The Impact of Herbert Spencer on Thomas Hardy

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Herbert Spencer’s influence on Thomas Hardy is palpable with reference to the novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Spencer saw ‘the minds of men and the forms of society’ in evolution. In Victorian England, Hardy saw social domination over an individual as an impediment to the individual’s natural growth and development. A colossal waste of the individual’s strength and energy because of the social control exerted by Victorian England is often the main theme of Hardy’s major novels. Here’s a critical analysis by Basudeb, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

My purpose in this article is not, to sum up, Spencer’s theory of evolution in its entire dimension. The reference to Herbert Spencer’s theory of evolution here is limited to what can be directly linked to the process of the veritable tree of knowledge; he saw ‘the minds of men and the forms of society’ in evolution. Spencer shows in his Principles of Sociology that evolution explains ‘the present constitution and condition not only of the starry universe, the planetary system, the face and figure of the earth, the flora and fauna of the world together with the bodies of men but also of the minds of men and the form of human society. Like Darwin, Spencer believes that there is a fierce and relentless struggle for survival among living creatures; and those creatures that are stronger than others survive. The weaker creatures, according to Darwin and Herbert Spencer, die out.

Indeed, Spencer welcomes ‘the Government that governs least’. He is a champion of individual rights and an ardent supporter of the laissez-faire social policy. He stands against all sorts and social authoritarianism. Instead of being social, Spencer is highly individualistic. He says in The Study of Sociology: “There is no way of coming at a true theory of society, but by inquiring into the nature of its component individuals – every phenomenon exhibited by an aggregation of men originates in some quality of the man himself.” One may say that the compulsion and control of any institution in Victorian England were actually producing a retrograde step in history despite the success of the Industrial Revolution.

Hardy was certainly not unaware of Spencer’s theory of evolution of evolution. Spencer during his lifetime enjoyed popularity not only in Europe but also in the U.S.A. and Russia. His books were widely published in his lifetime and he earned acceptance and recognition as a great thinker. Naturally, it is most likely that Thomas Hardy was familiar with the theory of evolution propounded by Spencer. Hardy’s letter to Rev. Dr. A.B. Grosart, reveals also Hardy’s knowledge of the content of Spencer’s works. Besides, Hardy’s library contained Spencer’s works, bearing Hardy’s autograph.

Like Spencer, Hardy also believes that ‘a pure laissez-faire social policy serves society’s interest best’. Again, like Spencer, Hardy believes that whenever and wherever there is social or governmental interference in an individual’s life, that life becomes miserable. In Victorian England, individual consciousness was subordinated to the growing social norms and values.

In Hardy’s novels, short stories and poems, we are confronted with pathetic tales of human suffering, arising out of the interference of the contemporary social values. In Hardy’s writings, the defeat of the individual by social consciousness begets colossal waste of power and human energy.

Thomas Hardy hated the supremacy of social norms and values often lead an individual towards ruin. Spencer believes that “modifications of character are only brought about by action and reaction between the race and its environment throughout many generations”. Social dictates are harmful to the overall growth of an individual. The action and reaction between the race and its environment will generate social control in any form will not enable an individual to attain this. In Victorian England, Hardy saw social domination over an individual as an impediment to the individual’s natural growth and development. A colossal waste of the individual’s strength and energy because of the social control exerted by Victorian England is often the main theme of Hardy’s major novels.

In Hardy’s novels, we find that men and women try to lead their lives following their own intuitive desires but their attempt is constantly defeated by the norms and values of society, and whenever society interferes with their lives, they suffer.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the consequence of the social interference over Tess and Angel Clare is heartbreaking. The moment Tess sees Clare she starts loving him, romantically. The same is the case with Clare. He sees Tess and loves her madly. It is a love that grows between them instantly and spontaneously. There is hardly any material and social consideration in it. On the eve of their marriage, Tess haunted by her conscience makes up her mind to tell Clare everything of her past life. She writes a letter to Clare confessing that she was seduced by Alec, in the past. Tess believes that Clare is free from social hypocrisy and meanness. The letter of confession, written by Tess, is misplaced and Angel Clare remains unaware of its contents. In the night of their marriage, Tess,  thinking that Clare has received her letter and knows about the painful incident  of her life, refers to her past over which she has no control. The moment Angel Clare comes to know of her sexual experience with Alec, he reaches the verge of insanity.

The Victorian outlook on the chastity of a woman was that she should not have any sexual experience before her marriage. Tess’s loss of virginity before marriage, even though it was against her will shocks Clare. Though Angel Clare claims to be an emancipated man with an openness of mind and broad vision of life, the moment he learns about Tess’s seduction by Alec, he becomes upset and loses his sanity. A piece of conversation between Tess and Clare after her confession will reveal the emotional reality of Clare’s attitude towards the chastity of a woman, whom he is going to have as his wife,  “ … Then how  can you, O my  husband, stop loving me ?” Clare says, “I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.” In reply, Tess says, “But who?” The blunt and the most inhuman reply Clare utters, “Another woman in your shape.”

Immediately after this conversation, Hardy goes on to describe the situation thus, “She perceived in his words the realisation of her own apprehensive foreboding in former times. He looked upon her as a species of an imposter, a guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one.”

Virginity was a respected social ideal in the Victorian society. Angel Clare, with his so-called broadness of mind, cannot even conceive that his beloved, Tess, whom she has married, had experienced sexual union with Alec before her marriage. It is the accepted Victorian idea of an ideal wife that Angel Clare tries to discover in Tess. When he finds that Tess lacks that value, he loses his rational control over himself and leaves her in utter helplessness.

The wreck of their marriage, Thomas Hardy shows, is due to the interference of Clare’s social belief that an ideal wife is one, who has never experienced sexual union before her marriage. The make-believe world about the chastity of his would-be-wife, cherished by Clare in his innermost heart is responsible for their sufferings. This is a kind of social interference. Society interferes in Tess’s life through prejudiced Angel Clare whose apparently emancipated mind cannot defy the Victorian taboo on sex.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.