«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
Stotko 35 time of writing Tess and this influenced his thinking as is evident in the reference at the end of Tess to schylus. Having abandoned the Christian idea that there is a purpose to suffering, and that a loving God controls the universe, Hardy seeks alternatives to explain the whys and wherefores of man’s existence here on earth. There is evidence of many philosophic ideas reflected in Hardy’s work: Comte, Hume, Huxley, Spencer, Schopenhauer and others (Kramer 69). While critics agree that Hardy’s ideas certainly were influenced by these philosophers, he appears to have evolved his own belief system, which is by no means static; rather it is experimental in nature, often appearing to be contradictory. In essence, he seems to retain the Biblical principles he was raised in but to replace salvation and hope with a tragic vision akin to the Greek in which the controlling forces of the universe are anything but benign and man is an infinitesimal and inconsequential part of the universe. Mingled in with this Greek philosophy, hints of scientific determinism can be detected. Only the fittest survive. Tess and Jude succumb to the blows of fate. They possess neither the powerful animal survival instinct of Arabella nor the Angel Clare-like strength of intellect which eclipses emotions and creates a way to move forward in life after disaster has struck.
Hardy disputed any suggestion that he believed the First Cause or God to be a malignant force. He claims there to be “a vast discrepancy between the expression of my fancy and my belief” (Life 2: 217). However, it is perhaps unavoidable that his art represents to a larger or lesser degree his personal opinions and what he held to be the truth. Hardy’s intensely private nature (Gittings 569) and defence of his position in “Apology to Late Lyrics” attest to his wish to remain neutral in the eyes of the world but the passionate nature of his prose and poetry preclude neutrality. If he had truly attained neutrality, critics would not have responded with such intensity to Tess and Jude (Life 2: 7-8, 46). Various “invidious critics had cast slurs upon him as Nonconformist, Agnostic, Atheist, Infidel, Immoralist, Heretic, Pessimist”, yet his wife insists that “the only word that can be plausibly attached to him is churchy” (Life 2: 177). Hardy, the man, seems to conjure up as many inconsistencies as his characters Jude, Sue and Angel. Nevertheless, underlying the many apparent contradictions, there appears to be an allegiance to the Biblical principles Hardy subscribed to as a young man, which despite their mutations throughout the years, remain a recognisable derivative of the Christian religious tradition.
In weighing up Hardy’s philosophies as represented in his fiction against the three evangelical principles put forward by Davis, there is persuasive evidence that Hardy accepts two of the three principles: the concept of original sin together with the curse it brings on man and the earth, and man’s need for salvation. He departs from these principles in that even though he recognises man’s doomed condition and the need for salvation, Christianity is not presented as a realistic means of salvation. He responds to conversion in his fiction with cynicism and suspicion and portrays salvation as proposed by the Bible as a myth.
Jêdrzejwski draws attention to Hardy’s recognition of the psychological significance of religious belief (42). In the characterisation of Tess, Angel, Sue and Jude Hardy illustrates the influence of religious perception on his protagonists’ self-perception and life choices.
Stotko 36 Despite Hardy’s insistence that his work did not reflect his beliefs, (Life 2: 169, 40-41) critics over decades interpret his oeuvre as an expression of his thoughts and opinions (Life 2: 57-58). It is not unreasonable to assert then, that his fiction and poetry could reflect the psychological significance of Hardy’s own religious belief system. Viewing Tess and Jude against evangelical principles reveals that Hardy’s fictional universe is essentially melancholic and gloomy because it appears to be in the grip of the Biblical dispensation whereby men and women are victims inhabiting a corrupt world and are obliged to suffer the consequences of their sin as decreed by the law, but there is no provision for atonement or salvation at all; a very bleak vision of the world indeed.
