, Hardy’s lack of faith renders his fictional world bleak and desolate.



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