Virginia Woolf once claimed that Thomas Hardy was “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists.” The protagonists of his four famous tragic novels, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, are some of the most pitied characters in English literature. Their tragic falls are caused by a number of contributing factors, including societal conventions and the cruel nature of fate. However, one cause of their downfalls that is often overlooked is their frequent idolisation of places, ideas and people, an idolisation that reality is unfortunately unable to live up to. Eustacia, Tess, Jude and others all fall victim, in one way or another, to this human tendency to idolisation. Though this is a frequent theme in literature, there are very few writers who approach it with as much skill and sympathy as Hardy.
One of the most striking instances of this Hardeian idolisation is found in Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure. The novel’s male protagonist, Jude Fawley, lives in Marygreen, a village in Hardy’s Wessex. As a young boy, he works in his great-aunt’s bakery and at night he teaches himself Latin and Greek. He is “crazy for books,” hoping one day to become a scholar at the University of Christminster, a city modelled on Oxford. Jude is isolated and lonely in his childhood, often taking long walks by himself. He feels that his life is “an undemanded one” but that studying at University will bring change and fulfilment. Indeed, simply visiting Christminster is an idea that occupies Jude for the first portion of the novel, as Hardy writes in free indirect discourse: “Perhaps if he prayed, the wish to see Christminster might be forwarded.” He sees it as “a city of light” where “The tree of knowledge grows,” and he feels as if the voices of the city call to him, “We are happy here!”
However, when Jude attempts to become a scholar by sending a number of letters to various Christminster colleges, he only receives one response, from the Master of Biblioll College: “judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.” Despite his lengthy and persistent commitment to study, Jude is restrained by his position as a working class man, and thus his dreams cannot be fulfilled. But Jude also learns that Christminster is not as wonderful as he originally thought. Half of the city is made up of dingy slums and Sue describes it as “an ignorant place”. For the working classes, it is not so much a “city of light” as a city of walls dividing the rich from the poor.
But still Jude cannot let go of his dream, as he explains: “I love the place—although I know how it hates all men like me—the so-called self-taught.” He cannot let go of his ambitions, and it is this persistence that results in Jude and Sue’s return to Christminster: “I should like to go back to live there—perhaps to die there!” When they arrive, the couple realize the full societal effects of their unmarried relationship. Indeed, after they are repeatedly rejected from lodgings, Little Father Time, Jude’s son with Arabella, begins to believe that he and his siblings are the cause of the family’s woes. This belief leads to the tragic infanticide accompanied by the poignant note, “Done because we are too menny.” As Edmond Gosse argues, “The ‘grimy’ features of the story go to show the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead, and the squalid real life he was fated to lead.” The death of his children is a prime example of one of the novel’s ‘grimy’ features. And so, Sue is right to call Jude “Joseph the dreamer of dreams” and “a tragic Don Quixote,” because it is in part his Quixotic idealism that leads to his tragic fall. Even though his dreams are persistently left unfulfilled and crushed by reality, he never gives them up, eventually wishing that Little Father Time might go to the University. Thus, it is clear that idealism plays a huge role in Hardy’s final novel.
In the same way that Jude wishes to escape his working-class roots in Marygreen, so Eustacia (from Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native) wishes to escape the barrenness of the heath and Bloom’s End. When she goes walking on the heath she carries a spyglass and an hourglass, the latter representing her obsession with time, the former her hopes for a change of environment and her will to escape (though she also uses it to spy). Just as Jude sat on the roofs of barns and looked into the distance at the lights of Christminster, so Eustacia walks the heath dreaming of the luxury of Paris. As Hardy remarks: “One point was evident in this; that she had been existing in a suppressed state, and not in one of languor, or stagnation.” She is not lazy or idle; rather, life in Bloom’s End has suppressed her true, passionate personality. Indeed, when Clym asks Eustacia what depresses her, she replies with one word, “Life.” She later adds: "But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?"
She turns to Clym, the native who has returned from his prosperous life in Paris, to deliver this life of passion and excitement. But the tragedy of the novel is that he is unable to do this because he has dreams of his own, dreams of becoming a teacher in Bloom’s End. He explains: “I want to do some worthy things before I die.” In the same way that Jude and Sue begin with opposing religious beliefs and suffer because of this, so Clym and Eustacia have opposing hopes and dreams. This is summed up by Casagrande, who notes that Clym’s plight is “complicated, of course, by Eustacia’s being as desperate a dreamer as he, a dreamer moreover (of future rather than past dreams) who looks to him to fulfil her yearning.” Whereas Eustacia dreams of a future in Paris, Clym has attempted to go back to his past, returning to Bloom’s End and his mother’s house.
