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Hardy's novels : a study of changing vision Egan, Susanna

Abstract

Hardy's novels draw on his knowledge of rural life in the nineteenth century; the effects of the agricultural depression form part of his material. Similarly, Darwinian thought affects his response to man and nature. Neither the subject-matter nor the philosophy, however, accounts for Hardy's changing attitude to his heroes and heroines who face consistently similar predicaments. This thesis accounts for such change in terms of Hardy's recognition that the old-world values of community life were inadequate for modern needs. Accordingly, he taught himself to accept the individual, even when he finds himself outside the established order, as the spearhead of moral improvement. Hardy derived a sense of security from the rural way of life portrayed in his early novels. Ancient customs are perpetuated in closely-knit communities. Work defines purpose. True love is rewarded. Life is peaceful and harmonious. Hardy acknowledges a possible source of danger in passivity of temperament and in the social pretensions of his women, but these are only possible dangers and the idyll triumphs. In his middle novels, Hardy pays more attention to the changes that were taking place around him, and he reevaluates the strength and worth of the old-world values in the light of more modern alternatives. These novels are described as experimental because Hardy’s attitude to the new social orders and their values is ambivalent. Here, however, and in three major late novels, Hardy describes the rural way of life as benighted and inadequate, unable to survive in the face of change. Consistently now a realistic ending brings defeat to the rustic hero and heroine. But in contrast to his admission of defeat for the old communities, Hardy learns to value the worth of the individual who flouts convention and community ties and evolves his own purposes in life. In early novels these men are the anti-heroes. In his last novels, Hardy studies them more closely. His antipathy gives way to admiration, and the anti-hero of his first novels, who stands outside the settled community, becomes the hero of his last.

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