The Harsh Realism of Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyOn this day in 1840, the great novelist Thomas Hardy was born. I can’t help but compare all 19th century novelists to Herman Melville. I love Melville for the perversity of his interests. But the clarity of his writing is terrible. I have him pegged as an introvert. He had a hard time seeing his stories the way that others saw them. Hardy had no such problem, and maybe that is because he was at base a poet. He only wrote novels to pay the bills, and after he had made his money, he stopped writing novels and only wrote poetry. The irony, of course, is that no one is particularly interested in reading his poetry. But the novels live on because of their power and moral decency.

Hardy’s last novel was Jude the Obscure, written a full 33 years before his death. It is typical of his fiction in that it tells the story of admirable people who are torn down by the society. He is very much like Dickens, but without the sentimentality. Jude is one of the greatest characters ever created in literature. It raises a very important question that I think most Americans today refuse to consider. As a young man, Jude studied very hard and was determined to make it to the academy. But he fell in love with a fairly unlovable girl and married her, and his life spun out of control from there. There are two points about this. One is that poor people are never allowed to make a mistake. The other is even if Jude had continued on with his studies (he had taught himself Latin and Greek), it is made clear in the book that he would have needed some kind of Horatio Alger luck to have ever been allowed in the academy.

Our society today is hardly more open or forgiving. But we’ve created this myth that anyone can succeed and as proof we hold up people who are both extraordinary and lucky. The American version of Jude the Obscure is the movie Breaking Away. There is a great scene where Dave tells his father than he did well on his tests and that he has been accepted to the college. His father tells him about working as a stone cutter to help build the college, but how he never felt comfortable on the campus. He tells Dave that he doesn’t want his son to be like him, and that he must take this opportunity. It’s very America. And the sad thing is that the film was made in 1979, basically at the inflection point when our society turned from that kind of post-war period of a thriving middle class to our current one that is much like Hardy’s novel. Now you may go to college, but it doesn’t mean what it used to, you end up owing huge amounts of money, and in the end, you don’t get a better life. If Breaking Away were made today, Dave would take over his father’s used car lot.

In a fundamental sense, I don’t like Hardy’s novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. I find them crushing. They are harshly realistic. But they are important. And it is edifying to spend periods of time with such fine characters who eventually lose. Because that’s how I see the world. It is no great triumph to be noble when you succeed. Compare Jude who battles his whole tragic life with very little complaint to the hugely successful John Galt of Atlas Shrugged who whines that the people don’t appreciate him enough. Who would you rather spend a dozen hour with?

Happy birthday Thomas Hardy!

1 thought on “The Harsh Realism of Thomas Hardy

  1. Part of me misses the intense way I read novels when I was young. For ages, I couldn’t finish "Jude." It was just too close to home.

    Or so I thought. Older, I don’t approach art in terms of finding my own feelings in it, and I had no problem with "Jude." I’m glad I finally finished it, and in a way it’s silly to identify so strongly with a work that isn’t remotely about your experience.

    I am glad I read as much old stuff as I did before I lost that youthful need to find a connection to those authors. I would have missed a lot of great art otherwise.

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