Thomas Hardy, Humanism and History

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Author: Fred Reid
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,668 words

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[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Reid "attempt[s] to throw a different light on Hardy's relationship to humanist ideas of history," arguing that Hardy "holds on to the humanist belief that people can be the agents of social improvement."]

1. Introduction

Thomas Hardy's fiction was once debated territory between historians and critics who read Hardy as a representative of "realism". Douglas Brown, for example, read Hardy as a "faithful witness" to "the ruin of English agriculture".1 Hardy values the essential virtue of the countryman, which he saw as overthrown by the "invasion" of an urban spirit, responsible for the corn laws of 1846 and the subsequent depression of English agriculture. Likewise, the Marxist critic, Arnold Kettle,2 saw Hardy as committed to the values of a "peasantry", which was destroyed by class struggle within the countryside.

Historians had no difficulty in dismissing these accounts as a distortion of what actually happened to English agriculture and rural communities in the nineteenth century. There was no generalised "ruin" of agriculture.3 Urban capital frequently brought new opportunities to backward rural communities in Hardy's own Dorset and Hardy romanticised the "peasant" or "lifeholder" class.4

Faced with this historical evidence, Merryn Williams made an attempt to salvage Hardy's fiction for realism.5 Building on work done with her father, Raymond,6 she produced a Hardy who saw deeply into the cultural crisis besetting "humanity" on the eve of a new century of unprecedented capitalist development:

It was not only an existing but a growing and struggling humanity that Hardy wished to describe. From The Return of the Native on, the recognition of simple humanity is extended and complicated by questions of education, mobility, and aspiration, beyond the customary rural ways. This is what I have seen as the highest kind of realism, and Hardy's permanent achievement as a novelist. To see what was really there, beyond the conventional stereotypes was difficult enough. But to see what was moving and growing, not only within individuals, but within a whole society on the edge of further difficult change and growth required an imaginative insight of the highest order: a penetration to what was potential yet thwarted, active but though slighted, enduring, in late nineteenth-century England. In this final recognition Hardy became, not only our most important country novelist, but a major writer whose insights and concerns are still at the centre of our experience.7

Such readings rest, ultimately, on the work of George Lukacs. Lukacs saw "high" realism as the characteristic fiction of an age of revolutionary crisis, when novelists like Scott, Balzac and Tolstoy were able to escape from the imprisonment of upper-class ideology to "see" the "true" tendency of history in their own times.8 This "true" tendency, which had been established scientifically by Marx, was always an upward leap of the human spirit towards its goal of Communism and freedom. The latest of these upward leaps had been the victory of the Soviet Union and its allies over Fascism....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420101179