- The Human Predicament in Hardy's Novels, and: Thomas Hardy Annual No. 3
"A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images," writes Camus. J. Hillis Miller, writing in 1967, puts it this way: "A novel . . . is as much as any other work of literature, the expression of . . . a single consciousness." The [End Page 656] aim of criticism, he goes on to say, is to identify "the unique flavor of that consciousness." But because subjectivity colors everything, criticism has a flavor too.
In the case of Dave's The Human Predicament in Hardy's Novels, this flavor is unique. Schooled in the thought of Buddha and The Bhagavadgita, Dave considers Hardy's novels in their light and finds Hardy's views to be similar. Imbued with an appealing dignity and buttressed with quotes from all of Hardy's books, the thesis seems to work. It presents Hardy's world as existentially absurd, conceived two ways—metaphysically and socially.
Metaphysically, the book sees Hardy's universe (as symbolized by Egdon Heath) to be devoid of god and devoid of meaning. Events and coincidences tell us this. Man is "alone and in exile" in this world. Everything is indifferent to his state. The only appropriate response to this condition is "stoical apathy" and a "spirit of resignation." At its best, this view then "deepens into a kind of mysticism" to give a "profound inner peace," a "state of consciousness" that holds that "tranquility comes from renunciation of all wishes," which themselves are the "root cause of sorrow."
Few of Hardy's characters attain this state. Clym, Elizabeth-Jane, Ethelberta, and Oak are four who do. These are characters "through whom Hardy thinks." It is "by virtue of their spiritual strength" that they "survive intact" and learn to substitute "abnegation for self-indulgence, renunciation for ambition" and give up hedonism. They serve to "illustrate Hardy's melioristic wisdom."
As everybody knows, Hardy's heroes do not learn this truth. This failure is their tragedy. Eustacia, Henchard, Tess, and Jude fail because they won't resign themselves to how things are. Not characters to admire, they gain our pity; these are characters "through whom Hardy feels."
To the social absurdity of the world, however, the appropriate response is not resignation but what Dave calls "revolt." It takes the form of "a sound secular ethics of human responsibility." This is a "humanism informed with Christian compassion" that is "based on the human need for harmonious co-existence of men," one that can "mitigate as far as possible the sense of alienation" in the human community. Ethelberta illustrates this mode. "She knows no defeat or despair and pursues the larger happiness of all concerned in her actions." As Kant suggests that we should do, "she treats everyone as an end, and makes no one a mere means to her personal or family ends." In such a way, man can help to "sustain human beings in their misery in the absence of God."
But abnegation figures here as well. "The end of ethical behavior is not just 'happiness' but the 'happiness of others.'" So because "the life of man has no meaning," and because "the world has no reasons for its being there," then "self-sacrifice for others' good" becomes "meaningful even in the irrational universe."
As a consequence of this reasoning, Dave sees Hardy's "great" characters as "not self-seeking" but "like Tess," who with "loving-kindness" chooses to appoint herself "as Providence to guard (her) unfortunate fellows against sorrow so far as possible," even at the "cost of self-delight."
Because Hardy hopes that man will realize that "human responsibility" is the "basis of ethics" and that "more and more people" will act on this to "ameliorate the individual situation in society," then Hardy's "revolt" can be regarded as "decidedly affirmative and moderately optimistic." And this position, Dave asserts, "makes nonsense of the charge that he was a pessimist in [End Page 657...