«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
Stotko 6 George Eliot is an important novelist in the context of examining the influence of religion on literary output. Unlike Dickens and Gaskell who allowed their religious beliefs to influence their writing to a large extent, she strove to be scientifically objective and realistic in her portrayal of religion in operation in the lives of her characters. She wrote her fiction with the purpose of being as true to her observations of life as possible. Cunningham points this out in connection with Eliot’s rendition of the Methodists in Adam Bede, which was highly praised by Nonconformist groups. One reviewer states of Dinah Morris: “the author has done ample justice to evangelical piety” (168). Eliot’s personal experience of dissent through her Methodist aunt, her study of Southey’s Life of Wesley and her commitment to presenting accurate representations of real life enabled her to offer an objective view of dissent that differed from the conventional Victorian prejudice detectable in Dickens’s fiction.
While Eliot offers a realistic portrayal of religious groups in Victorian times, her personal humanistic ideas remain evident. For example, when Dinah visits Hetty Sorrel in prison to offer her the forgiveness of Christ and salvation, it is clearly the human element that appeals to Hetty, not the religious: “her (Hetty’s) cheek was against Dinah’s. It seemed as if her last faith and strength and hope lay in that contact, and the pitying love that shone from Dinah’s face […]” (Adam Bede 436). Cunningham states that “Eliot demythologises traditional formulas of repentance and conversion by reinterpreting humanistically Christian symbols and mythologies” (169). Like Hardy, she was an agnostic and rejected a belief in (Haight 42), but she extracted Christian morals traditional Christian doctrines and dogmas and values from their Biblical context and emphasised their relevance to life along humanistic lines. The case is very different with Thomas Hardy. Agnosticism produced a profound sense of hopelessness and futility in Hardy who rejected repentance and conversion (Hands
84) and portrayed the Christian value of loving kindness as a worthy but ineffectual force against the harsh laws of the universe. This can be deduced from the characterisation of Tess and Old Mr Clare whose goodness and commitment to loving kindness fail to influence positively their lives, or the lives of those around them.
The spiritual journeys from faith to agnosticism experienced by Hardy’s and Eliot’s heroines (Tess and Dorothea in Middlemarch) illustrate how differently each author treats the theme of loss of faith. Dorothea realises that she has grown estranged from the evangelical faith she held to be true in her early years. But this does not leave her with a feeling of desolation and forsakenness, as it does Tess — which I shall seek to show in Chapter one.
She opts for a positive alternative and defines her belief as being “ part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle narrower’” (Middlemarch 357). She never ceases trying to be good and to make life better for others. She believes that the “Immanent Will” is a life embracing positive force for the good: “it seems to me that the divine voice which tells us to set that wrong right must be obeyed” (Middlemarch 340).
Eliot’s humanist leanings gave her a confidence in humanity’s potential for goodness and the ability through the exercise of free will to ameliorate circumstances in life. Her characterisation points to the existence of intrinsic goodness in human beings, suggesting Stotko 7 that there was no danger that the absence of God could result in the absence of goodness.
She disagreed with the contention that there could be no morality without evangelical belief (Haight 55).
In Hardy’s universe it is irrelevant whether or not a character is good or evil.
Characters’ fates are not linked to their moral standing as is common with Victorian writers writing in accordance with the Christian belief that the righteous are rewarded while the sinful are punished if they do not repent and reform. This pattern is followed by Dickens, Gaskell and even George Eliot. For example, Steerforth in David Copperfield meets with a violent death for his dishonourable behaviour towards Emily as does the wicked Carker in Dombey and Son, while Mr Dombey is redeemed by his daughter and becomes righteous through suffering. Christian morality and its law of consequences can be traced in George Eliot’s portrayal of Bulstrode and Fred Vincy in Middlemarch. Both must suffer and pay for their mistakes.
The evil that befalls Hardy’s characters is not necessarily the result of morally wrong behaviour. I aim to show in chapter one that in Jude and Tess, there is evidence to suggest that the Old Testament doctrine of Original sin taints Hardy’s characters with the curse that came with sin and places them on a cursed earth. For this reason, moral fibre and good intentions do not save characters from their fate. Tess, Hardy’s “Pure Woman”, suffers the same fate as the wicked Alec. Clym Yeobright’s return to Egdon Heath inspired by noble intentions, does not prevent him from suffering from near blindness, having to resort to furze cutting to survive and ultimately to leading a sad, lonely nomadic existence. Mrs Yeobright swallows her pride and seeks reconciliation with her son, but meets her death on the heath without having accomplished her aim. Hardy’s characters have no control over their destinies.
Unlike George Eliot, Hardy does not attempt to recast Christianity in a humanistic form nor does he attempt to reinvent Christianity in a form that suits his agnostic framework like Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, who clings to Christianity in a revised form by replacing the old rejected faith with a new one based on the person of Jesus excluding his deity. Hardy is possibly unique amongst contemporary Victorian agnostic writers because he faces the crisis of belief head-on with no comforting philosophies to lighten the burden and make it palatable. In “In Tenebris II” Hardy’s insistence on seeking the “way to the Better” by exacting “a full look at the Worst” (CP 168), seems to place him in a spiritual abyss and his unbelief results in a doomed Weltanschauung.
In general, Dickens, Gaskell and Eliot reveal their relationship towards religion in their art, whether they entertained Christian ideas or not. Importantly, the prevailing sentiment that emerges is one of hope. There is a means of salvation for the characters in their novels either through faith or good works. Essentially, their view of man is optimistic. The evangelical view that man is totally depraved through Original sin for which there is bound to be retribution, is replaced by the belief in individual regeneration through the power of love and forgiveness. Hardy’s work seems to negate this idea. In this dissertation I wish to show Stotko 8 that the doctrine of Original sin combined with a fatalistic notion that individual regeneration through conversion or experience was a myth exerted a demonstrable influence on Hardy’s fiction and poetry. Consequently, his novels offer no possibility for hope or redemption.