Chapter 2Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The Return of the Native The Return of the Native is a study of humanity removed from the trappings of civilisation and traditional religion and subject only to the relentless Laws of Nature of which it forms an insignificant microscopic part. This novel describes man reduced to primitive basics in physical and spiritual terms. Traditional religion in the form of the organised church plays a negligible role in supplying society with the forms necessary at marriage and death. The inhabitants of the Heath resort to folklore and superstition in an attempt to understand and explain their harsh life on Egdon. The imagery and symbolism used in the graphic description of Egdon Heath suggest that it can be viewed as a microcosm of the cursed earth. The Heath is personified into a larger-than-life monstrosity that shares loneliness, sadness and the potential for tragedy with man. It is symbolic of Nature and the Laws which govern Nature and exerts an elemental force on its inhabitants.
Hardy devotes the entire first chapter of the book to a description of the heath.
Initially it appears hopelessly digressive and but it is highly significant because it establishes the Heath as a universal symbol of the earth and all creation that has both Pagan and Biblical attributes. The Biblical description “the untameable Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it had always been” (The Return of the Native 12) characterises Egdon Heath as timeless, unwanted and cast out. Being cast out implies that someone or something rejected it.
Possibly it refers to Hardy’s agnostic view of the universe devoid of a loving Providence. This sense of abandonment is also reflected in Jude. As a small boy Jude pities the birds he is employed to scare, “They seemed, like himself to be living in a world that did not want them” (15). Furthermore, the heath is “full of watchful intentness” and it is waiting for “a last crisis — the final overthrow” (The Return of the Native 10). The heath emanates an inherent sense of inevitable tragedy which sets the tone for the novel.
Egdon is a place of darkness and negation. It “could retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms [...] and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread” (The Return of the Native 9). Religious imagery depicts the darkness of the heath as representing “a mortal sin” (The Return of the Native 55), associating the physical darkness with a spiritual darkness. The “sombreness” and “mournful sublimity” of nature reflect the mood of man. Indeed, the narrator goes as far as to put the heath on an equal standing with man’s nature; the heath is “like man, slighted and enduring;
and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. [...] it had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities” (The Return of the Native 11).
Having established the connectedness of man and the heath, it follows that the morbid qualities inherent in the heath are equally relevant to humankind. No reference to nature in The Return of the Native is inconsequential or random. In this novel Hardy’s fictional universe resembles the Elizabethan world view in which cosmic events are tied up with events on earth: the night Eustacia and Clym meet to secure their future is marked by a lunar eclipse presaging the darkness that is to cloud their lives; and the night Eustacia flees Stotko 38 and plunges to her death is marked by tempests, storms and darkness. In the aforementioned example, Hardy magnifies the unity of man and nature by creating in nature a mirror image of the turmoil that rages in Eustacia’s mind and spirit. The environment becomes an extension of her mood: “Never was harmony more perfect than that between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without” (The Return of the Native 345).
Furthermore the rain and her weeping are unified, “the tearfulness of the outer scene was repeated upon her face” (The Return of the Native 346). The foliage and surrounds likewise take on a putrefactive hue reflecting Eustacia’s mental state. Adjectives denoting decay abound: Eustacia stumbles over “oozing lumps of fleshy fungi [...] like the rotting liver and lungs of some colossal animal” (The Return of the Native 345). Hardy follows up the scene of tragedy in human terms and in nature by linking both to history. Specifically, the violence of the storm is linked to disasters “in the chronicles of the world” and “all that is terrible and dark in history and legend — the last plague in Egypt, the destruction of Sennacherib’s host and the agony in Gethsemane” (The Return of the Native 345), thus universalising Eustacia’s fate with that of all humankind in time and space. The Biblical allusions connect Nature and humanity to specific God-induced tragedies involving suffering and death. Thus, by implication, it can be assumed that the heath and its inhabitants represent a type of the fallen world prone to sin and punishment.
The Biblical references above denote respectively: the slaughter of first born Egyptian sons by the Angel of Death; forty thousand deaths by the sword of the Angel of the Lord and, finally, the ultimate human sacrifice which was in obedience to the Will of God.