However, neither of their dreams can be fulfilled: Clym does not want to go to Paris, and Eustacia is not the schoolmaster’s wife that Clym wants her to be. As D.H. Lawrence explains, “He did not know that Eustacia had her being beyond his.” He has made her into “an idea”. And so, he has idolised not just the past, but also Eustacia herself, and this is the problem. Moreover, Clym is unable to turn back time and he is never fully reintegrated into Bloom’s End society. This is demonstrated by the St George play, a play that is supposed to be about regeneration but which is acted by dull and unenthusiastic mummers, exemplifying the hopelessness of Clym’s ambition. John Paterson is right to argue that the plot moves the characters “through the phases first of purpose or will or desire, then of passion or suffering as what the characters intend or desire is resisted and defeated, and finally of perception or knowledge as they recognize the limits of their world and of their power to change it.” It is this final recognition, amongst other things, that leads to Eustacia’s death and Clym’s descent into grief and failure. In the knowledge that she will never reach Paris without fleeing from her husband and becoming a fallen woman, Eustacia throws herself or falls into the stream near Shadwater weir. Clym, blind and wifeless, must also come to terms with reality, realising that it is impossible to turn back the clocks and truly reintegrate himself in Bloom’s End. And so it is clear that Clym and Eustacia both suffered for their idolisation, Clym of the past and Eustacia of the future, and for their projection of ideals onto one another.
It is interesting to note the undeniable similarities between the lives of Jude and Clym and the life of Hardy himself. Like Jude, Hardy was unable to study for a degree at Oxbridge, and he pursued self-directed study whilst working as a stonemason and then architect. Like Clym, Hardy gave up a successful career as a London architect and returned to his native Dorchester to become a writer. But this does not mean that Hardy is warning against self-education, as might be suggested by Jude the Obscure’s Pauline epitaph, “The letter killeth,” taken from 2, Corinthians 3. Nor does it mean Hardy is warning against successful employment and the gaining of wealth. After all, he famously wrote that a novel is “an impression, not an argument,” and so we can only infer that Hardy observed the restrictions on working-class men and that he noticed the difficulties of returning home after a long absence.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is another novel that portrays the dangers of idolisation, also eloquently expressed by Carson McCullers in her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. As Jean Brooks notes, “Respect for the real being of the beloved is lost in illusory wish-projections which cause suffering when they clash with reality.” Angel views Tess as a woman of inhuman purity, and like Clym, he imagines that his lover will make the perfect wife for him. She appears to him as “a visionary essence of woman” or “merely a soul at large,” a pure and sexless being. He calls her “Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names,” taking away her individuality to such an extent that Tess is forced to tell him, “Call me Tess.” It is worth noting that Artemis lived in celibacy, and thus that Angel is again projecting a false image onto the technically ‘impure’ Tess.
When, on their wedding night, Angel learns of Tess’s seduction or rape in the Chase, he is horrified and eventually leaves her for Brazil. This, in itself, shows how Tess too was tricked by Angel: he himself has had a pre-marital relationship with an older woman in London, so for him to desert Tess is incredibly hypocritical. Moreover, he has repeatedly attacked the conventions of Victorian society, and yet, when confronted with a crisis, he falls back in cowardice on traditions of marriage and purity. And so, one could argue that, just as Angel has been deceived in believing that Tess is ‘pure’ in terms of Victorian mores, so Tess has been deceived in believing that Angel is the perfect man, which he certainly is not. Likewise, Lucetta fails to realise that Henchard is the impulsive, domineering “woman-hater” that he himself professes to be, and to an extent, her ignorance of this leads to her tragic death. Angel, Tess and Lucetta are all victims of idolisation, deceiving themselves and therefore suffering upon their confrontations with reality.
Philip Larkin, one of Hardy’s biggest fans, wrote a poem entitled “Deceptions”, a poem that refers to what Larkin called “fulfilment’s desolate attic.” Throughout his career, Larkin perpetually portrayed the failures of love, religion and other ideals, and it is easy to see Hardy’s influence. It is clear that Hardy saw the dangers of our human tendency to idolise people and ideas, and I have attempted to outline the most significant instances of that impression, though there are others: Clym’s idolisation of his dead mother and her harsh opinions, Jude’s idolisation of the neurotic Sue as a normal woman, and many more. Thus, the conflict between the ideal and reality is central to the novels. If Jude had not projected such fantastical ideas onto the city of Christminster, if Clym had not obsessed over his past and his origins, if Eustacia had not clung to her dream of a future in Paris, and if Angel and Tess had not allowed love to mask their vision, then all of the novels’ tragedies might have been averted. Of course there are other reasons for the tragic falls of these protagonists, including fate and personal flaws, but idolisation and over-expectation certainly contribute to some of the saddest scenes in all of literature.