Thomas Hardy’s work does not provide as clear a picture of his religious views as those of Dickens or Gaskell. Nor can one detect the noticeable influence of any one specific philosophy, such as humanism in George Eliot’s novels. The varied and often contradictory belief system that emerges from a study of Hardy’s novels and poetry will be discussed in chapter three. Hardy renounced the notion that he subscribed to any particular belief or philosophy in his “Apology to Late Lyrics”, where he repeatedly declares that his intention is not to state a particular belief. His purpose is, he insists, the “exploration of reality” (CP 557).
I plan to investigate Hardy’s perception of reality and to demonstrate that Hardy’s pessimism and universe of “unhope” can be construed as a direct result of the influence that religion exerted on his perception of reality.
In the Preface to Tess Hardy insists that his art expresses impressions and not convictions and therefore cannot be interpreted as a personal statement of belief. While it can be affirmed that Hardy’s writing does not indicate undiluted affiliation to any specific creed, it is possible to determine the gist of his personal opinions and beliefs from a close examination of his art. Hardy states unambiguously that he has no desire to portray reality accurately. Millgate quotes Hardy explaining that the purpose of his “art is a changing of the actual proportion of reality so as to bring out more forcibly […] that feature in them which appeals most strongly to the idiosyncrasy of the artist” (LW 239). According to Hardy, this feature that he isolates and recreates under his artistic microscope is the product of what Hardy terms “the idiosyncrasy of the artist”. The word “idiosyncrasy” means “a mental constitution, feeling or view peculiar to a person” and something that is “highly individualised” (OED). Hence it is reasonable to assume that his art portrays a personal vision and reflects his opinions, ideas and perception of reality. Norman Page sums it up in his contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy entitled “Art and Aesthetics”: “What such convictions often amount to is a rejection of representation or ‘realism’ in favour of a highly, even eccentrically personal vision” (Kramer 38). In this dissertation I will attempt to define this “eccentrically personal vision” in religious terms.
Michael Bakhtin’s theory on narrative discourse supports the concept that a writer’s personal feelings, opinions and philosophies are an integral part of his art. He states, “The language of the prose writer deploys itself according to the author’s ultimate semantic instantiation” (Bakhtin 295). Bakhtin’s argument that it is virtually impossible for a writer to be completely neutral because his language is part of an organic whole which inevitably includes a historical and social context as well as personal and cultural beliefs is one which significantly informs the method and critical practices of my study. This thesis is based on the premiss that even a desperately private man like Hardy could not entirely avoid disclosing his personal beliefs via his language (despite his assertions to the contrary). The purpose of this study is to present some speculation upon the nature of Hardy’s own personal ideology and to Stotko 9 show how this played out in the fictional world he created. Although reference will be made to biographical material, the key to unlocking the mystery of Hardy’s religious views will focus on his novels and poetry. “The novel,” Bakhtin states, “is a dialogized representation of an ideologically freighted discourse” (422). This statement implies that language, particularly dialogue and characterisation through dialogue in the novel will necessarily betray an ideology even against the conscious intention of the author. I aim to demonstrate that dialogue in the novels under scrutiny can be used as a tool to determine that Hardy’s own peculiar perception of religion, in particular his readiness to dwell on the Mosaic code while rejecting the message of hope in the New Testament, was the driving force behind his doomed universe.
In Chapter one I shall outline Hardy’s religious background showing the strength of the faith he ascribed to before he became an agnostic. This serves to put Hardy’s loss of faith in perspective and give an indication of the importance of religion in his personal life. Having established the background to Hardy’s religious affiliation, I shall then examine Tess, Jude and A Laodecian in the light of the three evangelical principles fundamental to Christianity as outlined by Davis in order to shed light on Hardy’s religious ideology as it developed after his loss of faith, in as far as it is discernible from his fiction. According to Davis, Victorian
Evangelical Christian belief was based on three distinct principles (104):
1. Man and the world are corrupt through Original sin and suffer the consequences of affliction and damnation.
2. Man requires salvation.
3. Adult conversion was stressed rather than infant baptism.
I intend to demonstrate that Hardy’s interpretation of these principles determined his philosophy of life and they are therefore invaluable in assessing the profound pessimism which underlies his philosophy.
Chapter two aims to show that in The Return of the Native, an unusual novel that focuses on the primitive instinctive side of man’s nature on the whole uncontaminated by traditional Christian teaching, Hardy’s handling of plot and characterisation displays persuasive evidence that Christian doctrine exerted an inextinguishable influence on how he perceived life and in turn how he represented life in his fiction. This novel is set on Egdon Heath which is an essentially pagan environment where folklore and superstition govern the behaviour and thought patterns of the characters. Paradoxically however, pagan Egdon Heath also represents the Biblical cursed earth governed by the relentless laws of Nature which determine man’s fate. Thus, despite the predominantly heathen nature of the Heath complete with eerie bonfires and voodoo type curses, Hardy’s engineering of plot and characterisation still appear to follow Biblical principles concerning the Law. Consequently, the themes of sin, guilt and judgement follow the same pattern in this novel as in Tess and Jude which are placed in a traditionally Christian framework. An analysis of the religious content in these three novels implies a link between Hardy’s doomed universe and his Stotko 10 religious views. The fate of his characters exhibits an affinity to ancient Biblical principles, and it is a fate that is characteristically calamitous.