Hardy prefaces the references with the words “history and legend” leaving the assessment of the veracity of the event up to the reader. However, each Old and New Testament reference alludes to God or, in Hardy’s term, The Immanent Will, being responsible for pain and destruction, which is a notion that recurs in Hardy’s fiction. It is expressed by the narrator in Tess, “The Prince of Immortals [...] had ended his sport with Tess” (564); and in Jude (355) by Sue, who thinks “a force external” to themselves forbids their success and happiness.
Eustacia also believes that Heaven has devised tortures for her (The Return of the Native 346) and the narrator in the same novel declares that human beings shy away from blaming “The First Cause” for the evil that befalls them and “invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears” (373). It appears then, that Hardy associates suffering and death with the judgement of the God of the Old Testament. Each of the Biblical tragedies above is a form of judgement. Pharaoh is punished for not allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt.
Sennacherib’s army is destroyed for defying God and Jesus is sacrificed to redeem “us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3.13).
In addition to being “an Ishmaelitish thing”, Egdon Heath displays dominant pagan elements which exert a powerful influence on its inhabitants. It lays bare the naked essence of human existence, unclothed by civilisation’s manners, airs and graces that serve as a protective covering and hiding place for what lies beneath. Nature becomes preternatural and The notion that the Immanent Will is responsible for evil is not consistent in Hardy’s work. See chapter 3.
Stotko 39 all is “in extremity.” Primitive urges rule over man-made culture. They are manifested in bonfires and dancing. The imagery employed to elucidate the emergence of primitive urges is significant. It is the imagery of hell and animal sacrifices. The flames are “like wounds in a black hide” and “scalding caldrons” (The Return of the Native 19) and are reminiscent of “funeral piles” (The Return of the Native 20), while the heath is described as “a vast abyss” and “Limbo” (The Return of the Native 20). Hardy links the bonfires historically to their pagan roots in Viking and Celtic times and to Christian symbols of hell and penance. The link covers myth, literature and art, thus encompassing man’s existence in the actual past, the present and in the realm of imagination.
Although Hardy’s plethora of references is severely criticised by many critics, it is well worth examining the references closely to uncover the greater picture under consideration. By referring to Viking gods and druidical rites in relation to the bonfires, Hardy succeeds in imbuing the context of his narrative with a feeling of historical authenticity and the timelessness of human ritual activity. The lighting of bonfires is removed from the contextual political framework and put back in time and space into the realm of myth where it represents man’s rebellious response to the coming of winter which brings “foul times, cold darkness, misery and death” (The Return of the Native 21). Paganism and Christianity are assimilated in bonfire-making through the image linking Prometheus and Genesis. Prometheus, renowned for his disobedience to the gods, is linked to Adam and Eve who disobey God.
Disobedience has severe consequences. Prometheus is fettered to a rock; Adam and Eve are banished from paradise, separated from God and the earth is cursed. The narrator refers to people as “fettered gods of the earth” who defy winter’s “black chaos” using God’s words at creation: “Let there be light.” Here again is an insight into Hardy’s portrayal of humanity as fettered to the Laws of the universe that dictate peaks and troughs in life. Literary references include Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both these works bring to mind sin and punishment in the Biblical sense, revealing the underlying theme never quite absent from Hardy’s work.
Folklore, dreams and superstition are further pagan elements that pervade The Return of the Native. The heath brings out primitive instincts and fires the flame of man’s inherent existential fears. These irrational primitive instincts determine behaviour even within the precincts of institutionalised religion merging paganism and Christianity. The church on Egdon functions as a social framework for the purposes of marriage and burial and as a bizarre arena for social interaction of a dubious nature. Eustacia’s burning desire to catch a glimpse of Clym, the man-saviour of her imagination, motivates her to consider going to church. The church also becomes the stage for an act of witchcraft when Eustacia is stabbed by Susan Nunsuch for allegedly bewitching her children (The Return of the Native 176).